Charlotte Firsts | Charlotte's got a lot | Charlotte NC Travel & Tourism
The official travel resource

Charlotte Firsts

Belk department stores, opened first in Monroe in 1888 and soon after in Uptown Charlotte, became the Southâs leading regional retailer. Today, almost 300 stores from Maryland to Texas carry the Belk slogan âModern. Southern. Style.â
Belk department stores, opened first in Monroe in 1888 and soon after in Uptown Charlotte, became the South’s leading regional retailer. Today, almost 300 stores from Maryland to Texas carry the Belk slogan “Modern. Southern. Style.”

By Tom Hanchett

At the first of the year, let’s take a look back at Charlotte’s many firsts. Innovations developed here over the years have touched every part of the nation. Some findings were big and impressive, like the rise of huge banks and the growth of national retailers such as Lowe’s Home Improvement and Family Dollar. Others were small and quirky, including Lance’s beloved peanut butter snack crackers and the orange traffic barrels that pepper highway construction sites.

The Meck Dec, 1775
Was America’s first Declaration of Independence written in the Queen City? While most scholars deny it, local tradition holds that Charlotte farmers signed a Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on May 20, 1775, more than a year before the nation’s Declaration of Independence. No copies have ever been found. National experts, such as Constitutional historian Pauline Maier, label the notion of a “Meck Dec” as “simply incredible.” On May 31, 1775, citizens did sign Mecklenburg Resolves, which declared the authority of the King to be “null and void” but stopped short of demanding independence. The Resolves were published in newspapers of the time, unlike the supposed “Meck Dec.”   

First gold discovery, 1799/First branch of the U.S. Mint, 1837
The phrase, “there’s no gold in the U.S.” seemed an established fact until 12-year-old Conrad Reed, playing in a creek 25 miles east of Charlotte in 1799, stumbled upon a 17-pound rock that glittered. His parents used it as a doorstop until a sharp-eyed jeweler offered them $3.50 for it. Gold mines sprouted across the region, including in what is now Uptown Charlotte and South End. In 1837, the first branch of the U.S. Mint opened here as a location to stamp gold into coins. Today, you can visit the Reed Gold Mine historic site near Albemarle, North Carolina, and view the reconstructed 1837 U.S. Mint at the Mint Museum Randolph.

National retailers, 1880s - present
Belk department stores, opened first in Monroe in 1888 and soon after in Uptown Charlotte, became the South’s leading regional retailer. Today, almost 300 stores from Maryland to Texas carry the Belk slogan “Modern. Southern. Style.” Other homegrown merchants with even wider footprints include Family Dollar, which opened in 1959 on Central Avenue and operates around 8,100 locations in 48 states today, and Lowe’s Home Improvement, which launched in 1946 in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, but is now headquartered near Mooresville, North Carolina. It manages more than 1,840 stores throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Air conditioning, 1905  
Try to imagine the growth of today’s South without air conditioning. Willis Carrier installed a pioneering system in The Chronicle Mills in Belmont, North Carolina, just west of Charlotte: the beginning of the well-known Carrier brand. It wasn’t designed to make workers comfortable but rather to provide constant temperature and humidity for the cotton itself. In 1905, Carrier’s chief rival, Stuart Cramer of Charlotte, filed the first patent to use the term “air conditioning.”  

Lance Crackers, 1913   
Philip Lance took a shipment of peanuts as payment on a bad debt and found himself in the food business in 1913. His wife, Mary, and their two daughters came up with the idea of spreading peanut butter on crackers. The snappy little packages found many customers among those who worked long hours in Carolina textile mills. Lance became one of America’s first snack brands.

NASCAR stock car racing, 1949  
A group of promoters, drivers, car owners and mechanics, led by Bill France Sr. in Florida, dreamed up NASCAR. But it was in Charlotte on June 19, 1949, that the first NASCAR Strictly Stock (now NASCAR Sprint Cup Series) race was held. The audience loved seeing race cars they could relate to, and that’s still what makes NASCAR go round. Many of the sport’s most innovative promoters, engineers and drivers, from Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler to the Pettys and Earnhardts, have made the Charlotte region their home base over the years.

Jail, No Bail sit-ins, 1961   
By February 1961, many Southern lunch counters had begun to serve black patrons, thanks to the Sit-in Movement that began in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. But Rock Hill, South Carolina, just outside of Charlotte, remained segregated. So nine students at Friendship College tried a new tactic: sit down, get arrested and serve jail time over paying bail. The strategy made national headlines and became a powerful part of the Civil Rights Movement. It is best remembered in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s poignant “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

The birth of funk music, 1965   
James Brown, “Godfather” of the rhythm-based music called funk, made the genre’s landmark record in Charlotte. On tour from his home in Georgia, he pulled into country star Arthur Smith’s studio, now Studio East on Monroe Road, with a new sound buzzing in his head. That 1965 record, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” was named one of Rolling Stone’s top 100 records of all time. A few years later, George Clinton, born just east of Charlotte in Kannapolis, took funk to a cosmic level with his Parliament/Funkadelic/P-Funk bands, still touring the world today.

Computer-linked ATMs, 1978  
Interstate banking would not have been possible without the Automatic Teller Machine. ATMs linked together by computers meant that banks could operate cheaply over a huge geography. Several previous inventors built machines that dispensed cash, but it was IBM that designed and manufactured computer-linked ATMs at UNC-Charlotte’s University Research Park. In 1978, Charlotte-based First Union National Bank (predecessor of Wachovia National Bank and now Wells Fargo) became the first bank to build a large system of ATMs nationally.

Interstate banking, 1980s
Strict laws limited banks to one state until Charlotte mogul Hugh McColl began working toward a new vision. In 1982, he led a team from Charlotte’s North Carolina National Bank, who found a way to legally buy a bank in Lake City, Florida. That opened the door. In 1985, he helped craft the Interstate Banking Compact, which allowed banks in the Southeast to expand across state lines. By 1998, McColl sat at the helm of Bank of America, the nation’s first coast-to-coast bank. Today, it’s the largest U.S. bank, and it’s still headquartered in Charlotte.

Ball-crawl playgrounds, 1982  
"I was at a public park one day, looking at playground equipment," recalled Charlotte designer Jack Pentes. "The stuff hasn't changed since I was a kid, and that was 50 years ago … and I remember my old playground giving bruised knees and scraped fingers." Pentes began devising an entirely new kind of play environment, now known as the “soft playground.”  He sold his first system to Chuck E. Cheese in 1982. Subsequently, most of the major fast food chains became his customers.

Orange traffic barrels, 1985  
Once upon a time, awkward and dangerous 55-gallon metal drums marked highway construction zones. Tom Cory, an engineer at Radiator Specialty Company in Charlotte, had a better idea: to make lightweight, safe barrels out of plastic. A copy of his 1985 patent is on display at the Levine Museum of the New South. His famous barrels are everywhere.

This article ran in the January 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.

Related Topics
Related Topics