The second consecutive Friday the 13th of 2015 would seem to be a good day to publish this one. The other day, I heard somebody lamenting for the zillionth time the fact that Winston-Salem’s wealth was built on the evil tobacco…as if that somehow makes us a second rate city or something. I often wonder if those same people ever lament the fact that much of the United States of America was built on slave labor, a true evil.


And I wonder if they are aware that the American Revolution was largely financed by tobacco…more than once in his desperate appeals for money, George Washington said “If you cannot send money, then send tobacco.” He wasn’t planning on stuffing his cheek with snuff…he was planning to sell the tobacco or barter it for the troops and equipment he needed to whip the Brits. If you don’t like that, then run up the Union Jack and learn to bow and curtsy and talk like the queen.


The Jamestown colony was an ongoing disaster…at one point, half the denizens starved to death because they couldn’t figure out a way to support themselves…tobacco eventually saved them. And tobacco played a major role in many of the other early colonies.


Mary Vance Roberson took care of her family while her husband was away during the Civil War by manufacturing cigars at home near Belews Creek

Matthew Miksch was manufacturing snuff and fine cut tobacco in Salem by the early 1770s. In the mid-19th century, tobacco manufacturing in Forsyth County was focused primarily in the outlying areas, with the largest operations being the Lash brothers’ cigar factory in Bethania, N.S. Sullivan in Stanleyville and the Ogburn’s farm based operation near Walkertown.


James E. Ogburn and his sons made chewing tobacco in a room of their home in Ogburn Station in the 1850s

When the North Carolina Railroad was being built in the 1850s and 60s, the folks in Winston and Salem were out of the picture, so the line began in Goldsboro, ran west to Raleigh, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, then curved southwestward to High Point (so named because it was the high point on the railroad survey), Spencer and Charlotte.


After the Civil War, the two biggest companies in Forsyth County were the Fries cotton and woolen mills and E. Belo’s Leviathan, a retail / wholesale general merchandise company. They had to drag their products by wagon to High Point through rain and sleet and mud to take advantage of the new railroad efficiency. And they soon realized that without a direct rail connection, their businesses were doomed.


So they approached the North Carolina Railroad, asking for an extension to Salem. The NCRR folks had a good laugh over that. So, with the help of some of their Winston friends, they chartered their own railroad and began building a spur line from what came to be known as Salem Station in Greensboro.


When it became apparent that they might succeed, Thomas Jethro Brown, a Civil War Veteran from Davie County, had a sort of epiphany. He and many of his neighbors grew tobacco, but had to haul it to Greensboro or High Point to sell it, a journey that could take a week or two for pennies on the dollar. What if he set up a tobacco warehouse at the end of the new spur line…he could pay less for the tobacco, then ship it via the new rail line, and still make a profit, while saving his neighbors a lot of time and trouble.


So in 1872, he leased a former livery stable on Third Street near the coming rail terminal and began buying tobacco and reselling it to the big tobacco companies. It worked out so well that soon he had built a large brick warehouse on Main Street between Fourth and Fifth. One of his helpers in that venture was another young Davie County man named Pleasant Henderson Hanes. Pleas had a sort of epiphany of his own. If he built a tobacco factory on the new railroad spur, he could buy cheap and using the new rails, sell cheaper than competitors farther east. So in 1873, he opened P.H. Hanes Tobacco Works on Chestnut Street, a stone’s throw from that rail line.


Meanwhile, another bright young man was sitting up on No Business Mountain in Patrick County, Virginia. His family had its own farm based tobacco factory and he was its top salesman. But he too realized that railroad access was the difference between eking out an existence and making some real money. So in late 1874, R.J. Reynolds came down to Winston and bought some land from the Moravian Church and opened his own little tobacco factory slap dash on the railroad. The rest, as they say in cliche-land, is history.


Anywhere you go on the internet, you can find articles that state baldly that R.J. Reynolds alone created the city of Winston-Salem. Nothing could be farther from the truth. True, in later days, he became the engine of everything, but in the early going, he was not number one, or even number two. In fact, at some point, Hanes, who was not a showy kind of guy, quietly renamed his company P.H. Hanes Mammoth Tobacco Works, just so people would understand who was the biggest manufacturer in the city. He would remain so until he and his younger brother John Wesley, sold out to Reynolds in 1900 and went into a whole new career in textiles.


By the early 1880s, we had 26 tobacco factories, 24 in Winston and two in Salem. 24 of those are shown on the map below, the other two being a little out of range. But all were successful in one way or another, and the competition to be number one was fierce.


In 1870, when the talk began about a railroad line, the population of Winston and Salem was barely 1,000. By 1920, Winston-Salem, with a population of about 47,000, was the largest city in North Carolina. Many people contributed to that astonishing story.


Joseph A. Bitting, the father of Kate Bitting Reynolds, was a local tobacco pioneer and built one of the first homes on “Millionaire’s Row” on West Fifth Street


William Asbury Whitaker was Bitting’s partner at Bitting & Whitaker. He put much of his time, energy and money into the development of the local school system, which, by the time of his death, was one of the best in the nation. Whitaker School is named for him.

Hamilton Scales, better known as Ham, was already operating a factory in Winston from about 1870, before the railroad figured in. P.H. Hanes opened his tobacco factory in 1873. Next up was Ogburn Hill, closely followed by Brown and Brother, who had been operating in Mocksville since 1858, then C. Hamlin & Company. Reynolds arrived in 1875, followed by Bitting & Whitaker in 1876. W.W. Wood was next in 1877. T.L. Vaughn and Bynum, Cotton & Jones opened around 1878-79. In 1880, P.W. Dalton and Hardin H. Reynolds, R.J.’s brother, arrived. Hardin’s factory was for a time known as the Red Elephant, as he tried to convince folks that he was bigger and better than his brother. That same year, Bailey Brothers, who had been in business in Statesville since 1874, moved to Winston.


By 1885, the towns of Winston and Salem had 26 tobacco factories, 24 of which are shown on this map. That single little railroad line appearing at the lower right was the progenitor of it all. Click for full size.


Many sources will tell you that R.J. Reynolds alone made the city of Winston-Salem. This little chart, based on the 1880 US Census of manufacturing, will show you that he had a lot of help.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco once employed around 20,000 people locally, 30,000 in the region. Even in today’s reduced circumstances, they are playing a vital role in the rebuilding and revitalization of the local economy. If anyone doesn’t like that, they could probably move to Charlotte.

BTW – Today, the North Carolina Railroad trackage is owned 100% by the state. A 2007 study showed that the railroad, currently under lease to Norfolk Southern, serves industries accounting for $143 billion in output, more than 24% of the state’s total economy. By state law, all income from the railroad is used for track improvements.

Pictures are from the Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection, the Valentine Richmond Collection and the North Carolina Room vertical file and microfilm collections. To see more great tobacco art, go here:

To see thousands of local historic pictures, go here: