Late in 1802 the Baptist Society purchased an acre of land on which they erected a small church. The tiny community that grew up nearby came to be known as Hickory Grove. In 1839 as the new railroad pushed out from Wilmington towards Weldon a station was built where the rails passed here that was named Toisnot. Gradually the road between Toisnot and Hickory Grove acquired residences and businesses. In the 1848-49 session of the North Carolina General Assembly a bill was introduced to “incorporate Toisnot Depot and Hickory Grove in the County of Edgecombe into a town by the name of Wilson.” The name came from Colonel Louis Dicken Wilson, an area politician who two years prior had taken leave of the North Carolina Senate to command troops in the War with Mexico, contracted yellow fever and died at the age of 58. In 1855 Wilson County was hacked out of Edgecombe, Nash, Johnston and Wayne counties.
Wilson was an agricultural county, tar and turpentine at first and then cotton mostly. There was some tobacco grown - about 2,000 pounds in 1870 passing through town and almost 9,000 pounds in 1880. After that the first tobacco market opened in town and the total passed 1.5 million pounds in 1890. The tobacco boom was on and by 1919 Wilson surpassed Danville, Virginia as the world’s largest market for flue-cured tobacco. By the 1930s the town’s commodious one-story warehouses were handling close to 100,000,000 pounds of bright leaf tobacco in a season.
The tobacco money made its way to Wilson’s streets in the form of civic and commercial and residential buildings. The town has been active in historic preservation and many of the properties from those go-go days remain. Our walking tour will begin at the historic train depot and we’ll keep an eye out for leafy oaks as Wilson has been designated a “Tree City, USA” for more than two decades and earned the nickname, “City of Beautiful Trees...”
Atlantic Coast Line Railroad
401 East Nash Street
The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad constructed this trackside complex in 1924. The railroad sent architect A.M. Griffin to California to study the old Spanish missions along the Pacific Coast to incorporate the style into its stations and in Wilson he gave the brick station distinctive curved parapets and red Spanish terra-cotta roof tiles. The station and its complementary buildings were completely rebuilt and modernized in 1998 while preserving the original architecture.
WALK OVER TO NASH STREET AND TURN RIGHT, WALKING AWAY FROM THE TRACKS - DO NOT CROSS THE TRACKS.
333 East Nash Street
Classically trained architect Charles Conrad Hartmann was recruited from New York in 1921 to Greensboro to build the state’s tallest building, the Jefferson Building. Hartmann stayed in North Carolina and fostered a busy practice and here he finished off this six-story Renaissance Revival hotel in 1923. The hotel, the town’s most opulent, was developed by Rufus A. Cherry a few steps from the train station to cash in on the exploding tourist trade to Florida in the 1920s. Like most of its urban cousins the Cherry wore down through the years and was converted for residential use. Now boarded up the brick building retains traces of its former grandeur including a piece of cornice still remaining on the front and carved lion masks on the rusticated stone entrance that once held wires supporting a metal canopy.
U.S. Post Office and Courthouse
224 East Nash Street
This symmetrical,s tone-faced Beaux Arts building came out of Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury James Wetmore’s office in 1927. Look up over the door to see carved swag festooned with rosettes. The first floor is dominated by large arched windows and door in each of the five bays. Mail was handled here until 1981 and now the stylish government building hosts a science museum.
201 East Nash Street
This Neoclassical vault with its parade of smooth, soaring Ionic columns was constructed in 1920. There is scarcely an inch of this limestone-sheathed building that is left undecorated. The carved stone modillioned cornice runs around the roofline and crowning the entrance facade is a squat post balustrade. In the doorway is a pediment formed by laurel wreaths that boast the city seal. The bank formed in 1919 and this impressive building was a symbol of its lofty expectations but it would fail during the Depression and never re-open.
