As a boy growing up in Mount Holly in the 1960s, Eric Wilson knew firsthand that each thundercloud had a silver lining. His grandmother, Mena Hunter Wilson, wasn’t fond of storms, so she would call down to Eric’s parents whenever one began to roll in.
“She would always call my mom and dad and say, ‘Send one of the kids to come sit with me during the storm,’” recalled Eric, now 63. “I would tell my grandmother, ‘Grandma, tell us a story,’ and she would go back in her memory books and tell us how things were.”
It was there in his grandmother’s house at the corner of West Glendale Avenue and South Hawthorne Street in Mount Holly during stormy afternoons that Eric Wilson first became familiar with the legend of his great-grandfather Ransom Hunter, Mena’s father.
Hunter was born into slavery only to become one of the area’s most successful businessmen following the Civil War, lifting up other folks like him who had survived slavery in the Carolinas and playing an important but largely forgotten role in forming the community that would become Mount Holly.
In the 1870s, Hunter built the house where a century later Eric would sit on the floor and listen to stories from his grandmother.
“There were some bad times; she told us some stories of Klans coming to the house as a small girl, harassing Ransom,” Wilson told Queen City Nerve. “It was not all hunky-dory, there was some challenging times.”
Yet so much of what he learned from his grandmother was uplifting, including how Hunter had built up his own land only to then sell to other formerly enslaved people escaping post-Reconstruction violence and turmoil in South Carolina, forming the Freedom community.
Wilson has dedicated a large part of his life to preserving his great-grandfather’s legacy, becoming a self-taught family historian and tracing his grandmother’s stories back through time to confirm the truths behind the legends of Ransom Hunter.
“I went back from her mouth all the way back to Africa,” Wilson said.
Now, as Wilson nears retirement and plans to move back to Mount Holly from Greensboro, where he currently works as an architect, he hopes to bring his work to a close by accomplishing a goal that he and other descendants of Ransom Hunter have fought for over the past 10 years: to turn Ransom Hunter’s former homesite into a public park.
One man’s journey
It is believed that both of Ransom Hunter’s parents were brought to America on slave ships, though Eric Wilson has only found documentation of his father’s arrival, listed in the manifest as “Slave No. 13.”
Ransom’s father was sold at auction in Charleston to the owners of the Middleton Plantation, where he met his wife, who had been given the name Julia, and they took the last name Hunter after one of the overseers on the property. The two were officially married at Middleton, and it is believed that Ransom was the couple’s only son. He was born on March 14, 1825.
At 13 years old, Ransom was torn apart from his parents, sold off to the owners of the Hoyle Plantation in Gaston County between what are now the towns of Dallas and Stanley. He was kept on the Hoyle Plantation for more than two decades until he was freed around 1860 in the lead-up to the Civil War.
He bought a small parcel of land in the Woodlawn community that would later become Mount Holly, but before he could start a new life post-slavery, there was something he needed to do.
“When he was freed, the first thing he did was he went to try to find his mom and dad,” Wilson said, “and he went back to South Carolina and he was told that they had died. So he never saw his parents again. That was very traumatic for him. So he came back to his property and he started to establish his life.”
Ransom Hunter’s property was in an advantageous location in the sparsely populated Woodlawn community; it was split by a dirt road that people took from towns like Stanley to the nearby Catawba River, where there was trading to be done or crossings if needed.
Taking advantage of some of the skills he had learned in bondage, Hunter built a small blacksmith shop, offering horseshoe services and other iron work from the front while sleeping in the back. He eventually built a livery stable, then began work on the home that would become a point of pride in his family for more than a century to come.
“He had the only blacksmith shop around. He had a commodity that people needed. The next blacksmith shop was all the way in Gastonia or King’s Mountain. Let’s say a wagon wheel broke or your horse threw a shoe, then you had to stop at his shop,” Wilson explained. “So he was making money when a lot of people wasn’t making money. If your car is your only choice of transportation and it breaks down, you’re gonna get your car fixed so you can get to work. So people would pay to get their horses shoed. And he did iron work so he could repair wagons, he made nails, he made bolts, anything that was iron he did it. So that’s how he started making his money … and every bit of money that he made, he started buying land, he started adding and adding.”
The birth of Mount Holly
In the early 1870s, Hunter began hearing troubling news from South Carolina; white supremacist Southerners were becoming more aggressively opposed to Reconstruction policies that had been created ostensibly to allow formerly enslaved people to succeed. Plantation owners had begun claiming land sold to formerly enslaved people as part of the federal government’s “40 acres and a mule” policy, forcing them to work as sharecroppers on plots that the freed people had cleared and built on themselves.
Hunter became concerned that the same thing could happen to him, so he had a deed drawn up officially marking the land that he had worked so hard to obtain.
Many years later, Wilson found the first land deed in Hunter’s name, written in 1872, showing his property stretching for three miles in each direction from his home — bordered by Dutchman’s Creek to the north, the Catawba River to the east, the Springs property to the west, and what is now Tuckaseegee Park to the south.
Around this time, New Jersey businessmen and brothers A.P. and D.E. Rhyne came around the Woodlawn community looking for a place to build a new cotton mill, along with A.P.’s father-in-law, Ambrose Costner. The group approached Hunter after discovering that the land they most wanted was deeded to him.
Having long been bothered by stories of freed families being forced into sharecropping in South Carolina, Hunter decided this was a time to use the leverage he now had.
