Henderson County: 80+ Important Facts, Firsts, and More Historic Tidbits

Last Updated on October 5, 2021

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Henderson County, North Carolina is known for some of our best mountain towns, including Hendersonville. We’ve covered things to do in Hendersonville, the area’s great restaurants, and beyond, with many of them among the most bucket-list-worthy attractions.

However, we think there are some important Henderson County facts and historical tidbits that everyone should know about, too!

We’ll start with important geographical facts and features of the area before providing a chronological history.

Here’s how we’ve organized this guide (categories in bold, followed by subcategories):

  • Henderson County Travel Guides
  • Geography and Climate Info
  • Henderson County History
  • Native American Inhabitants (10,000 BC to 1700s)
  • Spanish Explorers, William Mills, and Early Settlers (1540 to Early 1800s)
  • Becoming Henderson County (1800 to 1861)
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction (1861 to 1879)
  • Railroads and More Technological Advances (1879 to 1900)
  • Early 20th Century Tourism Boom and More Growth (1900 to 1945)
  • NC Apple Festival, DuPont State Forest, and More (1945 to Today)
  • Sources Used

This post is part of our series on facts about North Carolina.

Henderson County Travel Guides

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of Henderson County, here are some posts we’ve created that cover the area:

Physical Geography and Climate

Henderson County NC Bearwallow Mountain
Bearwallow Mountain.
  • The Blue Ridge Mountain Range of the Southern Appalachian Mountains in Western North Carolina is located here.
  • At 4,232 feet, Bearwallow Mountain is the highest mountain in Henderson County’s portion of this range.
  • The Eastern Continental Divide, which separates Atlantic-flowing waters and those that flow toward the Gulf of Mexico, also runs through Henderson County.
  • The Eastern Continental Divide is also responsible for the area’s climate, which depends on your current elevation. Higher elevations in the northwestern end see milder temperatures and more rainfall. Relatively hotter temperatures and less rainful occur in the valleys. This interesting mix of climate is why this area has seen visitors from hotter areas for centuries. We’ll share more about that shortly.
  • Multiple rivers run through Henderson County. They include the French Broad River, the Mills River, the Little Hungry River, the Green River, the Rocky Broad River, and the Pacolet River.
  • Those rivers are surrounded by tributaries that include Cane Creek, Mud Creek, Clear Creek, and Hoopers Creek.
  • Some of the mountains here are escarpments, which means a steep slope or long cliff that has occurred from erosion or faulting. In fact (no pun intended), the Blue Ridge Escarpment in parts of Henderson County is where the Piedmont (typical of Central North Carolina) and mountains meet.
  • Bat Cave, at the border of Henderson and Rutherford counties, is North America’s largest granite fissure cave.

Political Geography (Where is Henderson County?)

Henderson County NC
Image Credit: State Library of North Carolina.
  • Henderson County borders one county in South Carolina (Greenville) six NC counties, including Buncombe County (north), Rutherford County (northeast), Polk County (east), Transylvania County (west), and Haywood County (northwest).
  • The county’s land area is 373 square miles.
  • Hendersonville is the county seat and it’s joined by the incorporated towns of Fletcher, Laurel Park, Mills River, and the Village of Flat Rock, among multiple unincorporated communities.

History

Native American Inhabitants (10,000 BC to 1700s)

  • Before it was a thriving county in Western NC, the area primarily served as Native American hunting grounds and part of a trading path.
  • They agreed with their bitter enemies, the Catawba People, to divide land along the Broad River. Land west of it, which is part of today’s Henderson County, was occupied by Cherokee People.
  • Remnants of Cherokee villages have been found in Henderson County, thanks to archaeological evidence.
  • However, they didn’t live in the area later than 10,000 BC.
  • Due to intense fighting between the Cherokee and their neighbors, Henderson County was as a “no man’s land” prior to European settlement.
  • Thus, there were no claims on any land in Henderson County when the Cherokee signed a treaty in 1767 with then-Royal Governor William Tryon. This was a precursor to further treaties, none of which favored the Cherokee and other Native American people.

