CLAYTON, NC - A HISTORY
It all started…
with an old Indian trail, running along a ridge just north of where the waters divide - where the Neuse River meets Swift Creek.
“Nature never made a more ideal location for a town. Where the health-giving breezes ever blow, and corn and cotton ne’er fail to grow.”
Those were the words of Civil War veteran and former Johnston County Sheriff Jesse T. Ellington about his hometown of Clayton. Residents bragged of excellent schools, perfect drainage, and citizens who are generous, neighborly and kind to all.
Soon that Indian trail turned into a stagecoach line, then a railroad line…bringing trade and exports of cotton, tobacco, watermelon and lumber. Soon came bold claims: a 1907 The Raleigh Evening Times headline proclaimed Clayton: “The Wealthiest City for its Size in the World - A Small City with Large Possibilities.”
More than a century later, those pronouncements are still proving true. Just 20 minutes from the North Carolina state capital, Clayton is now the fastest-growing town in Johnston County and 17th fastest-growing city in the state. We’re an international bio-pharmaceutical hub and a community repeatedly recognized as one of the best, safest and most affordable places in the state and country to live. Since 2000, we’ve almost doubled in population and today more than 21,000 residents call Clayton home.
One thing has stayed the same: it’s the people who make Clayton.
“The men are intelligent, honorable, honest, brave and faithful. The women are modest, generous, cultured, pure and true.”
- John T. Talton, Clayton Mayor - 1909
A TIMELINE OF “COTTONTOWN”
Johnston County is born
Johnston County was carved out of Craven County and named in honor of Gabriel Johnston, North Carolina's royal governor at the time. Johnston County was massive - containing most of what is now Wake, Wayne, Greene, and Lenoir counties and even part of Wilson!
Rails Roll into Clayton
The North Carolina Railroad reaches Clayton and a train depot, Stallings Station, is erected near O'Neil and Front streets. Clayton owes its existence to the rail line.
The Post Office is relocated closer to “Stallings Station” and the name of the town was changed to Clayton? There are several theories who we're named after - 1)a school teacher by the name of Clayton who came from Missouri and founded the Clayton Academy here in the 1800's 2)John Middleton Clayton, a Delaware lawyer who became US Secretary of State in 1849 3)a civil engineer named Clayton who helped survey the area for the NC Railroad or 4) we're named for "Forty Dollar John. John Draper Clayton, was a tobacco farmer who gained notoriety for once selling 100lbs of tobacco leaves for an astounding $40.
Civil War Skirmish
Confederate and Union soldiers pass through Clayton shortly before the end of the Civil War. US Major General Sherman and his headquarters staff camp near the still standing Compton House near the Post Office. A “brisk skirmish” was fought at the eastern edge of town on April 12. That evening commissioners were sent by Governor Zebulon B. Vance to request a meeting with Sherman to negotiate the preservation of Raleigh. (Chekc out the Civil War Trails marker located at Town Square!)
Clayton is Officially Born
The North Carolina General Assembly officially incorporates the Town of Clayton. A bill to incorporate had actually been introduced in the state legislature in 1859, but it didn't receive a second reading. Ten years later, on April 12, 1869, Clayton finally received a charter.
”Clayton School For Negroes”
Quinton C. Mial and his wife Lillie begin a school for blacks, later renamed William Mason Cooper High School, in honor of a leading black educator who was former principal at Johnston County Training School. Schools were fully integrated in 1969 and Cooper High was converted to a Junior High. It’s home today to Cooper Academy, a college prep, dual language elementary school.
The Clayton Mansion
At the urging of General Julian S. Carr of Durham,successful Clayton merchant Ashley Horne and wife Rena begin work on their mansion next to their Horne General store at Main and Lombard streets. The beautiful Victorian was completed in 1897. It was the headquarters for the Centennial Celebration in 1869. One year later, it was demolished to make way for a grocery store that never materialized. Today it's home to Horne Square, where the Clayton Farm & Community Market is hosted on Saturdays.
A dispensary law passes for Clayton, allowing Town officials to close all bar rooms and operate a Town liquor dispensary. Proceeds benefit local schools.
The Town installs the first sewage system. Knights of Pythias organize a lodge in Clayton. Everett’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church is formed. A. J. Barbour builds Clayton Cotton Oil Mill
First Movie Theater
With a population of1,441, Clayton is now the largest town in Johnston County. St. Augustine AME Church organizes. Mr. and Mrs. Jesse M. Battle of St. Louis, Missouri, build a 6,000 square foot winter home, “Roxboro Hall,” on current day Boiling Street, then organize a Catholic church, and open the town’s first movie theater in a small building at the corner of O’Neil and First streets. Lila Cable played the piano, and Mr. Battle played the violin during the silent movies.
Let There Be Light!
The Town of Clayton makes history – flipping the switch on the town’s first electric lights and giving birth to “Clayton Public Power”, after the big electric providers decided to skip over Clayton.
Clayton High School's baseball team wins the State Championship - their second state title!
Clayton’s first public library for whites opens in town hall, with the salary of the librarian paid by the Woman's Club of Clayton.
Clayton Native Clashes with Nazis
Clayton native William E. Dodd is appointed U.S. Ambassador to Germany by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and he's tasked with the difficult mission of "unofficially" protesting Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany while also attempting to maintain cordial official diplomatic relations. Convinced from first hand observation that the Nazis were an increasing threat, he resigned in 1937 over his inability to mobilize the Roosevelt administration, particularly the State Department, to counter the Nazis prior to the start of World War.
Clayton Merchants Association organizes, later to become the Chamber of Commerce. The Merchants Association instituted the popular Cotton Festival that same year, which continues to this day as the Clayton Harvest Festival - the largest annual event in the Town.
A Bio-medical Hub Takes Shape
Natvar Corporation opens a medical products plant east of town. Clemmons State Forest, a gorgeous forested state park, opens to the public. It's named for longtime Forest Service employee Moody Clemmons. Clayton Spinning Company (originally Clayton Cotton Mills) closes after 76 years in operation. Five Clayton High School students are killed in an automobile accident, reminiscent of a 1941 Benson car crash that killed four Clayton teens attending a basketball game. That 1941 tragedy eneded interscholastic basketball at CHS for several years.
Highway to Growth
Highway I-40 completed from Raleigh to Benson, fostering explosive residential and commercial growth in and around Clayton.
A Bio-medical Hub Takes Shape
The Clayton Center, the renovated former Clayton High School, hosts its grand opening on New Year’s Eve.
Ranked tenth best town in the nation for affordability and quality of schools by Business Week Magazine. Johnston Medical Center-Clayton opened. “Clayton Patchwork” painted by artist Dorothy Demboski, Clayton’s first public art project, was unveiled. The mural of town scenes is located in the Clayton Center.
Clayton kicks off a year of Sesquientennial celebrations to honor our past, present and future!