What a wondrous sight for the first human eyes to behold when they looked upon this lush Eden of fertile lowlands, towering forests, and musical, pristine waters, cast against the magnificent backdrop of ancient, majestic mountains. This land has evolved from the first of America’s frontiers to the present-day treasure, rich in a history woven by Native Americans, trappers, hunters, explorers, homesteaders, soldiers, miners, botanists, inventors, religious leaders, playwrights, poets, scientists, musicians, educators, and everyday, special people.
Come explore our bountiful past. We invite you to become a part of the living memories that make Burke County unique and apart from any other place.
Berry Archaeological Site
It is the oldest site of European settlement in interior North America. Since 1986, digging has been underway in north Burke County at the site of a 1567 Spanish fort known as San Juan, also the location of a Native American settlement called Joara. Captain Juan Pardo built his fort in the Upper Catawba Valley as part of an effort to establish a secure transfer route for the treasures of Mexico. Archaeologists have exposed the ruins of four burned buildings and such Spanish artifacts as chain mail, shards of olive oil jars, and nails. Evidence suggests that the compound was attacked and destroyed in the spring of 1568. As part of the long-term research, Western Piedmont Community College and Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, offer summer classes for students who wish to assist at this vitally significant dig.
Overmountain Victory Trail
Morganton lies halfway along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, the 330-mile route taken by a hardy and patriotic band of citizen militia to combat and defeat British forces in 1780 at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Thomas Jefferson recognized the patriot settlers’ contribution as “that Turn of the Tide of Success” in the Revolution. The defeated British leader, Major Patrick Ferguson, had threatened to invade the mountains “and lay waste the country with fire and sword” if the rebels refused to come over to the British side. The militia mustered at Sycamore Shoals (now Elizabethton, TN) and came down out of the Blue Ridge near Spruce Pine, NC. A major historic landmark marks the passage of the small army through Burke County: the McDowell House at Quaker Meadows. Each year re-enactors gather for two weeks to retrace the famous route and commemorate key events.
North Carolina’s Gold Rush
When nuggets of gold weighing up to 28 pounds began turning up in Cabarrus County in 1799, North Carolina’s gold rush got underway in a flurry. By 1825, Burke and Rutherford Counties were leading the nation in gold mining. Miners and investors rushed to the area, mining towns boomed, and the Bechtler family created their famous mint north of Rutherfordton. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California coincided with diminishing returns from the Carolina mines, and suddenly the boom was over.
Burke County’s Civil War Legacy
Although no major battles were fought in Burke County during the Civil War, or even in western North Carolina, small scale raiding, reprisals, banditry, and wholesale cruelty were notorious in the area. Fiercely divided loyalties among communities and even families ensured lasting bitterness in the region. Major George W. Kirk, a Union raider operating from East Tennessee, led devastating raids into the Carolina piedmont. On June 28, 1864, Kirk attacked and destroyed a Confederate training camp, Camp Vance, near Morganton and fought a skirmish against Home Guard pursuers up what is now Highway 181. In April 1865, forces under Union commander General Alvan C. Gillem plundered and ravaged Burke County, ransacking homes, looting freely, and burning courthouse records. A statue and historic marker stands today at the Historic Morganton Courthouse commemorating the more than 1,000 Confederate soldiers from Burke County.
Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr. Library
Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr. achieved enduring fame in 20th century American politics as the brilliant and quotable Chairman of the Watergate Investigation Committee in the 1970s. The late senator was a formidable figure in constitutional law, renowned for his debating skills. A special library on the campus of Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton houses his collection of books, papers, and personal memorabilia. Located in the Phifer Learning Resources Center, the library allows visitors to walk through a reconstruction of the senator’s office, complete with original décor and furnishings. A bronze statue of “Senator Sam” was positioned in front of the Old Courthouse in the Spring of 2007 by The Morganton Public Art Committee and the Historic Burke Foundation. Alex Hallmark, the sculptor, also created the busts for the World War II Memorial located on the grounds of the Burke County Courthouse.
