Tarboro Historic District
From Tarboro’s colonial origins as a minor port (est. 1760) at the head of navigation on the Tar River, the grid plan, the old street names, and the Town
Common survive. In the antebellum era, as the area’s cotton trade burgeoned, Tarboro developed unusual panache for a small courthouse town. One fashion-conscious antebellum lady refused an invitation to spend Christmas with her brother in Tarboro, for “to tell the truth, I have enough clothes to wear in Raleigh or in Rocky Mount, but not enough to wear in Tarboro.” Town and county leaders prided themselves on their progressive farming interests, and here as elsewhere, outward-looking planters and merchants incorporated new ideas in architecture along with agricultural innovations. The steamboat- and cotton-based prosperity of the 1850s supported construction of fully realized Gothic Revival and Italian villa modes and the employment of English-born architects Edmund G. Lind of Baltimore and William Percival of Raleigh and Richmond. Other houses, many of which feature picturesque lattice and curvilinear sawnwork porches, reflect inspiration for 19th-c. pattern books such as those of A. J. Downing, Calver Vaux, and Samuel Sloan. On the eve of the Civil War, Tarboro was thriving, with a branch of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad newly completed and several major buildings new of under construction.
After the Civil War, civic leaders pressed for industrial development and rail connections. “Property here cannot advance,” insisted the Tarboro Southerner in 1883, “unless interests other than selling goods to the farmer are developed.... We want factories”. Textile mills, fertilizer manufacturing, and beginning about 1890, tobacco sales bolstered modest growth. Establishment of Carolina Telephone & Telegraph as well as local banks further boosted the town’s economy.
New attention to beautification and sanitation accompanied rebuilding of the commercial district and expansion of the town limits. Residential development extended north along Main St. past the Common toward the railroad. Industrial plants were built along the riverfront (these were razed in the late 20th c.). Eastward along the river, Panola Heights developed after the Civil War as a predominantly black neighborhood, where a number of early 20th-c. houses still stand among many newer residences.
To the west and northwest, industrialists built small Mill Villages with grids of streets lined by 1- and 2-story mill houses. The corporate patterns of hierarchy and uniformity are still clear despite superficial changes by private owners. Tarboro’s most intact historic architecture concentrates in the town center and the residential areas immediately flanking Main St.