Cleveland County (1841)

Written By Jonathan Martin

A southern North Carolina county, Cleveland is located in the Piedmont region, and it was culled from the original counties of Rutherford and Lincoln in 1841. The county received its name in honor of Colonel Benjamin Cleveland who served admirably at during the Revolutionary War at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Shelby, Cleveland’s seat of government, is also named after a Revolutionary colonel, Isaac Shelby. Grover, Earl, Belwood, Mooreboro, and Boiling Springs are other communities within Cleveland County. The John M. Moss Lake, the Broad River, Benn Knob, and the Buffalo and Suck Creeks are important tributaries in Cleveland.

The Battle of Kings Mountain, fought in the fall of 1780, was a decisive victory by the American Patriots, and it recognized a shift in British power in the South. The Patriot army, along with several mountain militia men, attacked the Loyalist stronghold atop the King’s Mountain, and after several rounds of assaulting the British, hundreds of Loyalists surrendered. In addition to the death and capture of many British soldiers, the Battle of King’s Mountain proved an end to Major Patrick Ferguson and a deathly strike to Loyalist morale in the South.

Formed in 1905, Gardner-Webb University is located in Boiling Springs, Cleveland County, and it is a coeducational Baptist academic university. Although the youngest North Carolina university, Gardner-Webb has grown from a small academy into a school of about 3,300 students and it offers nearly 40 undergraduate degrees. In 1942, after Governor O. Max Gardner and his wife Fay Webb Gardner made a significant donation to the school, the college became known as the Gardner-Webb Junior College. In the early 1990s, Gardner-Webb graduated from a junior college into a university.

One of the most alluring historical facts about Cleveland County remains the “Shelby Dynasty.” The Shelby Dynasty or Shelby Ring was a North Carolina political machine that remained a powerful influence on North Carolina politics for twenty years from 1929 until 1949. Shelby native O. Max Gardner started the political faction’s dominance after his election as North Carolina Governor. Gardner’s brother-in-law, Clyde R. Hoey, another native of Shelby, would win the governor’s election in 1936. However, the Shelby Ring started to lose its power after World War II because North Carolina suffered from poor public school facilities and numerous ill-repaired roadways. The 1948 election of the liberal-minded W. Kerr Scott marked an end to the conservative Shelby political machine.

A famous, albeit controversial, native of Shelby is author Thomas Dixon, Jr. Dixon’s The Clansmen (1905) became the primary source for the notorious film, Birth of a Nation (1915). Dixon was born on January 11, 1864, the young boy grew up in Shelby and he was educated at the Shelby Academy. After graduating with high honors from Wake Forest in 1879, Dixon moved to New York to begin an acting career, but he later moved to Shelby where he entered politics, practiced law, and became a widely recognized orator. In 1905, Dixon revamped one of his novels that advocated for the expulsion of African-Americans from the United States, and developed the book into a play called The Clansman. The Birth of a Nation, an epic film produced by D.W. Griffith, was a movie version of Dixon’s original play.

The Shelby City Hall (1939) and the Rogers’ Theatre Block (ca. 1930s) are important historical landmarks in Cleveland County. In addition, the King’s Mountain Fire Museum and the Cleveland County Arts Council are cultural attractions in the region, and some cultural events hosted annually by Cleveland County include the Belwood Antique Tractor and Engine Show, the Ham Fest, and King’s Mountain July Fourth.

The top industries in Cleveland include agricultural, manufacturing, and mining. Some agricultural products grown in Cleveland are soybeans, apples, cotton, and livestock. Textiles, vehicle cabs, refrigerator systems, and “jaws of life.” Iron, quartz crystal, and graphite are all found and mined in Cleveland County.