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Main Streets

"Main Street"--the principal business street-- was the most important symbol of small-town commerce in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the county's railroad towns this corridor was invariably oriented to the tracks.

Main Street, Pineville

In Pineville, Matthews, and Cornelius the main business street ran perpendicular to the railroad, while in Huntersville it squarely faced the tracks at the site of the depot. Thus the first impression of a visitor stepping off the train at Huntersville was one of a place geared to commerce. Yet the small-town business areas were historically modest in scale, reflecting populations that averaged only about nine hundred residents by 1930. The retailing cores of Pineville and Matthews consumed about one block. Early rows of stores in Huntersville and Cornelius occupied merely one side of a block, with other general stores or smaller pockets of retail establishments located nearby.

Main Street, Huntersville

In Cornelius, for example, the prominent Stough-Cornelius Company operated in a building strategically sited beside the railroad tracks, where Catawba Avenue--a busy trade route from the Catawba River--joined Statesville Road. A portion of this structure still exists. Another cluster of stores lined the railroad tracks, at the intersection of the two thoroughfares. They were small, narrow, mostly utilitarian frame buildings ("shoebox stores," according to one observer), that have all been razed. 13 But it was two blocks west, along Catawba Avenue, that a neat row of storefronts would eventually define the commercial center. These stores faced the Cornelius Mill. By the 1940s the plant's main south wall extended along the northern edge of the block, creating a distinctly enclosed setting where the busy hum of the mill mingled with the commercial life of the town.

Two views of Catawba Avenue, Cornelius

Main Streets offered a spectrum of goods and services. The county business directories published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries recorded an assortment of general stores, livery stables, drug stores, banks, hotels and post offices. Main Street, Pineville at the turn of the century was simply characterized as having "ten stores and two bars." Cotton gins, grist and saw mills, blacksmith shops, and other small industries (Huntersville contained a marble works and Pineville a carriage manufacturer in 1896) were typically located away from Main Street, often along a back alley. 14

Although there were few pretenses to beauty, Main Streets fit together at the beginning of the twentieth century as attractive, if not distinctive, business settings. They were pedestrian places where farmers and town residents walked to do their shopping. Perhaps all of the towns maintained rows of shade trees along their business streets, as shown in an early postcard view of Matthews. Buildings were one or two stories high and normally constructed of red brick. Brick commercial blocks embodied permanence and prosperity in these young towns, and clearly differentiated places of business from the predominately wood-frame residential areas. The masonry was frequently made on or near the construction site, but as commercial districts expanded, brick yards with permanent kilns producing better-quality, less porous bricks appeared. By 1910 Cornelius, for example, had a brick yard situated along the railroad tracks. The more enterprising merchants also installed shop fronts with large plate-glass display windows embellished with fancy bracketed cornices. The finest interiors boasted pressed-tin ceilings. Storekeepers ordered all of these stylish features from out-of-town manufacturers and received them--ready for installation--by rail. 15

Perhaps the county's most impressive remaining small-town commercial district is in Matthews. Between the 1890s and 1930s the 100 block of Trade Street, west of the railroad tracks, developed into rows of brick buildings accommodating general merchandise stores, a livery stable, post office, bank, drug store, and hotel. Back alleys held a grist mill and blacksmith shop on the north side, and T. J. Renfrow's cotton gin on the south side, behind Renfrow's general store.

Renfrow's Store, Matthews

While Trade Street has not been exempt from physical changes over the decades, it continues to feature a host of important early buildings that exemplify the small-town business district. The north side retains a significant section of the Funderburk Brothers Building. Built in 1891, the building's facade includes its original shop front for the dry goods store, with display windows flanking a traditional recessed entryway. To the east, the former Matthews Post Office is an exemplary small-town postal facility of the Depression era. Dedicated for service in 1939, the one-story brick building with sturdy granite columns was designed to foster public confidence in governmental functions during these economically hard times. 17

The Funderburk Building

The south side of Trade Street includes the original Matthews Post Office, built about 1892. This one-story frame building with a simple false front has miraculously survived the street's early blazes and widespread enthusiasm for brick construction. To the north, T. J. Renfrow and Son General Store was erected in the heart of the block at the turn of the century. The one-story brick building consists of a matching pair of storefront bays with large display windows designed for pedestrian traffic. The facade has such stylish touches as decorative wood moldings defining the base of each bay, and fancy brick corbeling along the cornice. Today known as Renfrow's Hardware, it has added significance as Matthew's sole surviving general store that is still engaged in the dry goods trade. 18

The most striking building on Trade Street as well as the epitome of Main Street architecture in the county is Heath and Reid General Store. Erected in the 1880s, the two-and-a-half-story structure commands its setting by the railroad tracks. In the fashion of the period, the rectangular brick facade includes arched second-story windows and attic vents, and subtle brick detailing. Its shop front encompasses the first story in grand style, with a bracketed cornice and expansive multi-paned windows, that flood the interior with natural light. The store was constructed of bricks made from clay dug out of site. "They were all stamped out by a mold, like people used to stamp out butter," a Matthews resident once recalled.

Heath-Reid Store

The store's prime location, directly across from the railroad tracks and depot, expressed the commercial aspirations of owners E. J. Heath and E. S. Reid. They were Matthews' only merchants to advertise in the Charlotte business directory, displaying a line engraving of their new building amidst a throng of potential customers. The store, in fact, "was a beehive of activity" during Trade Street's heyday. The front of the establishment was stocked with a myriad of items for the ladies, while groceries were sold at the rear. On Saturdays farmers came here for seed, fertilizer, flour, sugar, and assorted other goods. And like general merchants throughout the county, Heath and Reid often furnished these supplies in exchange for portions of the cotton harvests. 19