Branch Banking Company
124 East Nash Street
Local merchant Alpheus Branch and Thomas Jefferson Hadley founded the “Branch and Hadley” bank in 1872 to serve their farming neighbors. Branch bought out Hadley’s shares in 1887 and renamed the company to “Branch and Company, Bankers” but two years later Hadley was back with four other men who secured a charter from the North Carolina General Assembly to operate the “Wilson Banking and Trust Company.” Most of the profits were poured into new stationery as numerous name changes followed but the business was thriving as Branch Banking and Company when Alpheus Branch died in 1893. This two-story Beaux Arts banking house was the third for the firm, constructed in 1903. The blond brick corner structure boasts a rusticated first floor, Ionic portico, expressive Tuscan windows and an elaborate cornice. The bank made its final name change in 1913 to “Branch Banking and Trust,” or BB&T - now one of the South’s dominant banks and the oldest continually operating bank in North Carolina. Operations continued here until 1985 when the building was donated to the City of Wilson.
TURN RIGHT ON GOLDSBORO STREET.
Wilson Municipal Building
112 North Goldsboro Street
Local architect Frank Benton gave the Wilson streetscape a splash of Art Deco styling in 1938 with the creation of this Municipal Building. The federally funded Depression-era structure replaced an earlier Spanish Mission-styled municipal complex from 1906 that had gone up on flames in the winter of 1925. A small surviving portion of that building was incorporated into this building that still serves the city government.
WALK A FEW STEPS BACK TO NASH STREET AND TURN RIGHT TO CONTINUE TOURING NASH STREET.
Wilson County Courthouse
northeast corner of Nash Street and Goldsboro Street
Look up to see a classically decorated clock under which remembers the original 1855 courthouse that once stood here. Plans for its Neoclassical replacement came from the pen of Fred A. Bishop. Bishop’s hallmark was clean lines and simplistic classic repetition which he exercised here with a platoon of fluted Corinthian columns. William P. Rose, a self-taught carpenter who built one of the state’s largest contracting businesses, constructed the three-story limestone building in 1924. It continues to serve as the county seat of justice.
Wilson County-Nash Street Office Building
113 East Nash Street
After completing the state’s tallest building in Greensboro, the Jefferson Building, architect Charles Hartmann was in great demand in the 1920s to build skyscrapers in smaller North Carolina towns. He planned many of the first tall buildings in such communities and that was the case with this nine-story Colonial Revival masonry tower for the First National Bank in 1927. Hartmann followed the Chicago Style tradition of making high rise buildings in the image of a classical tower with a distinctive base (the finely fenestrated two lower floors), a shaft (the unadorned middle floors) and a capital (the top floor decorated with molded concrete). The building stands on a base of Mount Airy granite and the blond bricks are used to form corner quoins.
Edna Boykin Cultural Center
108 West Nash Street
This two-story Georgian Revival theater followed a typical small-town American arc. Opened in 1919 as a vaudeville theater it shortly made the transition to movies and, after enduring withering competition from television and suburban flight, screened adult films in its final days before closing, and became reinvented as a community center for the performing arts. The theater was created by local architect Solon B. Moore, who used part of the second floor as his design studio.
James Rountree House
206 West Nash Street
This Queen Anne residence from 1888 is notable for the richness and variety of its woodwork. Among the affectations of this picturesque house are the splendidly braced front gable and spire, intricate Eastlake trimmed porches, and scalloped and square shingles. Moses Rountree was the town’s first prominent merchant; the house was built for his son and remains in the family today.
Wilson County Public Library
249 West Nash Street
The first books were lent in Wilson in 1899, on a subscription basis by the doomed to be defunct Wilson Library Association. In 1921 the Woman’s Club of wilson assumed the book inventory and lent books without an annual subscription first in rented rooms and then from the courthouse. Funds for the town’s first dedicated library arrived in the form of a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project in 1937. Frank W. Benton delivered a stately Georgian Revival design for its hilltop location, set back from the street. The projecting central entrance portico, approached by a curving double stair, is flanked by rows of fan-shaped windows. The 14,000-square foot library opened in 1939 and is still checking out material today.
304 West Nash Street
This late 1890s house marked one of the first appearances of the Colonial Revival style on Wilson streets while still retaining traces of the Queen Anne style then going out of fashion. It was constructed for J.R. Boykin and inherited by prominent farmer and pioneering tobacco entrepreneur Haywood Edmundson, Jr.