“He said, ‘I will sell you the land under the stipulation that you hire former slaves that are now sharecroppers,’” Wilson said. “They agreed.”
Hunter sent word down to the communities near where his parents lived and died, and families began to seek out Hunter’s farm, which he had by then given the name Freedom Farm.
Wilson has been able to uncover records of around 35 Black families that came up from South Carolina, bought small parcels of land from Hunter and worked at the cotton mill. The community of formerly enslaved people came to be known as the Freedom community.
While the land around Hunter’s property was originally thought to be too rocky to farm — Hunter and many of the nearby residents originally called it Rocky Grove — he and his new Freedom neighbors got to work clearing all the large rocks, selling them to companies that were beginning to build roads in the area. From there on out, the land was farmable and families in Freedom were able to sustain productive gardens on their respective properties.
As the 20th century approached and the arrival of the railroad and then personal vehicles made business slow at Freedom Farm, Hunter began selling parcels of land at a profit to developers building out the burgeoning town of Mount Holly, named such by A.P. Rhyne and Co. in 1879 following completion of the Mount Holly Cotton Mill.
Many of the buildings that still stand in Mount Holly today were built on land purchased from Hunter.
The house that Hunter built was demolished around the turn of the 21st century, burned to its foundation by the city after being deemed unsafe. Remnants of the chimney are all that protrude from that foundation today.
However, while the property is heavily wooded, a large white rock is still visible at the corner of Glendale and Hawthorne. Pulled from the land as part of Hunter’s improvements to “Rocky Grove,” the rock was used as a step for clients to mount their horses after they had spent some time on Hunter’s porch drinking lemonade while their wagons or horses had work done.
To this day, the word Freedom is still clearly etched on the street-facing side of the rock.
Keeping the legacy alive
When Eric Wilson’s grandmother Mena Hunter Wilson passed away in 1983, it was the end of an era for the descendants of Ransom Hunter. Up until then, Mena had held annual family reunions for members of the sprawling family tree to connect at Ransom’s old house, where she lived until the day she died.
When Mena went, so did the family reunions, until the funeral of Eric’s aunt, one of Mena’s daughters, in 2013.
“Of course it’s a huge number of us and we went to the funeral, and we talked about, ‘Why are we only getting together now for funerals when we used to have these big family reunions?’” Wilson recalled. “Basically 30 years, that’s two generations of people that didn’t even know about a family reunion.”
Wilson and eight other descendants — one from each of his father’s eight siblings — formed a committee to plan a family reunion. During those discussions, Wilson realized that more than just the family reunions had been forgotten.
“I said, ‘We need to clean up Ransom’s grave,’ and some of the family members said, ‘Who is Ransom?’” Wilson recalled. “I said, ‘That’s grandma’s daddy, he’s the one that made all of this possible. We came from him!’”
Located just a block from the old homesite, Wilson remembered planting an oak tree with his grandmother to mark Ransom’s grave as a child. Throughout her lifetime, after Ransom’s death in 1918, Mena would bring fresh-cut flowers from the rose bushes Ransom had planted on the property to lay on his grave every Sunday.
The first order of business for the committee was to fund and install a proper new headstone at Ransom’s gravesite, now shaded by the massive oak tree that Wilson could once fit his arms around as a small child.
In 2014, the Wilson-Hunter family held its first family reunion in 30 years, returning every two years until COVID canceled the 2020 event. They were able to continue the tradition in summer 2022.
Some local news outlets picked up on the story when the family installed the new headstone in 2014, and following that, the family heard from Mount Holly officials about the potential to clear the homesite and build a park there. The city bought the property in the fall of that year.
“I think at the time maybe some of the people who were in charge maybe saw some dollar signs,” Wilson told Queen City Nerve. “‘We can take this name of Ransom Hunter and maybe we can bring some notoriety to Mount Holly.’ They didn’t say that but I think that was the thought. Because we were only approached after all of these news articles came out, and it was on all the news channels in Charlotte and they came to our family reunion and it was on everybody’s TV as they watched at night eating dinner. They bought the land, they told us they were going to develop it into a park.”
The family asked that the park be named after Ransom Hunter as a way to memorialize the man that played such a large part in the town’s creation. Though members of the Mount Holly City Council originally balked at the idea, they eventually asked the committee to get a petition signed to name the park after Hunter. The committee presented their petition to council in the spring of 2015, exceeding the number of signatures needed for approval.
The council accepted the petition then tucked it away, according to Wilson.
“They said, ‘OK, well, we’ll go to the next step,’ and then it was put on the back burner,” he said.
That was nearly 10 years ago, and not much progress has been made on a Ransom Hunter Park — or on anything at the homesite — since.
In 2022, the city picked the project back up, forming a Glendale Property Advisory Committee to discuss ideas and prioritize recommendations for the 2.4-acre site. On Jan. 9, 2023, the committee presented its recommendations to the Mount Holly City Council. The recommendations included contracting with an archaeologist to examine the historical significance of the site and also recommended hiring a design firm to develop the property with a walkway, art installations, a playground area or shelter, and a parking lot.
Wilson, who has been fighting to preserve his great-grandfather’s legacy since taking up the cause in college, said he reserves his right to a cautious optimism.
“I’m very optimistic. I give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but 10 years?” he asked. “It’s been a long time … We’re just sitting, watching, in hopes that our time will come.”
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