Vance County (1881)

Written By Jonathan Martin


Once part of the Granville, Warren, and Franklin Counties, Vance County was established on May 5, 1881. Originally, two names were proposed in the General Assembly for the new county —“Gilliam” and “Dortch.” Yet, both of these names were dropped, and Vance County was named in honor of Governor Zebulon B. Vance, the famous Civil War Governor of North Carolina. In 1841, the town of Henderson became Vance’s county seat, and it was named in memory of Leonard Henderson who served as Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in the 1830s. Epsom, Gill, Gillburg, Greystone, and Williamsboro are other townships within Vance County. Some important physical traits include the Anderson, Island, and Tabbs Creeks and Roland Pond and Tar River.


The Occaneechi was the first known inhabitants of what is now Vance County. In the 1700s, immigrants of English, German, and Scotch-Irish heritage moved in the region. However, the first European to explore the region was John Lederer in 1670. Lederer and his Indian guide traveled through Vance and the area, and he recorded his travels in a daily journal. Originally discounted as a fraudulent explorer, Lederer’s recordings remained in obscurity for over 200 years.


In 1826, the first armed forces academy in North Carolina was built in Williamsborough in Vance County. The Bingham School, founded by Captain D. H. Bingham, was started due to a national demand for more efficient army leaders. Courses in English, Latin, geometry, military navigation, and tactical warfare were taught at school. However, the school moved to Littleton and then to Wilmington.  There, for a short time, it served as a training school for military officers.


David and John Cooper founded the Henderson and Harriet Mills in 1895, and for a short time the cotton mills prospered. However, mill workers started to demand higher wages and better work environment, and the mills were eventually shutdown and a strike started in 1958. A year later, disgruntled workers ransacked the Henderson mill headquarters, attacked several replacement workers, and even used dynamite to blow a strikebreaker’s house at Harriet Mills. Governor Luther Hodges had to step in.  He sent National Guard troops to Vance County to handle the strike riots. Eight rioters were arrested and convicted on conspiracy charges, and the strike was called to end in 1961. A month later the Henderson and Harriet Mills were reopened and started to operate at full capacity.


In 1871, the Glass House was opened outside the community of Vance Kittrell, and it some historians believe the Glass House to be the first winter resort in the state of North Carolina. Originally a hotel that was built in 1856, Washington F. Davis bought and renovated the property, and it was called the Glass House because all of the house porches were adorned with potted plants and glassed in to give it a distinct outside look. Northern hunters were the first to visit the hotel, but after news of the fresh air and the Glass House’s invigorating environment spread in the north, every year tuberculosis patients visited the resort in the winter months. Although the resort burnt down in 1893, the Glass House existed for nearly three decades during the era of North Carolina’s popular hotels, hot springs attraction, and health resorts.


Several local landmarks exist in Vance County.  Historic structures include the county courthouse (1884) and St. John’s Episcopal Church (1773). St. John’s is one of the three remaining colonial church buildings in North Carolina. Kerr Lake (1950s) was constructed to help stifle the frequent flooding that occurred in eastern North Carolina. Today, the Kerr Lake State Recreation Area operates the largest man-made lake on the eastern side of the United States, and boaters, fishermen, and other water spot enthusiasts visit Kerr Lake every year. In addition, Vance County was home to the original Rose’s Department Store, opened by Paul and T. B. Rose in Henderson in 1915.


Vance County hosts annual events and festivals and important cultural institutions operate in the region. The Kerr Lake Art Society and the Vance County Historical Museum are visited by frequent art viewers and history patrons. The Kerr Lake Art Show, the Memorial Day Weekend Concert in the Park, and the Vance County Regional Fair are year-round events held in Vance County each year.