The earliest recorded history of the Clayton area is found in the journal of English surveyor John Lawson, who made a reconnaissance survey of Carolina in 1701 to explore development possibilities for the eight Lords Proprietors. As Lawson crossed the fall line between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, he encountered the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora, who controlled the Neuse Pamlico region and held a monopoly on trade between Piedmont tribes and Europeans along the coast. Conflicts between colonists and the Tuscarora led to a brutal war between 1711 and 1714, and the defeated natives were banished from the colony. The British crown purchased seven of the proprietors’ interests in 1729, and European settlers soon began taking up lands there, some bringing African and Native American slaves.
In 1746, the colonial assembly created Johnston County from Craven to more effectively govern new settlers. The creation of Dobbs County from Johnston County in 1758 placed the Clayton area in the center of Johnston, and a new courthouse was built on William Hinton’s plantation. It was there at Hinton’s Quarter that a tax revolt took place in the summer of 1768, as backwoodsmen known as Regulators attempted to take over the county court by force. A mob armed with clubs repulsed the Regulators that same day and reclaimed power for the local ruling elite.
When Wake County was carved out of Johnston County in 1771, the seat of government moved farther east to John Smith’s plantation, chartered as Smithfield in 1777. Etheldred Gregory eventually acquired the Hinton property and operated a tavern, Gregory’s Ordinary, for travelers between Hillsboro and Tarboro until the building burned in 1809. The federal government established short-lived post offices nearby at Whitley’s (1829-1834) and Pineville (1832-1836) in present Wilders Township and at Gulley’s Store (1845-1856) near the old courthouse site.
By the 19th century, the planter families of William and John Hinton, John and Reuben Sanders, John and Samuel Smith, Aaron and Drury Vinson, John McCullers and others settled along the upper Neuse River to raise livestock, corn, and other products to turn into cash in Fayetteville, Petersburg, Norfolk, and other market towns. Cotton became an important cash crop following the advent of Eli Whitney’s gin in the early 1800s. The area’s abundant pine forests also afforded some landowners opportunities to capitalize on the naval stores industry for which eastern North Carolina was so well known. Most families, however, were of sturdy yeoman stock, and their farming was primarily for subsistence.
The North Carolina Railroad Company’s decision to build a rail line from Goldsboro to Charlotte in the 1850s would forever change the local landscape. The route through Johnston County ran along the Raleigh-New Bern Stage Road, where Isaac and Sarah Stallings operated an inn and way station. About 1853, the first leg opened between Goldsboro and Raleigh, and the company located a wood-fueling stop on the Stallings property near present O’Neil and Front Streets. The widow Sarah Stallings sold lots around the station to William Sanders, who built a hotel; to Jule Nichols and W. W. Cox, who built stores; to Troy Bunn, who established a turpentine distillery; and to Wesley Hicks, who opened a bar room. Manufactured goods from the north became increasingly plentiful with the railroad’s advent, and within a generation, items such as the spinning wheel and hand loom became relics of the past. Occupations such as tanner and cooper also became obsolete. In 1856, the federal government closed the Gulley’s Store post office and opened a new facility near Stallings Station, naming it Clayton. A bill was introduced in the state legislature, although it did not receive a second reading, to incorporate the Town of Clayton in 1859. Ten years later, on April 12, 1869, Clayton finally received a charter.
Some sources attribute the town’s name to U.S. senator John Middleton Clayton of Delaware. Others say antebellum school teacher William B. Jones named the town. Oral tradition handed down by descendants of a pioneer bright leaf tobacco producer in Person County suggests a humbler inspiration. John Draper Clayton, according to family tradition, frequently set up camp nearby while traveling through eastern North Carolina selling his tobacco in the antebellum years. He achieved notoriety when 100 pound s of his leaf tobacco sold for an astounding $40 on the Danville market. As a great-granddaughter wrote, he also enjoyed the distinction of having a town in Johnston County named in his honor. Lending the story credence is the nearby unincorporated 1840s village of Roxboro, the name of “Forty Dollar John” Clayton’s hometown.
