Forsyth County Convict Camp #3, c 1925, probably somewhere on the Lewisville-Clemmons Road. In the foreground, l-r: the supervisor of the mule teams (unidentified); Captain Henry Burke, Clint Holder and Fred Doty.

Forsyth County Convict Camp #3, c 1925, probably somewhere on the Lewisville-Clemmons Road. In the foreground, l-r: Captain Henry Burke, Clint Holder, an unidentified dog and Fred Doty.

As always, click on pictures for larger size

For much of the 19th century, most counties in the USA had the same problem, building and maintaining roads and bridges. There was no state or federal coordination and little in the way of funds. Each county built and maintained its own roads. in Forsyth County, NC, as in most, there was a fairly straightforward solution…every able bodied man in the county was required to devote a certain number of hours monthly to such projects…the hours varied from month to month as needed…but a local board decided those hours and issued summonses to the citizens. Of course, the wealthy could buy their way out, just as so many did during the Civil War and others.

Then somebody came up with the idea of using convict labor. Convict labor had always been used for many purposes from the beginning. Virtually all of the railroad mileage in North Carolina in the 19th century was built by convicts. But in 1887, The NC general Assembly passed laws authorizing individual counties to establish their own “chain gangs” for pretty much any purpose, including road work, school building and even farming under lease.

Working on the railroad near Asheville

Working on the railroad near Asheville

Prior to the mid-1890s, the state operated superior courts dealt only with serious crimes involving major violence or theft. A conviction in superior court usually led to imprisonment or even hanging. But every county seat had its local court, sometimes called the municipal, or mayor’s, court, which heard lesser offenses, similar to what we now know as misdemeanors.

Stocks. Some secured the head and arms, some all appendages.

Stocks. Some secured the head and arms, some all appendages.

Conviction of such crimes generally resulted in a fine, commensurate with the offense. If you paid the fine, you walked. If you couldn’t pay the fine, you could be sentenced to stand in the stocks for an hour, or perhaps several hours. The stocks were usually located on the courthouse property, and aside from the discomfort, the main punishment was public humiliation. For more serious offenses, whipping was prescribed. When Forsyth County was founded in 1849, state law required that every county have a whipping post, which was often also located on the court house lawn. Local citizens decided to put theirs out of sight, in the woods behind where the Reynolds Building now stands. The standard sentence was 26 lashes, with 39 for slaves, and after the Civil War, all black people. Hardly anyone went to jail…no one wanted to pay for room and board for convicts.

Convicts paving Reynolda Road, c 1917

Convicts paving Reynolda Road, c 1917…Forsyth County Public Library Picture Collection

But in the late 1880s the new laws regarding use of convicts for construction projects created a new sentence category in local courts…X number of months on the roads. At first, the system was not a system, slapdash at best. But as more and more “roads” sentences came down, the system got organized.

Pitt County, NC had rolling cages

Pitt County, NC had rolling cages

One of the biggest problems was transporting the convicts from the jail to the worksite. Almost all counties resorted to building temporary barracks near ongoing worksites to house the workers. When one job was done, the buildings could be easily moved to the next worksite. Some developed wheeled cages, which could be moved by a mule team from one site to another. Soon, each county had its own superintendent of convict camps, who employed a fleet of camp captains, guards and cooks.

Forsyth County convict camp...Forsyth County Public Library Picture Collection

Forsyth County convict camp…Forsyth County Public Library Picture Collection

We know little about most of those folks. But a couple of weeks ago, a Clemmons lawyer brought us a remarkable large format photograph of the crew of Forsyth County Convict Camp #3 from the mid-1920s. In the foreground is Captain Henry Burke, the man in charge. A couple of hours of research later, we had a story about how an important part of our community and nation came to be.

The large picture of Convict Camp #3 is at the top of this post...here is another smaller view...

The large picture of Convict Camp #3 is at the top of this post…here is another smaller view…

 

Baby Henry Burke

Baby Henry Burke

Henry O. Burke was born January 25, 1884, to William F. and Sarah Lashmit Burke in the South Fork Township of Forsyth County, NC. In July, 1903, he married Addie Griffith, who was about ten years older than he was. Around 1908, they had a daughter, Kathleen, their only child.

Henry, Addie and Kathleen Burke, 1920s

Henry, Addie and Kathleen Burke, 1920s

Henry was first and foremost a farmer. The 1910 US Census shows him as a farmer, with a wife, daughter and a mortgaged farm. Independent farming was not the easiest road to prosperity, so Henry, like many other farmers, did whatever he could to get by. We don’t know when he first went to work at the convict camps, but by the mid-1920s he was the captain of Convict Camp #3, which operated primarily in South Fork, Lewisville and Clemmonsville townships. By 1930, he had paid off his mortgage. The 1940 census shows him working as a Winston-Salem city park foreman under a WPA program. But he never really left the farm. He died in 1958 from respiratory problems and was buried at his community church, Bethel United Methodist.

In 1926, the Winston-Salem Journal published an article about Captain Burke

In 1926, the Winston-Salem Journal published an article about Captain Burke…the racial dialogue was a standard feature of newspapers and pretty much the rest of American society in the 1920s…

In the early 1930s, the state finally took over responsibility for roads outside municipalities. The convict camps had never been economically efficient. By the mid-1930s, they were shut down. Their descendant is the Forsyth Correctional Center, which serves an entirely different purpose.

But during his lifetime, Captain Henry Burke and his crew provided a crucial service to the community by building, improving and paving hundreds of miles of local roads.

When Captain Burke began building roads, graders were drawn by horses or mules

When Captain Burke began building roads, graders were drawn by horses or mules…most of the road paving in Forsyth County in the 1920s utilized Tarvia, a blend of tar and gravel…it did not hold up very well, but was used into the 1950s…

 

By 1930, mule power had given way to steam and gasoline...Captain Burke drives a steamroller...

By 1930, mule power had given way to steam and gasoline…Captain Burke drives a modern road roller…

 

Henry Burke was a modern farmer, seen here with a steam thresher

Henry Burke was a modern farmer, seen here with a steam thresher

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