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Who is Hugh MacRae?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

A business executive and real estate developer, Hugh MacRae (1865-1951) helped shape Wilmington, New Hanover and surrounding counties for decades. He contributed to the growth of Wrightsville Beach and many of Wilmington’s suburbs, encouraged immigration and promoted farm colonies across much of the region.

His white supremacist opinions, however, and his role in the Wilmington race riot of 1898, however, made him a controversial figure by the start of the 21st century.

Hugh MacRae Park — on land which he donated to the city in 1913 — is named in his honor.

The son of Wilmington mill owner Donald MacRae and Julia Norton MacRae, he was born on March 30, 1865, at Carbonton, the family’s “up-country” estate in Chatham County, N.C., where his mother had taken refuge at the end of the Civil War. He was the great-great-grandson of Scottish immigrants, and his family had been prominent in Southeastern North Carolina for generations.

Hugh MacRae was educated at the Bingham School in Asheville and, at the age of 16, entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied mining engineering. After graduating in 1885, he headed for the North Carolina mountains, where for many years he was engaged in mining mica, feldspar and kaolin near Spruce Pine.

Before long, though, MacRae began to see possibilities above ground. With help from his father, he purchased some 15,570 acres of land in Avery County — including parts of Grandfather Mountain, Sugar Mountain and Flattop Mountain — between 1885 and 1889.

In 1889, he founded the Linville Improvement Co. to develop a golf course (the first in Western North Carolina) and resort community at Linville. He also built roads and developed stagecoach lines so vacationers could reach his property.

After his father’s death in 1892, MacRae returned to Wilmington. In 1895, became president of his father’s firm, the Wilmington Cotton Mills Co.

In 1900 he became head of the Wilmington Gas Light Co., which also had an interest in an electric trolley. He gradually merged his lines with the Wilmington Street Railway Co. and the Seacoast Railway, forming the Consolidated Railway and Power Co. To ensure electric power, he bought the Rockingham Power Co., which had access to hydroelectric power on the Pee Dee River. In 1907, Consolidated Railway and Power became the Tidewater (or Tide Water) Power Co., with MacRae as president, a position he would hold until 1929. (Tidewater Power would merge in 1952 with Carolina Power & Light, a forerunner of Progress Energy.)

In 1902, he founded Hugh MacRae & Co., which at one time owned 70,000 acres in New Hanover, Pender and Columbus counties. With funding from Hugh MacRae Banking Co., he would follow the same strategy he had in the mountains: buying land, developing it, then providing customers with transportation to it.

Tidewater Power and its electric trolley line — the famed orange “beach cars” — became the engine for MacRae’s development of properties at Wrightsville Beach and in the Winter Park, Audubon and Oleander communities along the way. His company built the great Wrightsville Beach pavilion, Lumina, and the smaller Harbor Island pavilion to provide recreation. He also developed the palatial Oceanic Hotel.

Further extensions of the trolley lines helped develop the neighborhoods of Carolina Place, Carolina Heights and Sunset Park.

In 1905. MacRae launched the Carolina Truck and Development Co., which fulfilled a vision MacRae spelled out in a famous 1908 speech at New York’s Astor Hotel: recruiting European peasants to settle on tracts in Southeastern North Carolina, hoping their industrious backgrounds and intensive farming methods could revitalize agriculture in the state.

Between 1905 and 1909, six major farm colonies were launched:

* Marathon in northern New Hanover County, for Greeks (memorialized by Marathon Road);

* Castle Hayne, nearby, for Dutch farmers and later for Poles (a heritage carried on by St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church and its annual Polish festival);

* St. Helena, south of Burgaw in Pender County, recruiting farmers from the Lombardy region of Italy, along with a small number of Ukrainians;

* Artesia, in Columbus County, recruiting Dutch and Poles;

* New Berlin, in northeastern Columbus County, developed around 1913 for German and Hungarian settlers (after the outbreak of World War I, the community’s name was changed to Delco, after the company which had just installed lighting in the nearby high school);

* Van Eeden, targeted to the Dutch. in northern Pender County.

Van Eeden, originally purchased in 1909 by MacRae and Frederik Van Eeden, was not a great success. In 1939, MacRae sold 100 acres of the remaining land to a New York corporation, headed by Dr. Alvin Johnson of the New School for Social Research in New York, as a colony for the resettlement of Jewish refugees and others fleeing Hitler’s Germany. The outbreak of World War II cut off the potential flow of colonists, and many who actually reached Van Eeden had little background in farming and soon left.

Development at St. Helena was set back when nationwide Prohibition blocked settlers’ plans to produce wine. Many of the settlers left, though some stayed.

Castle Hayne, however, proved a particular success. As late as 1945, New Hanover County ranked second in the state in per capita farm income, thanks largely to Castle Hayne’s output.

