The City of Graham has an interesting history surrounding its origins. Graham is located in the direct center of Alamance County. This occurred as a result of the decision to split Orange County. In the early 1800’s Orange County was composed of both present day Alamance and Orange Counties. Some people believed that the county was too large and decided to split the county in two, creating Alamance County.
Once the County was established, a County Seat needed to be created, the City of Graham was the result of this effort. Graham was centered around a courthouse square and in the summer of 1849 the first lots went up for sale that surrounded the courthouse. In 1851, just two years later, the Town of Graham was incorporated. Graham was named for the outgoing governor, Willaim A. Graham of Hillsbourgh. Sixty-eight lots were surveyed off which were sold over the next 20 years. The original 75 acres was purchased for $603.
In 1849, continued growth and settlement raised the need for a new county west of the Haw River in what was then Orange County. Residents found it increasingly difficult to cross the Haw River and travel to Hillsborough, then the center of county government, to conduct official business. At the urging of Rep. Giles Mebane, the North Carolina legislature took action and formed Alamance County. The dividing line between the counties of Orange and Alamance was officially established in 1851 and the new county was named after Alamance Creek.
With the new county established, the legislature appointed a committee of eight men to select a suitable site for the county seat. The committee was composed of John Stockard, John Fogleman, Jesse Grant, Peyton Moore, William Carrigan, John Scott, Absalom Harvey and James A. Craig. The group wanted the seat to be in the geographic center of the county and Silas M. Lane was hired to lay out the new town.
A total of 75 acres of land was purchased for the county seat. Acreage included 40 acres from John A. Holt for $303, 24 acres from Joseph M. Freeland for $201, and 9 acres from Dr. William Clendenin for $99. Clendenin was also paid $20 for the corn crop that was growing on his land.
After creating the county seat, the legislature had to adopt a name for the new town. Proposals included Gallatin, Vernon and Montgomery, but under the leadership of Rep. Mebane, the name of Graham was chosen, honoring Gov. William A. Graham who was in office at the time. Gov. Graham had been a United States Senator and would later make an unsuccessful bid for the Vice Presidency; he also served as Secretary of the Navy. In 1851, the Town of Graham was officially incorporated by the State Legislature.
The property around the courthouse site was divided into 68 lots and an auction was held to distribute the property. A lot on Court Square was sold to E.M. Holt for $726, which was more than was paid for the original 68 acres. Another lot was sold to John R. Pugh and James A. Graham as trustees for the Graham Baptist Church for $1. Many other lots were sold at the auction and construction quickly started on buildings in the new town.
On June 4, 1849, the first court session in Alamance County was held at the Providence Christian Church. Since the court needed a permanent home, the commissioners decided to build a courthouse that would not cost more than $8,000, with a jail to cost $4,000. The courthouse was to be of stone or brick and covered with tin or zinc roofing. The contract was agreed upon on July 17, 1849 and the new Courthouse was completed in 1851.
From this modest beginning Graham slowly emerged as a trade center for the county. Residents from throughout the county came to purchase supplies and handle their business at the county seat. In fact, at one time there was a campground on the southeast side of town for people that wanted to stay for an extended period of time.
It was not long after the town’s incorporation that news circulated that the North Carolina Railroad wanted to run its tracks one block north of the courthouse. The railroad felt that since Graham was near the center of the Goldsboro-Charlotte line it would be an ideal spot for repair and maintenance shops. The residents did not like the idea of the noise, smoke and activity the railroad would create. So, the town commissioners passed a law that prohibited the railroad tracks from coming within one mile of the courthouse. The proposed railroad tracks were moved north of town and the shops were built two miles to the west, which gave birth to Burlington.
Education in Graham had its beginning in 1792 when a school opened at Providence Meeting House. In 1852, the Christian Churches of North Carolina and Virginia raised funds for a new school that became the Graham Institute. Rev. John R. Holt became the first head of the school followed by Prof. W. H. Droughtery, Dr. Will S. Long and Rev. Daniel A. Long. The Christian Church leased the building in 1886 and decided to turn it into a four-year school before moving to Mill Point, which was the beginning of Elon University.
One of the first commercial buildings constructed in the town was the Nicks Store Building on the south side of Court Square. At one time there was a carriage and harness factory near the Graham Presbyterian Church and a tanning yard on the site of Linwood Cemetery. Mercantile stores, small brick and frame offices, and hotels were built surrounding the courthouse. A drugstore, saloon, female seminary and several private dwellings were also erected in the area.
There has been gold in Graham’s history (or at least the word of it). After the big gold discovery in California in 1849, prior to the Civil War, there were rumors of a big vein of gold located south of Linwood Cemetery and fifty Irish miners were brought in to work. With the coming of the Civil War, the miners left their jobs to serve in the Confederate Army as replacements.
As Graham continued to grow, services also followed. They included a telephone exchange in the Simmons Drug Store in 1888 and the first paved streets in 1892. By this time, the railroad was firmly established, and many travelers came to the Graham depot. A stagecoach carried passengers from the depot to town and streetcars were later introduced.
One of the most famous visitors to Graham was Carrie Nation who made the trip in the early 1900s. This staunch prohibitionist made it a practice to go around the country denouncing alcohol use. She came to Graham with her eye set on three such establishments near the courthouse. H.W. Scott was the mayor at the time and informed the visitor that any such activity would be frowned upon and if she went through with her plan she would wind up in jail. Nation opted for lectures to the patrons of the barrooms before moving on.
In 1911, the Town of Graham bought a lot on West Elm Street to build a Firemen’s building. The citizens of Graham were proud of their first municipal building, which served many functions as attested in a 1914 Gleaner article stating: “The Town Commissioners have arranged to take care of farmers who happen to be here at night by giving them the use of the hall in the firemen’s building.” The town hall also housed the National Guard 30th Infantry Division Medical Detachment before World War II.