Four centuries in the making.

Author:Martin, Edward
 
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As Business North Carolina turns 35, historians helped identify 35 key chapters in the state's economic story. One lesson: Current divisions among regions and political outlooks date to the state's founding.

Water lapped the shore as they stepped out of their small boats. On land, though, locked in drought, the water supply was miserably short. It was summer 1587 on Roanoke Island, and Sir Walter Raleigh's business enterprise was off on the wrong foot. His boss, Queen Elizabeth, had signed a contract promising him 20% of riches such as silver and gold he found, plus a cut of whatever privateers operating from his outpost could steal from entrenched Spaniard competitors.

There were religious and social overtones, of course, including converting natives to Christianity, and Raleigh's venture--like progressive employers today--was family friendly. The little boats disgorged the CEO, Gov. John White, along with husbands, wives and children. Raleigh was undeterred by two previous attempts to colonize the area, and as with many new ventures, unforeseeable setbacks followed. Drought continued to plague the colonists--and England became locked in war with Spain. By 1590, when Raleigh's ships returned, the colony was lost, possibly having mingled with Native Americans and moved inland, and taking with it Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America.

Roanoke Island underscores a common thread in more than 400 years of North Carolina's past. History doesn't unfold in a vacuum, neatly compartmentalized as business or political or social. That became apparent as, triggered by Business North Carolina's 35th anniversary, we asked historians to suggest 35 influential Tar Heel companies, trends and events.

The best example may be James B. "Buck" Duke's legacy. His hydroelectric dams powered textile and furniture mills that attracted farmers, hastened the state's transition from farm to factory and created mill towns with distinctive cultures, including child labor and worker oppression. The dams also impounded lakes that now provide water for cities and house multimillion dollar waterside homes that shelter retired industry executives and newcomers.

Several events loom large. The Halifax Resolves, a resolution signed April 12, 1776 and sparked by anger over tariffs and other insults, made North Carolina the first colony to seek independence. That spirit would characterize business and social life into the 21st century.

More isolated than its east region, western North Carolina was largely settled by families arriving via The Great Wagon Road from the north. These newcomers were reluctant to take orders from employers, the government or anyone else.

William Byrd II, Virginia planter and surveyor of the border between the two states in the early 1700s, called them "a breed of people the likes of which no one has ever seen," according to Michael Hill, an executive in the state's archives and history office. "He helped give the state the reputation as a refuge for people who were lazy and useless," an unfair branding that resurfaced in the 1930s Depression, when Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs employed men building and maintaining parks. Hill cites a popular ditty suggesting it took four WPA workers to handle the work of one: "One a'comin', one a'goin', one a'shiftin', one a'mowin'."

There were two North Carolinas, divisions that persist today in industry and politics. Early on, UNC Chapel Hill historian Harry Watson says, poor areas such as the Piedmont with little slave labor wanted public improvements like railroads. But that required higher taxes on eastern plantation owners. "The sectional divide keeps eastern North Carolina closely tied to the Deep South, and the west more open to social and economic change."

The Civil War, though less devastating to North Carolina than Virginia, profoundly influenced the fabric of today's state. "This region was really in bad shape," says Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett. "Our economy was a mess, slavery was gone, our people had to figure out how to build a new society, a new economy."

A racial truce enforced by Reconstruction followed, but collapsed around the turn of the century. White supremacy was more flexible in the factory-heavy Piedmont, Watson says, "allowing the emergence of a black middle class that would eventually spearhead the civil rights movement." The antebellum dominance of the east was over, "leaving a state that was unquestionably 'Southern,' but also different."

Political divisions aren't new either. David Brook, a former state historical agency director, says that post-Civil War, Democrats were archconservatives and Republicans liberals. "Solid South" Democrats dominated for decades but in 2010, Republicans won both legislative branches for the first time since 1870. They claimed the governor's and lieutenant governor's offices in 2012.

It's all part of the state's four-century-long habit of remaking itself, Hanchett says. "We've gone from fields to factories to finance, from slavery to segregation to civil rights," he says. "This is a state that has continually reinvented itself, like the populations flocking here now from around the globe, and the conflicts expressing themselves in Raleigh. People look at history and say, 'Oh, that's the past.' No, it's not. It's how we got here and where we're going."

35 KEY EVENTS IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY

1720 TAR ON THE HEELS

Mention "Tar Heel" and listeners the world over think North Carolina. Few may know how the state's early tar and turpentine industry influences its economy even today. England's Parliament voted to subsidize the industry in 1720 to obtain tar to caulk wooden ships. Turpentine had myriad uses, including lamplight fuel. The 1850 census shows eastern North Carolina had nearly 1,600 tar and turpentine manufacturers supplying fleets and homes, with combined annual revenue equal to about $130 million today. But pine forests were overharvested and later cleared for cotton and tobacco fields, which supplied mills and factories that would dominate the Tar Heel economy in the 20th century.

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1789

THE OLD COLLEGE TRY

England-born William Richardson Davie came to America in 1763 and earned scars fighting former countrymen in the Revolution. But he's most remembered for his 1789 legislative bill creating the nation's first state college, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Boosted over the years by wealthy philanthropists such as Wilmington's Kenan family, it became flagship of a 17-member system that grew to educate not only young frontiersmen but African-Americans, Native Americans and women. In 1963, lawmakers created a 31-school community-college system, now the country's third-largest with 58 schools.

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1848

RAIL TALE

After lawmakers approved a cross-state railroad, North Carolina Railroad President John Motley Morehead came back in 1854 asking for more money. They gave $3 million, while private investors put up $1 million more. Arcing 317 miles from Morehead City to Charlotte, the line helped turn Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Charlotte into the Piedmont Crescent, home to two-thirds...

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