Note: The following are excerpts from Ruth Little-Stokes’ 1979 book, An Inventory of Historic Architecture: Caswell County North Carolina, which was published by the Caswell County Historical Association.
Yanceyville, the county seat of Caswell County since 1792, has a historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places which contains a magnificent antebellum courthouse and courthouse square; two of the finest antebellum houses in the county (the Thomas D. Johnston House and Dongola), and twenty-one other antebellum buildings.
Almost all of the structures were built between 1830 and the Civil War, the town’s first major period of development. The district is not as homogeneous as Milton’s historic district, for 20th century development is intermingled with the 19th century building fabric, and much demolition of historic landmarks has occurred in the 20th century.
The town plan, which resembles the spokes of a wheel with the courthouse square as the hub, apparently resulted from the continual process of connecting already established settlements to the new government center by roads. In 1792, Person County was established, and Caswell County shrunk to its present size. The Caswell County justices employed a surveyor named Poston to find the geographic center of the county and to lay off the “Public Lots,” designated as “Caswell Courthouse.”
As stipulated by the General Assembly, the first court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions after the establishment of the county was held at Joseph Smith’s tavern. The July, 1793 session met at “the place appointed for the New Court House.” John Graves, owner of this land, donated a portion of it for the courthouse. This seat developed very slowly. The courthouse was completed in the spring of 1794. Its appearance is unknown, but it was apparently located in the southeast corner of the present courthouse square. The settlement probably contained little more than the courthouse and several taverns and hotels for many years.
As late as 1810, Bartlett Yancey, who was born and lived near the village, wrote that “the whole of the possessions there belong to Capt. John Graves and his Sons.” By this time, according to Yancey’s calculations, the village contained “two taverns, a store, a hatter’s shop with about 15 houses.”
Almost as a herald of the Boom Era, the April 1831 county court appointed a building commission for a new courthouse, and ordered them to advertise for an architect in prominent state newspapers The Raleigh Star and North Carolina State Gazette, and Hillsboro Recorder, and the Milton Gazette. The July, 1831 county court minutes record that John Berry, the well-known carpenter-builder from nearby Hillsboro, agreed to build the courthouse for the sum of $5,000 which had been stipulated by the commissioners.
Berry was a talented local builder whose eclectic work reflected the best-known architects of the period, but was most closely identified with the Greek Revival idiom. Berry made ample use of Asher Benjamin’s pattern books of Greek Revival motifs in the courthouse which he designed in 1844-45 in Hillsboro, and the Yanceyville courthouse probably resembled this one closely.
According to the specifications for the new courthouse, recorded in the July 1831 county court minutes, the structure would be a two-story brick building, forty feet by forty five feet, with the courtroom on the first floor, jury rooms at the rear corners, and a gallery and offices on the second floor. The gallery would be built in the Doreck (Doric) order, the columns to have base and capital and to be plated, the entablature to have a neat cornice … The gallery to be enclosed with Gothick (Gothic) panel rising three feet from the floor.
The ceiling would be coved, and the courtroom would have … a stucco cornice and center piece to be enriched and ornamented stucco work … exterior doors to be recessed on the outside 4 inches and have double elliptical arches sprung over them.
The courthouse, erected on the south side of the newly enlarged public square, was substantially complete by July, 1833. The same year, the heretofore nameless county seat was designated Yanceyville. Dr. Allen Gunn, Thomas D. Johnston, John C. Harvey, Paul A. Harralson, and Colonel Thomas Graves were appointed town commissioners. The village was quickly becoming a town. In 1832 the first church in town, the Presbyterian Church, had been built.
By 1840, a weekly newspaper, The Rubicon, a debating club, a milliner, a coach maker, a dry goods and grocery store, and even an industry - the Yanceyville Silk Growing and Manufacturing Company - had appeared. The tobacco plantation owners in the vicinity gradually acquired “town” land, and nearly every taxpayer in the 1850 tax lists in the Richmond District, in which Yanceyville was located, owned both a large rural tract and lots in Yanceyville. Certain citizens were becoming wealthy. Dr. Gunn, in town by 1830 practicing medicine and engaging in various business ventures, listed 211 slaves in the 1838-39 tax lists.
Thomas D. Johnston, who had come to Yanceyville by 1828, became a prominent merchant, president of the Bank of Yanceyville, and civic leader. His property was valued at $161,000 in the 1860 census, making him the richest man in town and second-most wealthy in the county. The census listed 84 slaves at his plantation and 32 slaves elsewhere, presumably at his places of business. Captain James Poteat, a planter, listed 105 slaves listed at over $43,000 in the 1863 tax lists.
Like the colony itself, the economy of Yanceyville revolved around tobacco. Although the industrial schedule of the 1860 census listed five tobacco factories in Yanceyville employing an average of 144 workers, the town was too close to Danville and Lynchburg to develop as an independent market for loose-leaf auction sales or a tobacco manufacturing center. Yanceyville played a unique role in 19th century North Carolina, however, as the center of experimentation in tobacco cultivation and maximization of profits for local farmers. Its tobacco planters made significant contributions in the scientific cultivation of tobacco and in the organization of tobacco growers in the Grange movement and in other groups to achieve standardization of warehouse prices.
The fourth Caswell County Courthouse was erected between 1857 and 1861 following the destruction of the third courthouse. The building is located near the site of the previous building on the south side of the square. Erected during the final years of the town’s boom era, the building breaks the quiet Greek Revival atmosphere. It is a monumental embodiment of Victorian institutional architecture, combining Italian Romanesque and Classical features in a design unique in courthouse architecture in North Carolina.