Spanish Explorers, William Mills, and Early Settlers (1540 to Early 1800s)

Henderson County NC Sky Top Orchard Flat Rock
Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock.
  • 16th century Spanish explorers explored present-day Western North Carolina in search of gold and it’s believed that some passed through the Henderson County area.
  • Two explorers (John Needham and Gabriel Arthur) are believed to have entered parts of Henderson County in 1673. They were seeking trade with the Cherokee and traveled through modern day Bat Cave and Gerton.
  • Throughout the 18th century to at least 1768, Henderson County was visited by travelers, traders, and even the British Military during an expedition against the Cherokee in 1715.
  • The Colony of North Carolina formed Old Tryon County in 1868. This included land east of the Continental Divide in today’s Henderson County.
  • Some settlers lived in the area before and during the Revolutionary War, but William Mills, his wife Eleanor, and their family are the most notable names to permanently settle here in 1787.
  • Each year, Mr. Mills planted hundreds of fruit trees. His neighbors followed along, leading to Henderson County’s thriving apple orchards that we all know today.
  • Multiple other crops thrived here, and agriculture remains a dominant part of the Henderson County economy and landscape.
  • Along with agriculture, tourism was a contributor to the local economy. In fact, Flat Rock was long referred to as “Little Charleston,” thanks to the planters and Low Country residents who ventured this way for milder summer retreats.

Becoming Henderson County (1800 to 1859)

  • Many of Henderson County’s first roads were constructed between 1800 and 1840.
  • While largely rural, the area continued to grow in population. Henderson County was eventually formed in 1838 from land taken from the southern end of Buncombe County.
  • In 1840, the population of Henderson County was 5,129.
  • Both the county and city of Hendersonville are named for North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Leonard Henderson
  • Hendersonville was incorporated in 1841 and has remained the center of Henderson County activity ever since.
  • Henderson County physically shrunk in size in 1851 when eastern portions of it were used to form Polk County.

The Civil War and Reconstruction (1861 to 1868)

  • During the Civil War, more than 1,200 Henderson County men served in the Confederate Army.
  • About 158 men from the county also served for the Union Army.
  • At least one enslaved Black person and one free Black person from Henderson County are recorded as having served for the Confederacy.
  • 342 on the Confederate side died, with 19 on the Union side making the ultimate sacrifice.
  • Land was also lost during the war, as Transylvania County was formed from Henderson in 1861.
  • Henderson County citizens tried to pick up the pieces after the war. The county saw much destruction and a decrease in population due to death, disease, and a low birthrate.
  • Seeking a new start, many Black people left the county to move north and a lot of White people also moved to the Western US.
  • Newly freed Black people and white farmers began sharecropping on land not destroyed during the war.
  • Black churches were also established by those who stuck around after the war. Shaw’s Creek African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is officially recognized as the first, starting service in 1865.
  • While Black people enjoyed new freedoms, the NC State Legislature moved to restrict them by passing Black Codes in 1866. These were common throughout the South after the Civil War. While it’s believed the North Carolina’s Black Codes were less restrictive than neighboring states, they still restricted the right to vote, serve on juries, movement in and out of the state, among other horrible abuses.
  • A community known as the “Kingdom of the Happy Land” was established by Black migrants between 1867 and 1868. It’s believed that the railroad’s arrival led to the decline of this community.

Railroads and More Technological Advances (1879 to 1900)

  • The 1880s and 1890s were huge for Henderson County, especially regarding technological advances.
  • Southern Railway ran its first train through Hendersonville on July 4, 1879. The town’s first station was built soon after. Access to rails meant Henderson County was easier to reach for tourists and local farmers were able to ship their surplus crops.
  • Saluda, then in Henderson County, was incorporated in 1881.
  • Hendersonville received its first phonograph on August 22, 1892.
  • In 1889, another depot was built in today’s East Flat Rock.
  • Street Railway cars began running in Hendersonville in 1890.
  • Hendersonville’s streets were first paved with bricks in 1895.
  • The 10 week long Spanish-American War received an unknown number of men from Henderson County and two recorded deaths.
  • Telephone service arrived in Hendersonville in 1899.
  • Nearly tripling the 1840 count, the population of Henderson County increased to 14,104 by 1900.

