Named after Francis North, the first Earl of Guilford, the county was established so that the government could have tighter control in the Piedmont. The North Carolina Colonial Legislature split off parts of Orange County to centralize the government and court system of Guilford. In 1774, the first courthouse, along with a county jail, were both built in the middle of the county; the place became known as Guilford Courthouse, which would soon be the site of General Greene’s and Lord Cornwallis’s famous confrontation in the American Revolutionary War. David Caldwell, Guilford’s first notable resident, doctor, and Presbyterian minister, opened the first educational institution in Guilford. Five of Caldwell’s students went on to become North Carolina governors.
The history of Guilford County is closely connected to Greensboro and High Point. Named after General Nathanael Greene, Greensboro, or “Greensborough” as it was originally written, was inhabited by the Occaneechi and other Siouan tribes before Europeans immigrated to the area. The Scotch-Irish, Germans, along with English and Welsh Quakers moved to Greensboro beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. At the start of the city’s growth, the Quakers were the dominant religious group in western section of Guilford, having immigrated from the north in 1750. In 1837, the Quakers began to establish a boarding school which eventually led to the formation of Guilford College, the first coeducational academic institution in the South. Beginning in the early 1800s, the economy of Greensboro centered around textile manufacturing. Henry Humphreys built the first steam powered cotton mill in Greensboro, and in the years to come several textile companies started in the growing city. In 1895, Moses and Caesar Cone founded the Southern Finishing and Warehouse Company in Greensboro, and Burlington Mills diversified their outfit in Greensboro in 1935. The VF Corporation remains the largest denim jeans producer in the nation. Other successful companies in Greensboro include P. Lorillard (a tobacco manufacturer), Jefferson-Pilot Corporation (an insurance and media conglomerate), General Dynamics Advanced Technology Systems (nationwide communication leader), and Lucent Technologies (a derivative of AT&T).
High Point, founded in 1849, is the other important city within Guilford, and it is considered the “furniture capital of the world.” Located in the southwest part of the county, High Point received its name when the railroad was constructed in the town; the railroad and the main road intersected at the highest railroad point. High Point’s first wood furniture business opened in 1888, and by the early 1900s High Point became nationally known for its high-quality furniture. The first furniture exposition in North Carolina was held in High Point in 1905, and the Southern Furniture Exposition Building in High Point became the designated area for the nation’s annual furniture show. By the middle of the twentieth century, nearly 150 businesses were operating in High Point, half of those being woodwork furniture manufacturers.
Guilford County is home to several universities, historical sites and institutions, as well as the host of notable recreational and cultural events. The Quakers founded Guilford College in 1837 and just a year later Greensboro Female College (now known as Greensboro College) was established in the city. Other institutions opened their halls exclusively to females including Bennett Seminary (1873), a school for African-American women, and the Normal and Industrial School for White Girls (1891) which is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. High Point University (1924) and the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University are also within Guilford County. Some historic sites and learning centers include the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, the High Point Museum, the Greensboro Historical Museum, and the Mendenhall Plantation. Greensboro is home to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) headquarters and tournaments, and it was the site of the Woolsworth lunch sit-in in February in 1960, a notable event in the Civl Rights Era. In addition, the Euterpe Club (1889), the oldest music club in the South, has its roots in the city of Greensboro.
Several famous and affluent people were born in the Guilford area, and prolific figures resided in Greensboro and the surrounding region. Including authors, governors, and abolitionists. O. Henry (or William Sydney Porter) was born and raised in Greensboro in 1862, and after touring the nation and serving time in prison, Henry wrote numerous short stories that established him as one of America’s best short work writers. John M. Morehead, manager and owner of the Blandwood Estate, served as North Carolina Governor from 1841 to 1845. Morehead was successful in establishing the first school for the deaf during his tenure. Calvin H. Wiley, born in Guilford County, was the state’s first school superintendent. Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison and charming socialite, was born in Guilford as well as Joseph G. Cannon, an Illinois Congressman who served Illinois for more than 40 years. Levi Coffin, a Guilford Quaker, was a member of the Underground Railroad, and he helped nearly 2,000 slaves escape before the Civil War. Edward R. Murrow, a CBS radio broadcaster during World War II, and George Preddy, North Carolina’s leading ace fighter pilot during World War II, were both Guilford County natives.
“Guilford County, High Point, Greensboro, and Battle of Guilford Courthouse.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
Guilford County: A Brief History. Alexander R. Stoesen. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History. (Raleigh, NC 1993).
“O. Henry, John M. Morehead, Calvin Wiley, Dolly Madison, Joseph G. Cannon, Levi Coffin, Edward Murrow, and George Preddy.” The North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website, a Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Results.aspx?k=Search&ct=btn, (accessed August 26, 2011).
By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Revolution Era, Churches, Counties, Early America, Colonial North Carolina, Business and Industry