The Civil War of 1861-1865 brought sweeping changes. Clayton’s young men answered the Confederacy’s call to arms and formed a company of volunteers, the Clayton Yellow Jackets, in the spring of 1861. On April 12, 1865, local residents heard cannons and gunfire from a skirmish at the eastern edge of town between the remnants of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston’s army and advancing Union troops under Gen. William T. Sherman. Later that night, near the Clayton depot, the surrender of Raleigh was negotiated between Sherman and commissioners sent by Gov. Zebulon B. Vance.
Following the war, a scarcity of food and money resulted in a vicious crop lien system that transformed the Clayton area’s long-standing subsistence-based farming economy to one dependent on cash crops-primarily cotton. Some prospered, but many struggled under the new order. Resourceful men such as Ashley Home, William H. McCullers, and John G. Barbour were able to accumulate fortunes dealing in agricultural implements and supplies, and serving as bankers for those who needed cash or credit. These men also acquired extensive farming interests and, by 1900, banking institutions and lucrative manufacturing plants producing cotton textiles and cottonseed oil. J. Arch Vinson capitalized on virgin timber supplies and made a fortune in lumber. Efforts to make Clayton a bright leaf tobacco market in the first decade of the 20th century were not so successful, as competition from established markets proved too great. Tobacco still became the economic salvation of many struggling local farmers after cotton prices fell sharply.
By the dawn of the 20th century, it had become obvious that Clayton was no ordinary small town. A local news correspondent proclaimed in the August 9, 1890, edition of the Smithfield Herald, “Clayton is a blessed little place and boasts of being the wealthiest town of its size in the United States.” This bold claim was reiterated in a Raleigh Evening Times feature on April 22, 1907. The headline read, “Clayton, North Carolina. The Wealthiest City for its Size in the World.” The writer cited “United States statistics” (presumably based on Dun and Bradstreet reports). “This thriving little city” he added, “stands fourth, financially, of all the cities in the United States.” Ashley Horne led the way, with business interests stretching across North Carolina.
Clayton was also recognized, in the words of the 1890 writer, as a “high bred little town.” Laura Elizabeth Lee Battle’s memoir, Forget-Me-Nots of the Civil War (1909), describes a racetrack on the outskirts of Clayton, complete with grandstand, erected for a state horseracing tournament in 1869. Competitors in regal costumes and throngs of visitors came from near and far. The columns of the Smithfield Herald and the short-lived Clayton Bud (1883-1887) abound with accounts of musical performances, speeches, debates, and social events “of a high order” in the late 19th century. Clayton’s private academy, known variously as the Clayton Institute, the Clayton Academy, the Utopian Institute, and, in the 20th century, the Clayton High School, was perhaps the greatest source of local pride. The Utopian Institute produced several high achievers from the Horne and Ellington families, including Dartmouth College professor Dr. Herman H. Home, University of Chicago professor and U.S. ambassador William E. Dodd, Southern Baptist Convention leader and college president Dr. John E. White, internationally renowned architect Douglas Ellington, and pioneer aviator Lt. Eric Ellington.
Clayton joined other progressive communities across North Carolina in 1899 in opening a liquor dispensary to control the alcoholic beverage trade. Further evidence of the town’s forward-thinking “New South” spirit could be seen in the following developments during the beginning of the 20th century: Ashley Horne’s Bank of Clayton (1899) and Clayton Cotton Mills (1900); A. J. Barbour’s Clayton Cotton Oil Mill (1903) and Liberty Cotton Mill (1907); a municipal sewage system (1903); the Clayton Telephone Company (1907); the Clayton Building and Loan Association (1908); two newspapers, the short-lived Clayton Enterprise (1909) and the Clayton News (1911); a movie theater (1910); a waterworks (1912); and electric lights (1913). In 1910, the town’s population was counted at 1,441, making it the largest municipality in Johnston County.