Early 20th Century Tourism Boom and More Growth (1900 to World War II)

Henderson County NC Connemara Goats Carl Sandburg Home
Connemara Goats at the Carl Sandburg Home.
  • Henderson County, and Hendersonville in particular, became a tourist destination, especially during the relatively milder summers here.
  • Hotels began popping up in the area to accommodate travelers. By 1900, 5 hotels and 20 stores had been established in Hendersonville.
  • In 1902, Hendersonville’s original train depot proved too small for growing railway traffic, so a new one replaced it.
  • Saluda was given to Polk County in 1903, though small parts of it remain in Henderson County today.
  • The first WNC Fair kicked off in 1903 in Laurel Park.
  • Henderson County formed a Merchants Association in 1911. It would eventually became the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce.
  • In 1915, the city suffered its most infamous fire, which destroyed the St Johns Hotel, located on Main St and Second Avenue. It was followed by the Flood of 1916, Henderson County’s worst natural disaster to date.
  • Pisgah National Forest was formed in 1916, largely halting Henderson County’s timber industry.
  • Between 1917 and 1918, about 1,000 men served for the US during World War I. 19 died as a result of the war.
  • After the war, Henderson County experienced the Roaring Twenties like the rest of the US. Entertainment big names like Cab Callaway performed in the area.
  • The Town of Laurel Park, west of Hendersonville, was incorporated on February 28, 1925. This mostly residential community is also known for Jump Off Rock, a popular roadside overlook and park.
  • East Flat Rock incorporated in 1926. However, its citizens would vote to dissolve the incorporation in 1950.
  • Nearly 25 years after the Wright Brothers “First Flight,” the Asheville-Hendersonville Airport began service in 1928.
  • The American Legion took over the WNC Fair in the 1930s, moving it to where East Henderson High School sits today.
  • Robroy Farquhar and his Vagabond Players began performing in the area in 1940. After years of success, they decided to build a large, permanent home. Today, we know it as the Flat Rock Playhouse.
  • In 1945, Carl and Lillian Sandburg relocated to a 246-acre property in Flat Rock, known as Connemara. Mr. Sandburg spent the remaining 22 years of his life here. Visitors to today’s Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site can tour the famous writer’s home, see Lillian’s champion goats, and hike around the grounds.

NC Apple Festival, DuPont State Forest, and More (1945 to Today)

Hooker Falls DuPont State Recreational Forest NC
Hooker Falls inside DuPont State Forest.
  • The first-ever North Carolina Apple Blossom Festival took place in 1947. Its name later changed to the NC Apple Festival.
  • Flat Rock Playhouse was designated as the official theatre of North Carolina in 1961.
  • Also in 1961, the Asheville Regional Airport opened in Fletcher, replacing the Asheville-Hendersonville Airport.
  • From 1963 to 1971, roughly 3,000 Henderson County men and women served in the Vietnam War. 16 men were killed in action.
  • In 1964, school segregation ended in Henderson County.
  • 1967 was a big year for transportation in Henderson County. Passenger service ended at the Hendersonville Depot that year.
  • Interstate 26 (I-26) opened from Asheville to Hendersonville in 1967, too.
  • Holmes Educational State Forest was established in 1977 and is managed by the North Carolina Forest Service.
  • The Hendersonville Parks Department and some local citizens saved the town’s train station from being demolished in 1980.
  • The Seventh Avenue Depot District of Hendersonville was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
  • The Town of Fletcher in Northern Henderson County (bordering Buncombe County) incorporated in June, 1989.
  • In 1992, the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club moved into the former Hendersonville Depot. The building is also occasional used for official city functions.
  • The WNC Fair became part of the North Carolina Mountain State Fair, which opened in Fletcher for five days in 1994. It has since grown to a 10-day event in September.
  • The Village of Flat Rock was incorporated in April 1995.
  • In 1997, the area’s DuPont silicon plant closed. Some of the land owned by the company was sold to the State of North Carolina. The land was transformed into DuPont State Recreational Forest, managed by the North Carolina Forest Service. It has grown to a 12,500 public space shared with Transylvania County. Visitors can explore more than 80 miles of multi-use trails and roads. Hollywood movies such as the first Hunger Games have filmed here.
  • From more than 14,000 in 1900, the county’s total population was recorded at 89,173 by 2000.
  • Mills River was incorporated on June 24, 2003.
  • The rest of Downtown Hendersonville was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
  • Sierra Nevada Brewing joins the North Carolina beer scene in 2015 by opening a brewery, distribution center, and taproom in Mills River.

What are Your Favorite Facts?

Today, Henderson County is home to thriving and growing communities. Its population has surpassed 100,000 and continues to increase.

We love visiting this area and hope to keep sharing our favorite Henderson County facts and things to do with you. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you.

Do you have any favorite facts from the ones we shared? Or do you have any to add? We’d be interested to read them in the comments or by email!

Sources Used

We could not have completed this guide without the following sources:

Thank you to everyone involved with these local and statewide initiatives.

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