Home Lifestyle History and architecture combined for Rockingham homes tour

History and architecture combined for Rockingham homes tour

Rockingham Mayor John Hutchinson speaks to guests of the Historic Homes Walking Tour. See more photos below the story. Photos by Betty Gallo McIntyre

Marty Goodman has long desired to organize a tour through historic downtown Rockingham. On Nov. 6, 2022, her vision came to pass.

“I love local history because it is so easy to see it as living history,” Goodman said.

Goodman and Rockingham Mayor John Hutchinson, who is also a local historian, frequently discussed the interesting historical assets of the county, and that is when she mentioned her desire for the tour.

“John and I started talking about updating the city’s downtown history walking route that was created some years ago and making it easy for people to take a self-guided walking tour,” Goodman said. “Out of this discussion came the idea to do a guided tour.”

The event, sponsored by the city, was planned by Goodman, Hutchinson and his wife Sharon, and Kristi Robinson.

The scripts were written by John Hutchinson and Goodman using old newspaper articles from across the state and Robinson helped with social media and setting up ticket sales through Eventbrite. The event was also organized with help from the city.

“We worked very hard on the scripts in hopes they would be much more than ‘this house was built in 1855 by the Steeles,’ as flat information doesn’t capture anyone’s imagination,” the mayor said. “Instead, as Marty said, we wanted to ‘breathe on a dead man’s embers’ and make the history more alive. We are looking forward to a new round of scripts and a different tour next year.”

With each homeowner’s consent and the help of numerous volunteers, the sold-out event came to life.

Several musicians were part of the tour including the mayor’s wife Sharon who played the harp, and sons Alex and John Patrick, who played the keyboard and organ, respectively.

Others who volunteered as musicians, tour guides, and script readers were Brenda Baucom, Addison Massey, Bobby Sue Ormsby, Ruth Ann Harris, Ted Lathan, Lynn Clewis, Alyse Melvin, Charlie Melvin, Keith Parsons, Catherine Shelley, Rhett Shelley, Ken Bostic, Sybil Mazure, Sophia Mazure, Lauren Lutz, Martha Massey, Sarah Stogner, Amy Guinn and the Gen. William Henry Harrington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The tour was split up into five groups with a tour guide leading each one of the 11 stops. Below is a recap from the scripts including some of the information given during the tour.

The first stop was the majestic John Wall Leak-Henry Clay Wall house which was built in 1853. The home was inspired by Greek temples and was built in the form of a two-story Greek Revival home. The Cedar of Lebanon tree, which stands tall in the front yard, was planted at the same time the house was built. The cedar was inspected in 1920 by a tree expert who stated it was the largest of its kind that he had ever seen in the United States. The area to the right of the house which is now a beautifully landscaped garden used to be a cow pasture.

The Steele-Fisher home was the second stop in which Dr. Robert J. Steele and his wife Elizabeth were the first couple to live. They married in 1844 and the wedding announcement, which was a rare piece of local poetry, appeared in the Fayetteville Observer. In addition to being husband and wife, they also happened to be first cousins and step-siblings. Dr. Steele was one of the first group of students to enroll at Wake Forest College.

The backyard holds several graves which later homeowners Gary and Kay Fisher hired cadaver dogs to locate. Two of the many graves belong to Robert and Elizabeth Steele. Gary Fisher was co-owner and vice president of Industrial Sheet Metal until 1998.

The most interesting guest to ever stay in the home was Union Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick commanded Gen.l William T. Sherman’s cavalry unit and made the home headquarters while his army occupied the town.

Next was the Col. Walter L. Steele house built by Steele around 1855. He served in the United States Congress and was known as an eloquent and witty manufacturer, farmer and the happiest storyteller of his day, which students were intrigued by. There is a building at UNC Chapel Hill named in his honor. It was clear that Steele would rather be a local and a humble justice of the peace than governor of North Carolina.

The fourth stop was the Robert L. Steele house which was located across the street from his brother Walter L. Steele. Robert Steele built this home around 1855. It was also a Greek Revival home.

He was known as an entrepreneur and a mechanical genius, as well as a humble man with a servant’s heart. He also had extensive farming interests, as he was a farmer before the Civil War. Robert Steele had been closely associated with Richmond Manufacturing Company, the first textile mill in the area. The mill was burned by Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces in 1865 which created an opportunity for a water-powered mill. Thus, Great Falls Mill was built over the ruins. Following that mill, three more were built in the county. Steele’s name is represented in the community of Roberdel.