Clayton’s success in business and agriculture peaked following World War I. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the town’s population actually declined slightly between 1910 and 1920 to 1,423. By 1925, there were two cotton mills, a cottonseed oil mill, two lumber mills, two fertilizer plants, and two ice plants, all together employing about 1,000 people. An agricultural depression that began in the early 1920s wiped out most of the Ashley Home family’s fortune in 1927. Other families saw their holdings depleted or gone altogether as crop prices plummeted, and both of the town’s banks closed during the Great Depression. It was not until after World War 11 that the area’s economy rebounded.
As in any community, Clayton’s uniqueness was embodied in its people and in their schools, churches, social clubs, service organizations, and local government. A northern educator named Henry Winton opened an academy in Roxboro prior to 1853, followed by Prof. William B. Jones, who established the Clayton Institute in 1856. This school and its successors-the Clayton Academy, the Clayton Utopian Institute, and the Clayton High School-served white students until state funding for public high schools caused most private academies to close by around 1910. Quinton Mials and his wife, Lillie, opened a school for local African Americans about 1889. This public school, known as the Clayton Negro School, was named the William Mason Cooper High School in 1940.
Baptists of both races worshipped at the Johnston Liberty Meeting House on John McCullers’s plantation beginning in 1811. In 1859, Methodists organized inside the town limits, followed in 1870 by former slaves from Johnston Liberty, who established a separate Baptist congregation in town. Johnston Liberty’s remaining members relocated to town in the 1880s, changing their name to the Clayton Baptist Church. Subsequent churches included Clayton Primitive Baptist (founded in 1900), Everett’s Chapel Free Will Baptist (1903), Mount Vernon Christian (1910), St. Augustine African Methodist Episcopal (1910), St. Joseph’s Catholic (1910), Clayton (later North Clayton) Christian (1920), Clayton Church of God (1930), and Clayton Pentecostal Holiness (1931).
Clayton was the only town in Johnston County with a lodge for the prohibitionist Good Templars in the 1870s as well as for the Knights of Pythias, organized in 1903. Other clubs and service organizations dating before 1946 include the Granite Masonic Lodge (1865), the African American Odd Fellows Lodge (pre-1883), the white Odd Fellows Lodge (1897), the Star of Bethlehem Masonic Lodge, the Halcyon Book Club (1912), the Junior Order of United American Mechanics (1916), the Woodmen of the World (1917), the 20th Century Mother’s Club (later known as the Woman’s Club of Clayton) (1918), the American Legion (1919), the Clayton Rotary Club (1925), the Music Club (1927), the Junior Woman’s Club (1928), the Felecia Book Club (1928), the Parmi-Nous Club (1944), and the Community Club (1945); the latter two clubs were African American.
Following World War II, efforts were made to rebuild the town’s industrial base, but it was quickly becoming a bedroom community from the burgeoning state capital, where government and service industry jobs were more plentiful. Local promoters continued to push for industrial development and, by the 1970s, were successful in recruiting several major players such as Champion Products, Oneida Molded Plastics, Miles-Cutter Laboratories, Data General, and Natvar. The completion of Interstate 40 through the Clayton and Cleveland areas in the late 1980s opened a floodgate of residential and commercial development, assisted greatly by Johnston County’s comparatively low property taxes. The town of Clayton alone has seen a population of 4,000 in 1980 grow to an estimated 17,000 in 2007. The number of residents within a 6-mile radius reportedly grew from 17,000 in 1990 to 40,000 in 2006.
Permission to use the above text was granted by Pamela Lipscomb Baumgartner and K. Todd Johnson
Baumgartner, Pamela Lipscomb, and K. Todd Johnson. “Introduction.” Images of America: Clayton. Charleston SC: Arcadia, 2008. . Print.