Anson County: An introduction

Introduction:  Located along the eastern edge of the Charlotte region, Anson feels like a world apart from its bustling neighbors to the west.  Rolling agricultural land, sprinkled with rural hamlets like White Store and Cedar Hill, gradually gives way to the rugged hills of the Pee Dee River valley, evoking a natural and cultural landscape more reminiscent of the Old South than the New South ethos of Charlotte.  Yet, Anson County has always been integrally tied to the region, from its earliest history as the “mother county” from which all the region’s other North Carolina counties derived, to its prominent role during the 19th and 20th centuries in producing quality cotton to meet the demands of the Piedmont’s textile mills.  Today, as the region emerges from an era that witnessed the decline of manufacturing and the weakening of a previously-strong agricultural economy, Anson’s relationship with the Charlotte region seems more important than ever.  Certainly, Anson is fortunate compared to other struggling, southern rural counties given its proximity to an economic powerhouse like Charlotte.  Taking advantage of that opportunity, however, will require that the county reassess how it has traditionally positioned itself economically relative to its neighbors.

Historical overview:  An excerpt from A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina, Catherine Bishir and Michael T. Southern, UNC Press. (p. 298)

“Long home of the Catawbas and the Waxhaws, the land between the Pee Dee and Rocky rivers was colonized in the mid-18th c. by intersecting streams of Scotch, English, Scotch-Irish, and African people coming up the Pee Dee and the Cape Fear valleys and southwest from Pennsylvania and Virginia.  It was part of the original Anson Co. (est. 1750), an immense mother county that was partitioned into Rowan, Mecklenburg, and others.  Agriculture, especially cotton production, dominated until the mid-20 c., as represented by scattered plantation houses, tenant houses, and small farmsteads.  Local quarries yielded brownstone (sandstone) widely popular in the 19th c.

Despite efforts to improve river navigation and a plank road from Cheraw to Salisbury in the 1850s, transportation was difficult until 1874, when the Carolina Central Railroad (CCRR) crossed the county.  Urban and industrial growth remained small while nearby Charlotte boomed, a pattern that continued even after construction of the Winston-Salem Southbound Railway (1911) and better roads.  The county produced progressive agricultural leaders, including Farmers’ Alliance leader L.L. Polk and Hugh Bennett, founding director of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, who emphasized education, soil conservation, and diversification beyond cotton.  In the mid 20th c., extension agents encouraged farmers to plant peach orchards on old cotton fields.  Dotted with former railroad and farming villages that waxed and waned with changing times, the county remains rural.  The principal products are gravel and timber, with much of the dramatic topography of ridges and rivers covered in forests.”

Anson today:  Like much of the Carolina Piedmont, Anson County’s beauty reveals itself in subtle and unexpected ways.  Driving along a back road in the northern part of the county in October, you’re suddenly aware of the sight of white cotton fields just before harvest, set against a backdrop of hardwood trees showing their first signs of fall color.  Or heading north along Highway 109 around dusk, you’re surprised to see a stunning red sunset reflecting on the waters of the Pee Dee River in one of its few eastward turns as the river flows south on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Anson County owes much of its beauty to the fact that it has remained a largely agricultural county, with its rural landscapes untouched by the sprawling growth that has enveloped other parts of the Charlotte region.  And yet, this lack of growth has also perpetuated a host of economic and social challenges that have caused concern in the county for years.  Economically, Anson’s unemployment rate has consistently registered two to three points higher than the regional average, while per capita income has measured lower.  Post-secondary educational attainment for Anson’s citizens is nearly half that of the region, while poverty rates have remained high.  Underlying all of these figures are social disparities based on race, mirroring such data from throughout America but with greater consequences for Anson, with nearly half its population African-American, by far the largest percentage in the Charlotte region.

Anson’s problems are similar to those faced by other rural counties throughout the South, where traditional manufacturing has been in decline and local agriculture has struggled to adapt to mechanization and competition from external markets.  What makes Anson’s situation different, however, is its location near one of America’s most dynamic and fastest growing metro areas, where one would expect to see some positive economic spill-over, however small.  While such an effect has been, at best, minimal, it is Anson’s proximity to Charlotte that nonetheless provides the county’s best hope for future economic renewal.  Anson’s challenge is to find the right mix of economic activities where it is uniquely positioned to succeed in order to establish a meaningful role for itself within the increasingly interconnected Charlotte economy.

One place for local leaders to start is by rediscovering Anson’s rich agricultural heritage and its tradition of progressive change.  Because of the decline in agricultural jobs during the 20th century resulting from mechanization and the emergence of a national food economy, few communities still make agriculture the centerpiece of their economic development strategy.  Yet today, with the growth of the local foods movement nationally, there appear to be new opportunities for rural counties such as Anson to tap into the demand for locally-produced food to build a stronger agricultural economy.

One of the best examples of this in North Carolina is in Rutherford County (70 miles west of Charlotte), where the Farmers Fresh Market Project is working to link local producers to consumers in nearby urban areas.  Located only forty miles from Charlotte, and with plenty of agricultural land and expertise, Anson certainly has the potential to emerge as a major player in this movement.  As the historical overview above points out, Anson has a long tradition of progressive agricultural leadership.  Just as some of those leaders encouraged farmers to plant peach orchards on abandoned cotton fields to serve regional demand in the mid 20th century, today’s agricultural leaders could push Anson to become a regional leader to meet Charlotte’s growing demand for local foods.

Grassy Island area of Pee Dee River, at the northern end of Blewett Falls Lake.

Anson also has the potential to build on the extraordinary recreational asset that the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge has become.  Together with the Pee Dee River south of Blewett Falls Lake (one of the last free-flowing stretches of a major river system left in the Charlotte region), the Refuge anchors a corridor that holds great promise for nature-based tourism.  Anson’s leaders have been wise to participate in the Central Park NC initiative, which promotes a seven-county region along the Yadkin-Pee Dee River corridor for place-based economic development, including heritage and eco tourism.  In fact, if Anson truly has a competitive niche to fill within the Charlotte region, it is the county’s potential role (along with Stanly County) as one of the gateways to the recreation-rich Central Park NC area for Charlotte’s burgeoning population, creating opportunities for new economic activity such as outfitters, inns and rental cottages, second home development, and even hunting preserves.

Skeptics will rightly question whether tourism and agriculture alone can help Anson address the economic and social challenges it faces.  But as towns such as Elkin and Dobson just 125 miles upriver in North Carolina’s Yadkin River Valley wine country can attest, the growth of a place-based economy such as agriculture or tourism can help economically-distressed communities reclaim a sense of pride in themselves, and over time that pride translates into new investments that ultimately lift the quality of life for the entire community and its people.

 

Jeff Michael

 

Photos by Nancy Pierce.