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Matthews Heritage Museum

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A Town in Cultural Transition

Founding of Mecklenburg County

Early in Matthews’ history, the town found itself as a bedroom community for the larger Charlotte metropolis, and consisted of a small portion of Mecklenburg County’s total populace. Many of the settlers who came to Mecklenburg County originated from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia in the 1740s and derived from Scots-Irish descent.  A petition granted by a Provincial Assembly created Mecklenburg County on December 11, 1762, which reached effect on February 1, 1763.  The original county boundaries contained large portions of land in Cabarrus, Union, Lincoln, Rutherford, Cleveland and Gaston counties, much larger than the current Mecklenburg County boundaries.

Early Settlers and Native Americans

Settlers soon came to Matthews in the late 1700s and early 1800s; the area consisted of lush green trees and lay near the Waxhaw and Catawba Indian hunting grounds.  Native Americans had a large influence on the early history of the region.  Both Native American and European traders operated on the trading outposts beside the Catawba River, north past Charlotte and south into Waxhaw. Trade embodied a large portion of the relationship between the early settlers and the Native Americans.  In many instances these two populations got along during the county’s formation, however, the Native Americans certainly faced their adversities due to the arrival of the Europeans.  Disease brought by the European settlers permeated the region and the Indians struggled to gain immunity.   Diseases such as small pox, influenza and whooping cough greatly contributed to the Catawba’s decline and by 1840 only 75 tribesmen remained. Native Americans represent an important element of the region’s past and their cultural struggle is something that should not be forgotten.  In many ways their story is something that needs further research to tease out their local importance to the county and even the history of Matthews. 

Early History of the Town

The town had many names prior to its distinction as Matthews.  The settlers tore down so many trees in the woodlands, that tree stumps invaded the area, leading to the settlers first designating the area as Stumptown. In 1835, the area became known as Fullwood after John Miles Fullwood, Matthews’ first postmaster. This quaint little piece of Mecklenburg County had a prolonged period of slow growth.  The graudual advancement created a distinct settler community in the region that prided itself on self-reliance.  Matthews and much of Mecklenburg County as a whole had continued moderate population and economic growth until the railroad emerged in the region. 

Railroads

Railroads reached Mecklenburg County in 1852; the technological advancement via railways brought economic advancements through increased regional trade. Iron horses connected areas in the county with the state as a whole and the larger Southeastern region.  The railway brought about profound changes to the region, and to the local populous in Matthews.  The railway took some time to come to Fullwood, eventually making its way to the area in 1874.  In 1879, Fullwood resident Solomon Reid backed a committee, which secured a charter to incorporate the town.  The committee officially named Matthews, after Watson Matthews, director of the Central Carolina Railroad Company. The train influenced the area dramatically; it easily connected Matthews’ citizens to the larger Charlottean population, and extended trade to Wilmington and other regions in the South East. 

Southern Economy:

In the South Cotton was King, and the train’s arrival extended this economic system into the twentieth century.  Cotton fields surrounded the town’s core during the early twentieth century, up until the 1920s.  This history of the industry originated from the antebellum years where “Mecklenburg is said to have ginned more cotton than any other North Carolina County in this period.” After the Civil War, Mecklenburg shifted away from cotton production and focused on cotton manufacturing, with the county containing 17 total mills. With increased manufacturing, Charlotte saw its background as an early financial center begin to develop.  While trains influenced economic diversification in Charlotte, other areas in Mecklenburg County held on to their rich background in Cotton production. 

The cotton industry in Matthews boomed until the effects of the Great Depression impressed themselves upon the nation.  The Great Depression influenced the steady decline of the cotton industry in Matthews; as well it closed local businesses, threatening the livelihood of this small southern town. Matthews’s early community centered on self-sufficiency via farming and the cotton industry, but eventual technological and economic changes challenged the region’s early makeup. 

Racial Composition of the South

Historian Tom Hanchett researched how the Great Depression and New Deal Programs changed the racial composition of the New South City.  Hanchett said that Charlotte was comprised of a multiracial patchwork quilt “of self-contained neighborhoods, each distinct in its developer devised street system and each largely homogenous in its racial makeup.”  This patchwork system proves to be useful for describing both Charlotte, and its bedroom communities in Mecklenburg County.  Matthews multiracial patchwork consisted of Tanktown, currently Crestdale, an African American community that the town did not incorporate until after desegregation.  African Americans faced many struggles within Mecklenburg County during the struggle for civil rights, yet many still created a place for themselves within Matthews’ changing economy.  The Matthews Movie Theatre in downtown embodies the struggles African Americans faced during the middle of the twentieth century.  The theatre dictated that African American customers must come in through a side entrance separate from their white counterparts, and watch the movie from an upstairs balcony.  While many faced similar struggles, the Matthews’ downtown had its fair share of black owned businesses such as Manley Clyburn’s barbershop and Mr. Bud Potts’ fish store. These businesses represent a level of inclusion within this small southern town, often still mired with racial problems that resonated from its past when Cotton was King.

A Town in Cultural Transition