“The South will come into its own,” MacRae declared, when its fields are green in winter.” At his experimental 1,400-acre farm, Invershiel, near Rocky Point in Pender County, he spent decades developing a grazing program that would support black Angus cattle year-round.

Diversifying beyond the South’s traditional cash crops of cotton, corn and tobacco was one of MacRae’s major goals. He promoted the growing of bulb plants (a specialty of Castle Hayne, which was a major American flower-growing center before World War II), truck farming and blueberry cultivation.

MacRae’s ideas on farming were so well regarded that he was seriously considered for appointment as secretary of agriculture in both the Wilson and Hoover administrations. His farm colony scheme influenced New Dealer Rexford G. Tugwell and helped lead to the Penderlea homestead project, intended to help poor families during the Great Depression.

MacRae was highly active in the Wilmington violence of Nov. 10, 1898. In the historical novel “Cape Fear Rising” (1994), author Philip Gerard depicted him as one of the major conspirators.

MacRae is known to have been a member of the “Secret Nine,” a group of white business leaders who plotted the overthrow of Wilmington’s Republican-led city government, which had been elected in 1896. Members of the Nine met at MacRae’s house and apparently coordinated local efforts in the Democratic Party’s white supremacist campaign during the election of 1898. Acting behind the scenes, the Nine issued statements and helped organize a militia-like paramilitary force under the umbrella of a “Vigilance Committee” under the leadership of Col. Roger Moore, a former Klan leader. This group patrolled the streets, intimidating black and white Republican voters in the lead-up to Election Day on Nov. 8, 1898.

Harry Hayden credited MacRae with calling a mass meeting of white citizens on Nov. 9, 1898, at the New Hanover County Courthouse. This assembly produced a “White Declaration of Independence,” which resolved that “we will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled by men of African origin” and called for the Republican mayor, aldermen and chief of police of Wilmington to resign. MacRae served on a committee which reviewed and produced the final draft of this document, and he was named to a “Committe of 25″ which would “direct the execution” of its provisions.

On the evening of Nov. 9, 1898, this Committe of 25 issued demands to a committee of black citizens of Wilmington, including the removal of Wilmington Record editor Alexander Manly (who had already fled town). This committee apparently met on the day of the riot, Nov. 10, 1898, at the Seaboard Air Line offices to draw up a slate of city officers to replace Republican officials. It apparently also drew up a list of black and white Republican leaders who were to be rounded up and banished from the city. On Nov. 16, 1898, MacRae was selected by the new town board as one of the replacement aldermen from Wilmington’s Third Ward.

When MacRae donated his park to the city, the original bequest specified that the property was to be reserved for the use of the white race only.

On Feb. 4, 1891, MacRae married Rena Nelson. The couple had three children, Nelson, Agnes and Dorothy.

Two of MacRae’s grandsons would become prominent. Hugh MacRae Morton (1921-2006, the son of Agnes and her husband Julian Morton, would inherit much of his grandfather’s Linville properties and would become famous as the developer and proprietor of Grandfather Mountain. He was also the founding president of Wilmington’s Azalea Festival, and he masterminded the fundraising campaign to bring the battleship USS North Carolina to Wilmington as a floating memorial.

Hugh MacRae II (born Nov. 20, 1924), the son of Nelson MacRae and Marguerite Bellamy, served in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. After graduating from Princeton and earning a commerce degree from the University of North Carolina, he entered the family business, and became the head of the Oleander Co. (formerly Hugh MacRae & Co. after his grandfather’s death. He spearheaded the development of Hanover Center, Wilmington’s first major shopping mall, in 1956. During the centennial of the 1898 riots, he became active in community reconciliation efforts and contributed to the 1898 Memorial.

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2 Responses to “ Who is Hugh MacRae?”

  1. On November 30, 2009 at 11:59 am Amanda Davis wrote:

    WOW~! I knew the MacRae Family was important to the Lower Cape Fear Region. However, I am in awe of the MacRae contributions to agriculture and the economic recovery plan through the PenderLea Homestead Project. With all those who claim ownership of the efforts to bring the USS NC Battleship to Wilmington, I am delighted to know who the “mastermind” truly was. Your piece is excellent. However, it is missing a remarkable and generous MacRae whom this community owes a great deal to. That person is also a MacRae. Agnes MacRae Parsley (1860-1930). She was the founder and First President of the Cape Fear Chapter of the American Red Cross. The ARC 100% private in its fundraising and it is so much more than blood services. The ARC is the only private organization authorized to respond in disaster areas. The Cape Fear Chapter is responsible for New Hanover County, Brunswick County, Duplin County, Columbus County and Pender County. In an area where Fires are the number one emergency, many people can attest to the gracious provisions of the American Red Cross and that vision of the Great Mother of the Cape Fear Agnes MacRae Parsley.

  2. On February 15, 2012 at 8:34 pm Barbara wrote:

    Wow, I had NO idea of his history – so here’s my question – why on earth is this park named after a white supremacist who was such a key figure in the 1898 abomination?



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