Guilford Courthouse
Administrative History
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Origins Of Identity Problems

Land acquisition projects were not high priorities at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in the 1930s. This is hardly surprising given the severity of the economic Depression that gripped the country in the decade prior to the outbreak of World War II. Nonetheless the park grew a bit in this period. Between April 1934 and the end of 1939 the park acquired an additional 23.49 acres in seven land transactions. All were donations, most being made to facilitate road paving projects. The largest of these accessions was the State grant of eleven and one-half acres that comprised the New Garden Road right-of-way. Four additional donations from Guilford County and the City of Greensboro totalling 3.49 acres were made for road development along the park's southern and eastern boundaries. Another donation was made in the interest of preserving local history when the eight and one-half acre site of the eighteenth century courthouse was presented to the park by Guilford County and the surviving members of the Guilford Battle Ground Company. With these acquisitions the park had grown to 148.49 acres, more or less. [1]

Park boundaries at this time were described as a "haphazard, zig-zaggy affair," made even more eccentric by the addition of the courthouse site, three-eighths of a mile east of the main body of the body of the park and connected only by the one hundred foot right-of-way of New Garden Road. [2] In 1930 the area surrounding the park was distinctly rural. Farmland abutted park boundaries on all sides. There were no telephones in the area prior to the installation of a line to park headquarters in 1935. The only retail establishment in the vicinity was a country store (with several outlying sheds and a pig sty) that stood at the intersection of U.S. 220 and Holt Avenue, one of two primary entrances to the park. In such a bucolic setting perhaps the park's precise boundary lines were not so important. It could be argued that in a manner similar to Antietam, the surrounding countryside was at least suggestive of its historical use and appearance. While it was not the "open woodland" of 1781, neither was it a developed urban center.

Unfortunately for the historic setting of the park, Greensboro was more like Atlanta, Georgia, than Sharpsburg, Maryland. Both Greensboro and Atlanta experienced rapid urban growth from starts as railroad hubs. By 1886 when the line of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad was completed from Greensboro to Mount Airy, crossing the battlefield along the way, six railroads converged on Greensboro. Industries followed the railroads and by the turn of the century Greensboro was becoming a major manufacturing center for textiles and pharmaceuticals. A number of insurance companies also located in Greensboro, and for a time the city was called the "Hartford of the South." In 1920 the city's population was 19,861. The park was five miles north of the city limits. In 1923 the North Carolina General Assembly revised Greensboro's charter, greatly expanding the city limits from four to more than seventeen square miles. Population of the city increased to 43,525. The new city line was about three miles south of the park. Access to the park became easier for Greensboro's growing population in 1925 when State crews macadamized Highway 220 from Guilford's northern to southern county lines. Within Greensboro Highway 220 was known as Battleground Avenue. [3]

Clearly Greensboro was on the move. Judge Schenck had foreseen this as early as 1890 when he reported that "Greensboro has the certain prospect of becoming a large city and extending northward towards the Battle Ground. . . ." Schenck looked forward to this development with pleasure, noting that the Battle Ground "must in the near future become the park of the City. . . ." [4]

Greensboro's planners clearly shared this notion of the battlefield area as "the park of the City," as they demonstrated by creating the Greensboro Country Park along the eastern boundary of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in 1932. Completed in 1934 with Public Works Administration funding, the Country Park included "miles of paved drives, a small zoo, a boat and swimming house, a keeper's residence, numerous picnic sheds, rustic seats, and three lakes for swimming, boating, and fishing. . . ." [5]

In a sense this was a favorable development for the military park. Coupled with the 1930 establishment of Forest Lawn Cemetery on the southern face of the battlefield, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park was insulated from less desirable forms of urban encroachment as the city expanded to the north and west. As suggested in the 1936 Master Plan the proximity of the Country Park's extensive recreational facilities offered a singular opportunity for the National Military Park to divorce itself from its traditional local identity as a picnic ground, and to establish its bona fides as a historic site. It is equally true that the Country Park and municipal cemetery development began the essentially irreparable destruction of the battlefield's historic landscape. At the same time Lake Wilfong was being drained, three equally anachronistic lakes were being created within site of the park's eastern boundary, in an area that Earl Cornwallis had described a century and a half earlier as a region of "deep ravines," whose passage had slowed the progress of the British right wing as they advanced to attack the American third line in the "clear ground near Guildford court house." Equally lamentable was the placement of the new city zoo on the very hill from which British cannon had fired cannister rounds to break the force of an American counter attack. In fact a battlefield visitor could take one step across the National Military Park boundary and enter the zoo. [6]

This development did not go completely unchallenged. In the last week of December 1933, Elbert Cox, Assistant Historian in the Branch of Historic Sites and Buildings, visited the park. On his return to Washington he dispatched a memorandum to his superior Verne E. Chatelain protesting the construction of both city facilities because "a part of this development is on ground actually fought over during the battle." He was particularly incensed by the discovery that "in digging graves, already bits of human bone and teeth have been discovered," suggestive of earlier battle-related internments. Cox concluded: "I believe that this development. . . should be arrested and the land acquired for the park." At Cox's suggestion Resident Commissioner Roane conveyed a request to the municipal authorities that no new graves should be dug pending an archaeological survey of the area. The city seems to have turned a deaf ear to this request and development of the Forest Lawn Cemetery and the Country Park continued. [7]

By all accounts the Country Park was an instant success, particularly as a site for water sports. The proximity of superior recreational facilities, however, did not enable the National Military Park to establish its separate local identity as a historic site. There were no fences or other physical demarcations between the Federal and city sites. In fact two roads led directly from the National Military Park into the Country Park. The public seems to have been unaware that there was a distinction between the two areas. Local media did nothing to clarify the situation, as exemplified by a 25 June 1933 Greensboro Daily News article that announced: "Residents. . . who like to swim and fish will soon be able to enjoy three fine lakes at Guilford battleground, part of the city-county recreation center now under construction." Resident Commissioner Mendenhall reported in his Narrative for September 1935, the first month in which Guilford Courthouse had telephone service, that most incoming calls were inquiries about facilities at the Country Park.

Clearly a sort of local identity crisis was developing. Rather than two parks with differing rationales, the public recognized only one park, commonly referred to by the old Schenck-era name "Battle Ground Park," that encompassed a battlefield and lakes, picnic areas and a zoo. This all too common misconception continues to this day.

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Last Updated: 10-Feb-2003