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What is a stagecoach?
In the beginning, people walked. Later, those who could afford it rode donkeys, or horses, or mules. By the late 18th century in America, a select few traveled from town to town in horse or mule drawn coaches. Such travel was very expensive. Since speed was important, the horses/mules were changed roughly every 20 miles. Those changes became known as stages. Once some of the people who operated the change stations began offering food and overnight accommodations for passengers and animals, those places became known as stays. There were hundreds of stays in North Carolina. But by then, the coaches and the stages had become inextricably interwoven, thus the name stagecoach, not staycoach.
What is a hack?
There are a number of vehicles which have earned the appellation “hack”, but in the stagecoach world, a hack was the smallest size of stagecoach, drawn by two horses and barely accommodating four passengers. In a pinch, as many as four or five more passengers might rough it on top. A real stagecoach, drawn by a four horse team, could carry six passengers inside and maybe the same number on top. An honest to goodness Concord coach was drawn by four to six horses, depending upon terrain, and carried nine passengers, with up to twelve on top (poor horses), and weighed well over twice what the hack did. In the 1870s/1880s, a Concord coach cost $1,500 to $2,000, depending upon amenities.
Edwin Clemmons, the stagecoach man
Edwin Theodore Clemmons was born in the Clemmonsville area of Stokes County, NC on October 27, 1826 to James and Mary Thomas Hanes Clemmons. He was the great grandson of Peter Clemmons, the founding father of the town of Clemmons, NC and the Clemmonsville Township.
Edwin briefly attended the Moravian Boys School in Salem, NC and was apprenticed to a local cabinet maker, Jacob Siewers, but he had little interest in that sort of work. In Salem, he had become intrigued by the romance of the stage coach rigs that passed through the town, stopping at Dr. Augustus Zevely’s hotel on Main Street, bearing the US mail and passengers bound for exotic destinations…south to Lexington and Greenville, South Carolina; north to Milton and Fredericksburg, Virginia; west to Jefferson and Wytheville, Virginia and even some place called Tennessee.
So as soon as he was able, he traveled to the national capitol and began negotiating for a federal mail contract. In April, 1851, the Postmaster General awarded him his first mail route, from Salem to Jefferson, 94 miles via Huntsville, Hamptonville and Wilkesboro, carried by a two-horse hack.
When the first trains of the North Carolina Railroad began running between Charlotte and Goldsboro in 1856, Edwin’s stagecoaches met the cars at the High Point depot and brought the mail and a few passengers to Salem, returning the next day.
By then, he and his brother John had three four horse coaches running, to High Point, to Lexington and, via the great Fayetteville & Western plank road, to High Point, Asheboro, Carthage and Fayetteville, where passengers transferred to Cape Fear River steamboats for the journey to Wilmington. Soon they had a fourth line running westward to Jefferson, tracing his original mail contract, then on to Wytheville in Virginia. Soon they added another line, from Salem via Clemmons, Mocksville, Statesville, Lincolnton and Spartanburg to Greenville, South Carolina.
All of their lines were based at the local stage station at Dr. Augustus Zevely’s Hotel, and later, at Butner’s Salem Hotel across Main Street (the former Salem Tavern). But when Edwin married Harriet “Hattie” Butner in 1858, they did not live in downtown Salem, but in the southern suburb which would later become known as the Southside and eventually Washington Park. Their nearest neighbors were Constantine Banner, a prominent farmer and influential politician whose house still stands on Cascade Avenue, and John Alspaugh, a lawyer and the publisher of the weekly Western Sentinel newspaper in Winston.
Fayetteville and the east
The Clemmons brothers continued to expand and improve their stagecoach lines for the next few years, establishing a second staging center in Fayetteville, where they operated lines from Fayetteville to Raleigh; Fayetteville, via Hope Mills and Red Springs, to Shoe Heel (now Maxton); and from Fayetteville to Lumberton; and Fayetteville to Harnett Courthouse (now Lillington, near Buie’s Creek); and Fayetteville to Wilmington via Cape Fear steamboats in conjunction with O. H. Blocker, who was a partner in many other runs. The Clemmons often teamed with owners of mail contracts like Blocker to run the actual stagecoach part of the business, so their names were not always attached to the lines they ran, but they were among the most important stage coach operators in the Old North State, from Wilmington to Goldsboro and Fayetteville, to Raleigh, to Charlotte and Greensboro and Salem to Asheville and Tennessee.
Other Clemmons operated lines ran from Warsaw to Fayetteville, as a part of the Weldon to Goldsboro to Fayetteville line; from Charlotte via Monroe to Wadesboro; and from the Chatham Railroad to Jonesboro on the Fayetteville & Western Railroad.