The next stop took the tour to the Steele-Johnson-Cole House — the oldest building in Rockingham — which was built in 1838 by Robert Steele. Judith, Steele’s wife, had previously been married to his brother who was poisoned, which left Judith a widow. Steele was part of building one of the first textile mills in NC — the Richmond Manufacturing Co. Its four-story structure was an astonishing sight for all to see. It had been an important source of confederate fabric which attracted Kilpatrick. He made a show of it by setting it on fire as a crowd of spectators watched. There is a stained-glass window in the Methodist Church which was given as a memorial for Judith.

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The tour continued moving along with the William B. and Elizabeth Little Cole home. William Cole was the grandson of Robert L. Steele Sr. The Coles built the house in 1906. William Cole had a part in organizing the newest mill in town at the time, Hannah Pickett, which would be a cutting-edge mill with 1000 employees.

The Coles’ daughter, Elizabeth, had been dating Bill Ormond whom her father did not like. William’s strong dislike of Ormond resulted in him shooting Ormond to death downtown in front of the Manufacturer’s Building.

The murder not only made Richmond County headlines, but also nationwide. Seventeen of North Carolina’s best attorneys participated in the trial that William had claimed self-defense and transitory insanity; he was found not guilty. The trial was “hush, hush” for many years until a Broadway playwright was brave enough to write about it. The play was called “Coquette” and was so popular on Broadway that it also became a Hollywood movie. Due to the Coles never having any grandchildren and after their children’s death, the family fortune — which was estimated to be around $30 million — went to establish the Cole Foundation.

Stop No. seven was the Leak-Scales house, which was built in 1878 by John Morehead Scales and his wife Mary Leak Scales. The house was designed with an Italianate style of architecture. The Morehead family created UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and the Morehead Scholarships.

Walter Leak Scales and his wife Panthea Stanback Scales raised their five children in the home. The home once faced Washington Street, but in 1899, Walter decided it needed to be turned around to sit on Fayetteville Road and that is where it sits to this day.

The Judge F. Donald Phillips home was stop eight. Phillips was born in Laurinburg in 1893 —when Scotland county was part of Richmond County — and moved to Rockingham in 1914 to open a law practice.

He entered World War I in 1917 and was the first North Carolinian to be awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery by the French military. He also received the American Purple Cross. When returning in 1919, he was elected mayor of Rockingham and served two terms.

Afterwards he was elected solicitor of the 13th Judicial District in 1922 and re-elected to three successive terms of four years each. He married Octavia Stanback Scales in 1925 and they built this home. He was later elected resident judge of the 20th Judicial District and served in that position until 1963 when he retired. He was appointed by President Harry Truman as one of the judges of the International Military Tribunal for the trial of major Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany. He was truly one of Rockingham’s most distinguished residents.

Next up was stop nine, Cope’s Inn. The Inn was built in 1920 and purchased by A.G. and Louise Corpening.
A.G. managed the Rockingham Hotel, Richmond Insurance and Realty, and the local Building and Loan Association; Louise operated their residence as a rooming house which was known as Cope’s Inn. The current residents are Steve and Marty Goodman.

The tenth dwelling was the L.G. Fox house which was built in 1879 as the original Methodist Church Sunday school chapel. At that time, it sat on the lot of the current Methodist Church. It also served as a meeting place for various groups as well as the county’s one-room school.

In 1899 using mules and logs, the building was moved to its current location. In 1920, it was purchased by Randleman native Dr. Fox and converted into a home with the addition of a second story. Fox also purchased the Richmond County drugstore and renamed it Fox Drugs. He also opened a second drugstore in Rockingham as well as several other drugstores in nearby towns.

The final stop was the First Methodist Church, which in the late 1890s was in very poor shape. When Rev. Frank M. Shamburger arrived in 1898 to take the minister’s position, he decided they needed to build a new church; afterall, the Methodists were wealthy enough to tackle the job. Shamburger had a reputation for success and was “loved by his flock.”

The demolition of the old church was a struggle as the steeple refused to come down. Finally on a Halloween night — and in a hurricane — it finally fell. It took close to three years to build the sanctuary.

“We were lucky to get great volunteers and musicians,” Goodman said. “Although there was no way to rehearse the walk, it came out just as I pictured it since we started planning it in the summer. There are many more historical houses and buildings in town and plenty more stories to tell. We can’t wait to do it again and turn it into an annual event.”

(Note: Names were added after initial publication. 2:37 p.m. 11-16-22)

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