The railroad has always played an important part in the history of Laurinburg and the county. In 1853, it was announced that the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherfordton Railroad would come through, and the first trains ran in 1861, just in time to take a group of young men to fight in the Civil War. During the war, the railroad moved its shops from Wilmington to Laurinburg. The Northern fleet was concentrating a good deal of its effort on Fort Fisher, and the management felt that the shops would be safer inland. Railroad officials first located the shops here with the idea that they would be here for just a short time. However, they later purchased additional land, and the shops did stay until 1894. Many people in the town lived in fear that when the shops left, the entire economy of the area would collapse. Mr. Maxey John describes the feelings in his history:
“During all these years the fear of disaster should the shops move, was so apparent that even those who were able to build largely and permanently refused to do so, or as one of our citizens put it when his contractor told him he was planning a home he did not want, the owner said: ‘Build it so that if the shops leave and my business should be so crippled that I shall have to go, too, that I will lose as little as possible in selling out’.”
Fortunately, soon after the shops left, the textile industry started to move into the town. The railroad shops were instrumental in bringing prosperity and economic activity to help Laurinburg get started. The railroad continued to be an important part of the community. In the first half of the century, hundreds of car loads of cantaloupes and watermelons were shipped by rail from Laurinburg and the surrounding towns. In fact, Laurinburg called itself The Capital of the Cantaloupe World.
Another title Laurinburg has given itself is “The City of Beautiful Trees,” and efforts have been made from the town’s beginning to preserve our distinctive trees. An early ordinance read: “No person shall willfully, carelessly, or negligently damage or destroy any of the shade trees.”
Laurinburg received a good deal of national attention some years ago with the story of Cancetto Farmica, known locally as “Spaghetti.” Farmica, a carnival worker, was killed in 1911. The family never came to claim the body, and it was held by a local funeral home until it was buried in 1972. During the years, the body became a kind of tourist attraction.
To the east of Laurinburg proper is East Laurinburg. It was to East Laurinburg that the textile industry came. It was in the last days of the 19th century that the Waverly Mills operation began with the building of its first plant, Scotland Mill. The town of East Laurinburg is composed almost entirely of the villages, which were built around the textile plants. East Laurinburg is an incorporated town, legally separate from Laurinburg.
The oldest church in Laurinburg is the Laurinburg Presbyterian on West Church Street, an off-shoot of the Old Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church. This church was organized in 1859 and constructed a building in 1866 on the site of the present-day church. Many of the early settlers were Scots and Presbyterian, and there has been a strong Presbyterian influence in the community.
Laurinburg’s oldest public school is Central School (now closed). Built in 1909, it served as the only school for some years, containing both elementary and high school classes. Central School is no longer used as a school, but has been converted into elderly apartments.
The Laurinburg High School, a part of the public school system, was built on East Church Street in 1924 and was used as a high school until the building of Scotland High School. It was then used as a junior high school until it burned in 1973.
In the northern part of town are two other schools of much historic interest. Laurinburg Institute is the county’s oldest private school. This school, in its present location on McGirt’s Bridge Road and in its former location in the Newtown section, has served several generations of black students. It was founded in 1904 by Mr. E. M. McDuffie and is still operated by the McDuffie family. For many years this was the only school in town for black students, and at one time it operated as both a public and a private school. One interesting feature of the Institute in earlier days was the hospital, operated as a part of the school by Dr. N. E. Jackson. The school now operates as a preparatory school and has a long list of well-known graduates.
I. Ellis Johnson School was the black high school until the building of Scotland High School and the simultaneous integration and consolidation of all county schools. The school was named for Mr. I. Ellis Johnson, a long-time educational leader in the county and the first principal of the school.
It is fitting that we started and ended our imaginary tour of Laurinburg with schools. The town grew up around and school and actually derived its name from that school. It is also fitting that we begin our imaginary tour of the rest of the county with a school. Let us move to the south of Laurinburg and begin our tour of the county at St. Andrews Presbyterian College.
There is a legend to the effect that when the first Scottish settlers started moving up the Cape Fear River and inland from Wilmington, someone posted a sign which read, “The best land lies 100 miles west of here.” The story goes on that those who could read came to what is now Scotland County. This interest in things educational was rewarded in 1956 with the announcement that a new Presbyterian college was coming to the land of the Scots. Since its opening in 1961, St. Andrews has played a vital role in the life of the county.
St. Andrews University Campus
In September 1961, the first freshman class entered St. Andrews Presbyterian College. The campus, built on 800 acres just south of Laurinburg, boasted a contemporary architectural design. With the 70-acre lake as the focal point of the campus, the residence halls, athletic facilities, library and academic buildings included Celtic crosses as a unique design element. Ramps and electric doors were installed in the buildings, making St. Andrews one of the first colleges in the country to enable students with mobility difficulties to flourish at college. An innovative and bold academic venture to an interdisciplinary curriculum, a highly acclaimed college press, an award-winning pipe band, national champion equestrian teams, and first-rate scholarship have marked the distinctive character of St. Andrews. Bringing more than 10,000 students from around the country and world to Laurinburg, the College has played a vital role in the life of the county since its opening.
Courtesy of Betty P. Myers