First Baptist Church
Nash and Park streets
This is the third location for Wilson’s Baptists, who organized on May 6, 1860. This building was formally dedicated on December 21, 1952.
TURN RIGHT ON BRAGG STREET.
Sisters of Providence of St. Mary’s Convent
107 Bragg Street
This brick building was built in 1940 but faithfully harkens back to 150 years earlier with its broken pediment main entrance, brick belt course between the two floors and small keystones over the windows. It was built as St. Therese’s Catholic Church’s home for the nuns who had come to Wilson in 1931 to operate a parish school.
TURN RIGHT ON GREEN STREET.
William S. Anderson House
316 West Green Street
This Maplehood neighborhood is the oldest in Wilson and this2 1/2-story Colonial Revival house is one of the finest homes to have been built here. It was constructed in 1905 for William Anderson, a prominent physician. It sports a slate-covered hip roof and Palladian windows. The house entrances have been altered for its recent life as rental property.
A.P. Simpson House
310 West Green Street
This Victorian cottage from the early 1880s boasts some of the finest sawnwork remaining in Wilson in the intricately detailed porch.
Wilson Primitive Baptist Church
301 West Green Street
This was the third sanctuary for Wilson’s oldest congregation, founded in 1756. Busy local architect Solon B. Moore provided the Gothic Revival design with corbelled brick and stone-capped octagonal towers in 1920; it is the only church on his long resume. As the church moves towards its centennial it remains little altered and is currently the home of the Christ Church of Praise.
Wilson Male Academy
200 West Green Street
At the core of this frame house is an 1850s Greek Revival structure that is believed to have been constructed for the Wilson Male Academy, one of the community’s earliest schools. It later passed into the hands of Silas Lucas, Jr., maker of the famous Lucas brick, and J.T. Barnes of the Boykin Grocery Company, each of whom made alterations to the building.
First United Methodist Church
100 Green Street at Tarboro Street
The first Methodist sermon in Wilson took place in 1850 and the community was serviced by circuit-riding preachers. In 1853 the First Methodist Society was organized with 17 members and a year later the first church was erected on the current church property on Green Street. After a crippling fire on New Year’s Day, 1984this sanctuary, the congregation’s fourth, was constructed.
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church
202 North Goldsboro Street at Green Street
The Episcopalians organized in Wilson in 1856 and St. Timothy’s was admitted to the diocese in 1859. The following year, with a congregation of ten, land was acquired and work was begun on a frame church. The current Gothic style church was executed in smooth red brick with a cruciform floor plan and an entrance through a large square belltower. The first service here took place on January 19, 1908.
TURN LEFT ON DOUGLAS STREET.
Fire Station Number One
209 North Douglas Street
Fire fighting in Wilson was a bucket brigade affair until 1887 when the town was able to purchase a horse-drawn Silsby steam pumper. Water was drawn from cisterns located around town. The first fire station was constructed on Goldsboro Street, next to where the present-day Municipal Building stands. In 1913 the town purchased a motorized American-LaFrance pumper and hired L.F. Murray of Goldsboro to pilot and maintain the prized vehicle. Captain Murray was Wilson’s first paid fireman, a compensated department would not be organized until 1938. Fire destroyed the Wilson fire station in 1924 and this two-story brick fire house was completed in 1926. Architect Solon B. Moore indeed gave the station the look of a residence with oversized Arts and Crafts roof brackets. The station did duty for almost 60 years until 1985 when a new headquarters was constructed on Hines Street.
ACROSS THE STREET IS...
208 North Douglas Street
This is a rarely seen example of decorative Italianate woodwork applied to a cottage-scale residence. it dates to the early 1870s and was constructed for James T. Wiggins, considered to be the first commercial tobacco planter in Wilson County. He sold the house in 1887 to Civil War veteran J.C. Hadley. In 1901 the house was moved here from Goldsboro Street. At that time, without indoor plumbing and electrical wiring to contend with, moving houses about town was a familiar practice. All you needed were enough strong-backed oxen.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO GREEN STREET AND TURN LEFT. AFTER ONE MORE BLOCK TURN RIGHT AT THE RAILROAD TRACKS TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.