By Morgan Cartier Weston
We spoke with Chatham residents about the history of their families in the county, churches, businesses and people that impacted them.
Northwood class of 1972
“Like everyone in my family, I was raised at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, which my grandmother, Josephine Williams, helped found,” says Cloyce Lassiter. Cloyce grew up at the end of New Hope Church Road; her parents were tenant farmers and bought their land in 1946. Her family relocated to Durham for part of her childhood, but Cloyce graduated from Northwood High School in 1972, the second class to do so after Chatham County Schools were desegregated. Today, she lives on part of the same 40 acres her grandmother Josephine, who was enslaved prior to the end of the Civil War, was given, near what is now the northeast edge of Jordan Lake. Cloyce, her cousins and other relatives, many of whom still live nearby, celebrated their 125th consecutive Williams family reunion last year (though it was their first virtual one due to the pandemic). The tradition began in 1895 with Josephine’s 10 children; now, in a typical year, the gatherings draw up to 300 of her descendants to Chatham County. “The second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day, we keep the tradition alive,” Cloyce says. “It means a lot to have so many people you can count on.”
Mary Jo Austin Gilmore’s family has lived near Chatham Forest for more than 130 years, on land purchased in December 1865 and January 1867 by her fourth great-grandfather Thomas Taylor (1807-1881), likely with funds earned through his skill as a mason. “We believe that he may be one of the first formerly enslaved people to purchase land after slavery ended,” Mary Jo says. The original house built there for the family stood until a fire in the mid 2000s. “A lot of history was lost in the house,” Mary Jo says. Her paternal grandparents and great-grandparents left Chatham County for Mississippi in the early 1900s to pursue better opportunities. “They were limited to sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta and returned to Pittsboro around 1941.”
Mary Jo, like Cloyce, graduated from Northwood in 1972 and stayed in Pittsboro because of her family’s history, raising her children, Victoria and Felicia, here. “I like country living, plus this is the home of my parents and grandparents and ancestors,” she says. “Both of my parents left school without completing their high school education, but they worked hard and bought land off Fire Tower Road and made a home for us. It is important to me to see their hard work and efforts preserved for generations to come, and I think Pittsboro is a good place to live, to raise your children with a feeling of belonging to a community.”
Cloyce and Mary Jo’s Northwood classmate Mary Nettles grew up with strong female role models, and many of her earliest memories are of hours spent in a pew next to her mother at Mitchell Chapel AME Zion Church. “My mother loved to sing at church and always told me to stay in my lane and follow my heart,” she says. Mary, who spent much of her career working at UNC Hospitals, says being raised in Chatham County surrounded by generations of family helped shape her into the person she is today. “I’ve had many eye-opening experiences, but they do not compare to what my mother and grandmother and great-grandmother faced,” she says. “They did not talk much about what things were like, which is why I only found out about the lynchings that occurred in Chatham County in 2018.” Mary now serves as Chatham Community NAACP Branch No. 5377’s president, and last year worked with its Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize the six who were killed between 1885 and 1921. “They deserve to have their stories told, and in that way, we can all continue moving forward together,” Mary says.
“‘My people,’ as they call it, can trace our lineage in Chatham to my third great-grandfather, Isaac Brooks, who lived here from 1727-1825,” says Cecilia Budd Grimes. Her family was always invested in the people, land and community in Chatham. “My father was the founder of Cecil Budd Tire Company, which he opened in Siler City in 1936 after returning home from Guilford College.” Cecilia’s late husband, John Grimes, who served as mayor of Siler City for four terms, later ran the business for 49 years. “My maternal grandfather, Dr. William Clyde Thomas, came to Chatham County after completing medical school at the University of Virginia in 1917,” Cecilia says. “He began Chatham Hospital after setting up his practice in Siler City. My paternal great-grandfather owned a cattle farm in Mount Vernon Springs, right across from the actual springs,” Cecilia says. Today, her son Stephen Grimes is now the farm’s fifth-generation owner.
Jerry Stone’s great-grandparents Edgar Milton Stone and Nora Williams Stone brought their large family of three sons and four daughters to Siler City from northwestern Chatham County around 1900. Edgar wanted his children educated at the famed Thompson School, and so he bought a 100-acre farm about a mile west of town and provided generously for his family and neighbors. Highway 64 was built across his farmland, connecting Siler City to Asheboro and all points west, and then through town on the east side to Pittsboro and Raleigh.
Joyce Jones Cotten can trace her family’s Chatham history back to 1790. She was born in 1942, the fourth child of Pansy Jones and Sam Jones, and grew up on a 232-acre farm located near what is now North Pea Ridge Road.
Though the majority of her family’s land is now beneath Jordan Lake, she grew to love nature and the land itself on that farm. “I learned what it was like to grow your own food and to persevere through the good times and the difficult times,” Joyce says. Joyce attended Pittsboro Elementary School and graduated from Pittsboro High School in 1961. She attended Campbell College and returned to Pittsboro High School (later Northwood High School), where she taught until 1981. Joyce then taught at Lee County High School until her retirement in 2000. Joyce says she elected to stay in Chatham because of its laid-back rural atmosphere and to be near her family and lifelong friends.
Jerry Stone’s lifelong friend Robert Wrenn’s family founded Wrenn Lumber Company in the 1930s. First led by Charlie Wrenn and his brother, it was later managed by Charlie’s son, Willis Wrenn, and his nephew, June Wrenn. The company sawmill changed the name to Wrenn Brothers Lumber Inc., which was run and operated by Willis’ three sons until the 1980s economic recession. The brothers then reinvented the company to include a flooring business called WrennWood; Wrenn Brothers Lumber is still in operation today under Robert’s leadership. Robert’s wife, Jane Wrenn, serves as director of Salvation Army Chatham.
Ed Spence’s grandparents James Spence and Frances Spence lived in Siler City and Moncure in the late 1800s before settling in Randolph County. Their son, Ed’s father, James Jr., moved to Siler City in the 1920s and married his mother, Anne Holler, in 1930; Ed was born in 1938, the youngest of three. Ed recalls shopping in locally owned stores that were closed on Sundays, doctors who made house calls, annual Christmas parades with horses and vintage cars, and a barrel placed in the middle of the city square each time the Siler City Millers baseball team played at home. “Holland Radio Store became the first TV store,” Ed says. “Mr. Holland would put a TV in the front window, and people would gather outside to watch the 15-minute newscast five days a week and ‘The Lone Ranger’ on Thursdays.
“Once, my wife, Becky, was ordering takeout at Johnson’s Drive In and the owner’s wife asked if the order was for me,” he says. When Becky said it was, she responded that was not the way Ed liked his cheeseburger. “Everyone looked after everyone else,” he says. Ed spent 42 years working at Spence Building Supply, and Becky taught for 28 years at local schools, including Henry Siler School and Siler City Elementary. The couple, now retired to Galloway Ridge, remain involved with their community. “I have found Siler City and Chatham County a great place to work, raise a family and spend time sharing experiences and growth,” Ed says. “Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?”