But by the end of the Civil War, Edwin found himself drawn to a new market, based in Asheville, with promising connections to the soon to be booming west. In 1870, he and Hattie still maintained a residence in Salem, but they were already living in a boarding house in downtown Asheville.
Asheville and the west
Within a couple of years, Edwin had bought the oldest hotel in Asheville, the Eagle, originally built on Main Street in 1814, and had made it the base for his first over mountain line, to the railway depot at Henry’s Station, two miles west of Old Fort.
That run was made by his newest coach, which he named the “Hattie Butner” for his wife. The “Hattie Butner” was a nine passenger Concord coach built by Abbott-Downing in Connecticut. It was driven on that same run, behind six gray horses, by the same drover, John “Jack” Pence, who had been running that route since 1859, well before Clemmons took over. He was described as a married man from Salisbury who never learned to read or write, a quiet but careful drover who paid close attention to his business and never had an accident in his 25 years on the job.
“For miles he drives along the very brink of the precipices, and slowly he follows the narrow slippery track to the mountain’s dizzy height,” said an 1873 article in the Fayetteville Eagle. “Oft in the stillness of the night has he sounded his stage horn and heard the echoes reverberate from peak to peak and range to range.” Because of the six horse team required to scale the steepest parts of the run to Asheville, Jack’s whip could not reach the lead horses, so he kept a box of small rocks near his feet to get their attention when extra effort was needed.
When Jack died a few years later, it took three men to replace him…Dew Reinhardt was a young and dashing driver who handled the most difficult and dangerous uphill runs, from Old Fort, crossing the Blue Ridge through the Swannanoa Gap, first along the Mill Creek, then up the cliffs and precipices along the narrow, deep Crooked Creek valley to the top at Ridgecrest. That run, a distance of six miles, took three hours on a good day. Two miles later, horses and drivers were changed, and Reinhardt retired for the day, knowing that he would have to make the even more dangerous drive down through the gap the next morn ing. Mack Reynolds or Bob Chum managed the rest of the trip to and from Asheville.
Edwin named one of his coaches for Jack, the “John Pence”. By then, Edwin was focusing on the hotel business, having demolished the original Eagle Hotel and built a grand new brick replacement, also known as the Eagle. And he had interests in a number of other hotels in Hendersonville, Old Fort and Black Mountain. Around 1880, he handed over his stagecoach operations to his long time lieutenant, Gus Weddin, who took a new, younger partner to operate their old Great Western Stage Line, which had added runs between the Hendersonville / Flat Rock area and Asheville, and northwestward from there up through Madison County to Warm Springs (now Hot Springs…see, things ARE getting warmer) and across the Tennessee border to Wolf Creek, which connected to lines in Newport, Tennesse, leading to Nashville, Memphis and Birmingham; and Greenville, Tennessee leading to Cincinatti, Chicago, and the greater midwest.
By then, the “Hattie Butner” and the “John Pence” had been joined by a host of other coaches with names like “Governor Vance”, “Rosalie”, “Asheville”, “Swannanoa”, “Rover”, “French Broad”, “Lover’s Leap”, and, of course, “E.T. Clemmons”. By the mid-1880s, Edwin and Hattie were in semi-retirement, spending most of their time in Philadelphia, enjoying the luxuries of urban life in the gilded age. In 1893, they returned to Salem, where they were greeted as heroes. Edwin died in 1896, the same year that the Great Western Stage Line and the “Hattie Butner” went into retirement. When Hattie died in 1910, she willed the sole remaining coach, her namesake, to the Wachovia Historical Society.
After Edwin’s death, a letter to the editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times explained how Edwin transformed the Asheville economy:
But Edwin’s death was only the beginning of yet another adventure. In his will, after seeing to the comforts of his widow, he left the remainder of his substantial estate to the Southern Province of the Moravian Church, with the proviso that they build a church and a first rate coeducational boarding school in his old hometown of Clemmons.
The church fathers took his wishes quite seriously. The project was tasked to the Provincial Elders Conference, so came under the direct supervision of the most powerful Moravian leaders, the Right Reverend Edward Rondthaler, president, and John W. Fries, the Reverend James E. Hall, William T. Vogler, E.F. Strickland and Herbert A. Pfohl. In fact, the Reverend Hall was appointed as principal of the school. It opened in a renovated building in 1900 and a year later moved into its magnificent permanent quarters nearby, which served both as the church and the school.
The school operated successfully for fourteen years, but in the end, there was not enough money in Edwin’s estate. In 1914, the school began receiving public money and a transition began to a semi-private school with an emphasis on agriculture. In 1925, it was replaced by a fine new public school, a part of the Forsyth County school system. But the grand original building survived for many more decades as the church building. Unfortunately, eventually, choices were made and a few years ago the building was demolished.