Stem’s story started at depot
Southern Granville County in the late 1800s was mostly rural farmland and forest that was purchased ...
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Southern Granville County in the late 1800s was mostly rural farmland and forest that was purchased with British pounds sterling by owners who could trace their recent roots back to England. The area included a number of small settlements dotting the landscape with names like Shoefly, Knapp Of Reeds, Shakerag and Tally Ho.
It wasn’t until there was talk of the railroad being built that would bisect Granville County from Keesville, Virginia, to Durham, North Carolina, that things would begin to change.
It was then in 1886-87 that a small group of landowners and businessmen met with officials of the now Southern Railroad and entered into talks discussing the building of a depot near Tally Ho. It was these forward-thinking men who saw the potential for improvement and growth that would change the landscape of South Granville.
The names of these men were T.G. Bullock, O.F. Bullock, H.A. Stem, W.J. Stem, W.H. Jones, C. Hopkins and W.T. Stem.
In 1888, these men pooled their resources in the amount of $1,800, which in today’s currency is the equivalent of over $50,000, and had the depot built. W.T. Stem owned most of the land around where the depot was going to be built, and it was his donation of land that made the railroad and depot possible.
The railroad was completed, and the first passenger train passed through on Aug. 15, 1888. What was once a rough day-long wagon ride to Durham became a wondrous train carriage ride of a much shorter duration — and more importantly, opened new markets for the goods produced by the surrounding landowners.
It was at this time that Mr. Stem also donated the land on which the Methodist Episcopal Church was built and still stands today and is known as the Stem United Methodist Church. Those men and their families had a very strong Christian faith, and their descendants and others still worship there today.
What was known as Stem Crossroads quickly was shortened to Stem, which was named after Mr. Stem and his family for their contribution to the town and the fact that he owned most of the land that it encompassed.
The town became incorporated in 1911 and included all lands 880 yards in all directions from the town public well at the center of the crossroads, and Mr. E.E. Bullock became the first mayor. Mr. Stem’s family home, considered the oldest structure in town, still stands, and he, his wife and members of his family, along with others, are buried in what was their family cemetery on their farm property and is now known as the Stem Historic Cemetery on Franklin Street.
The public well was located in the center of town, around which most of the town’s activities took place. It was hand dug, stone lined, 30 feet deep, and fed by an underground stream. This was a vital addition to the town, as all the movement of people and goods at the time was mostly by mule, and both people and animals alike needed to be watered and rested while making deliveries to the depot and doing business in the town.
This well was in constant use and was used by people and businesses until motorized vehicles began to replace the mules and gasoline polluted the well. The location of the well could be seen at the crossroads well into the late 1990s, and there are still local residents who can point to where it existed.
Events happened quickly once the depot opened. The post office, which at the time was located in Tally Ho, was quickly relocated to Stem in the fall of 1889, and in 1903, RFD (rural free delivery) began in the surrounding area. The town got electricity in the early 1920s.
The first building was erected by W.T. Stem shortly after the depot, and housed a mercantile operated by Mayes and Stark. The Bank of Stem opened on June 11, 1908, with a capital investment of $5,000, and it is said to have been the first bank in Granville County. Joseph H. Gooch, a prominent citizen and business owner, became the first bank president.
In the 1920s, Stem was considered the third-largest town in Granville County, and over the years, more than 25 businesses were located in Stem, with some lasting into the 1970s. As time went on, these businesses closed or moved on, and the buildings fell into disrepair and were demolished.
On April 1, 1928, a fire began, and with the accompanying winds destroyed six of the original buildings housing many of those businesses. The last surviving original building that a business occupied was owned and operated by Otho Mangum and still stands at the corner of West Tally Ho Road and Main Street.
The town residents quickly saw the need for a school, and the first one opened as a private school in the late 1890s, but it wasn’t until 1907 that the town of Stem got its first public school. The town was rapidly growing and realized the need for a larger school to educate those of Stem and the surrounding communities.
The new school was completed in 1922 next to the old one, which was converted into dormitories for the teachers. It was in use until 1962 when it was closed because of declining enrollment and students began attending South Granville School.
Many town residents still remember attending the Stem school. The school was later demolished, but two of the original buildings still stand and are located on Old 75 next to the fire station annex.
The home economics building, whose basement housed the cafeteria, has become a private home, and the ag building became The Tally Ho Trader, which is now closed.
An interesting anecdote that is said to happen is the time the 1936 championship-winning Stem basketball team was treated to attend a UNC basketball game. When the opposing team was unable to make it because of a freak snowstorm, the Stem team volunteered to sub, and it was agreed upon.
UNC and Stem played it close, shot for shot to the end, with Stem making the winning shot at the buzzer!
The decline of the town of Stem started slowly with the advent of the automobile and its availability to the general public. In 1922, the state built U.S. Route 15, which traveled north from South Carolina to Virginia passing through Creedmoor, bypassing Stem, and became a main thoroughfare.
But largely, the advent of World War II caused a major shift in the town. In 1941, the War Department needed to build another army base for training and the city of Durham was promoting an area to the north that encompassed parts of three counties, but mostly Granville County.
In 1942, the Army claimed eminate domain and confiscated approximately 40,000 acres of land, displacing hundreds of families who had worked that land for generations. Sadly, many were also tenant farmers who received no compensation and had nowhere to go.
These people were given a 30-day notice to vacate their premises; one landowner noted they burned his house to the ground the next day. It is said these families also made a great sacrifice for the greater good of the Country in a time of war.
Within six months, 1,700 buildings were erected at Camp Butner with all the latest infrastructure. It had water, sewer, electricity and paved roads, and it housed over 35,000 soldiers. What is not common knowledge is that it also housed German and Italian prisoners of war.
Another noteworthy fact relating to the war pertained to a Mrs. Lucy Hardee Olsen, a Stem resident, who became a Granville County teacher. At a point in time, she and her family moved to the Philippines, and she became a teacher at the American School. While there, her husband, two children and herself became prisoners of war and were held in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp.
One of her daughters contracted tubercular meningitis and died while imprisoned, and Mrs. Olsen’s legs were badly damaged by exploding ordnance. When liberated by Gen. MacArther, she was awarded the Purple Heart.
After the war, the town of Stem continued along as a self-sustaining quiet rural close-knit town with approximately 230 residents, the same population as in 1920s, with no significant change up until the 1980s when housing began to expand.
With the town’s small area and no manufacturing, it wasn’t until 2002 that the landscape for Stem began to change again. Water and sewer were being installed throughout the town, and it brought major changes by the way of residential subdivisions. By 2010 the population had doubled and by 2020 it had doubled again.
The town of Stem is now the fastest-growing community with the highest household median income in Granville County. The town is poised for the next surge in development to come as major corporations continue to move to the Triangle area and developers look north for potential residential and commercial growth.
On a personal note, my wife and I are privileged to reside in one of the original heavy timber homes on Sunset Street built in 1920. It was owned by Nellye Roberts Tunstall until her passing in 2013 at the age of 98.
Her father operated one of the original stores in town for many years, and our next-door neighbor is Joe Gooch, who at 95 is the oldest living town resident. There are still many descendants of the original founding families of Stem proudly living in the community.
I would like to express my gratitude to Vicki Coley Garrett, who lives in the house once owned by her grandfather and is one of the oldest and grandest homes in town. Thank you for loaning me the resources from which I gleaned the above information. It is accurate to the best of my ability.
Dave Pavlus is a town of Stem commissioner and a member of the Granville County 275th Anniversary Planning Committee.
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