World War II Memorial
A monument honoring Burke County’s citizens who fought and died in World War II has been established on the courthouse grounds at the center of Morganton. This memorial was a project of the Burke Sunrise Rotary Club. In May 2006, Eagle Scout Matthew Zimmerman presented the town of Connelly Springs with a memorial dedicated in honor of all veterans who have served our country. The memorial can be seen at The Connelly Springs Town Hall.
Burke History Museum
The History Museum of Burke County, established in 2003, has begun a never-ending project to collect, preserve, display and honor our exceptional heritage. Explore stories of Native Americans who arrived in the area some 12,000 years ago, as well as Spanish soldiers who constructed the site of the oldest European settlement in interior North America in 1567.
Missionaries, tradespeople and explorers pioneered this frontier, marking the founding of Old Burke on June 1, 1777. Proud patriots marked the pages of history during the American Revolution. Located in downtown Morganton, the museum offers constantly changing exhibits and research material. As we travel through the 21st century, come “remember” what Burke County was – through the lives and vision of those who came before, leaving a legacy of great worth and quality of life. Visit the History Museum of Burke County soon and often!
Contact: 828-437-1777 www.thehistorymuseumofburke.org
Morganton Train Station/Railroad Depot
The Railroad Depot in Morganton has been restored to its 1916 appearance to offer visitors an opportunity to experience the era of steam locomotives and passenger and freight trains of the Western North Carolina Railroad in the 19th century. Exhibits include railroad equipment, telegraph, ticket counter, a “spittin’ stove,” vintage photographs and much more. A part of the North Carolina Department of Transportation Stations Improvement Program, the depot is slated for future use as a station for passenger service in western North Carolina.
Contact: 828-438-5272 www.thehistorymuseumofburke.org
The North Carolina School for the Deaf Museum and Cemetery
The North Carolina School for the Deaf (NCSD), established in 1894, is a day/residential facility for the education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. It is located on a beautiful and historic 160-acre campus in Morganton. Displayed in the small but impressive NCSD Historical Museum is a collection of memorabilia dating from the first classes at the institution in 1894. Along with numerous newspaper clippings are artifacts such as the massive 70-year-old bell that once hung in the campus service building and tolled on special occasions.
A nearby cemetery memorializes the lives of five people, among them, John Henry and Anna Barbara Stevelie, prominent citizens of Morganton. Mr. Stevelie served as tax collector, Justice of the Peace and in the State Legislature. He served on boards that founded First Presbyterian Church and Morganton Academy, the first school in Burke County. Mrs. Stevelie served as a deacon in First Presbyterian Church, an unusual role for a woman in that time. She was famous for the wedding cakes that she baked for many brides and owned several silk wedding gowns, which she loaned to brides for their special day. The Stevelies owned over 2,000 acres that included the present sites for Broughton Hospital, the J. Iverson Riddle Developmental Center, Western Piedmont Community College, and the North Carolina School for the Deaf. To request a tour, please call 828-432-5224 (TTY), e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the NCSD website at www.ncsd.net.
Heritage Museum/Historic Burke Courthouse/
Quaker Meadows Plantation
Built of native stone in the mid-1830s, Burke County’s historic courthouse is the oldest public building west of Salisbury and one of the oldest courthouses in the state. Supervised by Scottish architect James Binnie, the project was completed in 1837. The courthouse became the seat for the North Carolina Supreme Court’s August sessions between 1847 and 1862. During the Civil War, the courthouse was the subject of a Yankee raid, and while damage to the structure was minimal, nearly all of the public papers and court records were burned. The courthouse served as the seat of law and justice until 1976.
Housed in the Classic Revival-style courthouse is the Heritage Museum, which offers changing displays founded on the rich history of Burke County.
Built in 1812 by Captain Charles McDowell, Jr., son of Revolutionary War leader Charles McDowell, Quaker Meadows Plantation became a thriving plantation of over 1,500 acres by 1850. On this property in September 1780, patriot soldiers met under a giant oak tree, which became known as the “Council Oak,” and laid the plans which led to the defeat of the loyalists under Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain. This was the turning point of the war in the South. Located at 119 St. Mary’s Church Road, about .2 miles from its intersection with Highway 181 North, the plantation is open Sunday afternoons 2:00 - 5:00 p.m., April through November, and by appointment at other times.
Contact: 828-437-4104 www.historicburke.orgx