A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Elizabeth Cooley knew that her friends at the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society Commission were up to something. Her first clue? “They invited me to lunch,” Cooley says, laughing. “I

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Elizabeth Cooley knew that her friends at the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society Commission were up to something. Her first clue? “They invited me to lunch,” Cooley says, laughing. “I

The Richmond Temperance and Literary Society

The six-sided Richmond Temperance and Literary Society Hall has been a distinctive landmark in this corner of southeastern North Carolina since it was built in 1860.

Elizabeth Cooley knew that her friends at the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society Commission were up to something. Her first clue? “They invited me to lunch,” Cooley says, laughing. “I was friends with the group, and they were all aging out.”

Over lunch, they popped the question: Would Cooley consider taking over the presidency of the commission? Obviously, the answer was “yes,” because here she sits in the cool stillness of a 164-year-old hexagonal brick building surrounded by stately pines and sweet magnolias. More than a quarter of a century after that lunch, she’s still serving as a caretaker and keeper of the flame for this remarkable structure with a fascinating history.

For four decades in the late 19th century, the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society met to celebrate sobriety and literature. photograph by Andrew Craft

Prior to the American Revolution, there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Highland Scots who had already emigrated from their ancestral homes to the Sandhills of North Carolina. Attracted by land grants and tax breaks, many of these pioneers crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in either Brunswick Town or Wilmington.

“They made their way up the Cape Fear River on pole barges to Campbelltown Landing in Fayetteville,” explains Bill Caudill, director of the Scottish Heritage Center of St. Andrews University in nearby Laurinburg. “They dispersed from there and began settling along the tributaries of the Cape Fear, Pee Dee, and Lumber rivers.”

In 1813, a young minister who had emigrated from Scotland a few years earlier arrived in their midst. The Rev. Daniel White had a ready-made audience of Scots who yearned for the Gospel and for someone who could preach it in the Gaelic of their homeland. “This was truly a bilingual community for 100 years,” Caudill says.

White and his wife, Catherine, used her dowry to buy 2,000 acres in Richmond County (which became part of Scotland County in 1899) and established Spring Hill Baptist Church. Around it grew a small but vibrant community that included a gristmill, stables, a post office, a farrier, and, most important, a private school, Spring Hill Academy. “The Scots were great believers in education,” says Calvin Newton, who oversees the grounds. “Somebody who passed through once said it was a strange area, this part of the South. You’d go into a house, and it would have dirt floors — and a library.”

Against this rural-but-striving backdrop, several men and women decided to both elevate the community’s intellectual standing and embrace a temperance movement that was gaining popularity across a young — and soon to be fractured — United States. The Richmond Temperance and Literary Society was established in 1855 with “its objects being uncompromising hostility to intemperance and an untiring zeal for the advancement of literature.” Its members pledged to “neither make, buy, sell, nor use as a beverage, any intoxicating drink whatever.”

• • •

By mid-1860, the group had constructed a permanent meeting place near Spring Hill Baptist Church: an unusual six-sided, one-room hall constructed with handmade bricks that were fired on-site. Crowning the roof was a finial — featuring a book with an overturned goblet placed on top — that announced the group’s twin purposes.

Inside, the ceiling was painted blue with glittering gold stars, each one representing a member and his or her fidelity to the temperance pledge. “If you fell off the wagon, your star was painted black,” Cooley says. But redemption was ever at hand. After a period of sobriety, a member could have their star gilded again. Several stars wore alternating coats of gold and black, attesting to the power of temptation and the frailty of human nature.

Symbolism also played a role in the hall’s hexagonal design. “When we talk about the shape of the building, it’s similar to the Bowmore Round Church on the Scottish island of Islay,” Caudill says. “There are no corners for the devil to hide in.”

The society's minute books

In the society’s “minute books,” the April 22, 1865, entry describes how Gen. William Sherman’s soldiers used the hall for target practice, lodging a bullet in the old finial (below). photograph by Andrew Craft

A bullet lodged in the hall from Gen. Sherman's soldiers who used the lodge for target practice

photograph by Andrew Craft

The activities of the society were amply recorded in two volumes of still-surviving “minute books,” which recap the spirited debates that members held, as well as the particulars of parliamentary procedure. Perhaps the most astonishing entry is dated April 22, 1865, a month after some of Gen. William T. Sherman’s 60,000 troops marched by the hall grounds prior to advancing to Fayetteville. Some of the soldiers used the hall for target practice, shooting the goblet and pockmarking the building with bullet holes that can still be seen today.

Of the mayhem wrought by the Union soldiers, the society’s secretary wrote in a florid hand: “After a considerable interruption, caused by an unwelcome visit of Sherman’s thieves, the Society meets again … we find the ornaments of our fair little hall shattered and ruined; our bookshelves empty; the ground strewn with fragments of valuable, precious volumes … Today we marshall [sic] our little band again; and with three cheers for Temperance and Literature, unfurl our yet triumphant banner to the breeze.”

That spirit of perseverance served the society well. The members continued to meet for another four decades before the hall was adapted for other uses, first as a school and then as a storage building for tobacco. In 1959, it was restored, the only remaining building of a once-vibrant center of commerce and education. In 1966, the birthplace of famed writer and North Carolina’s unofficial poet laureate John Charles McNeill was moved to the site to keep the society hall company and to serve as a visitor center.

• • •

Today, thanks to the efforts of Cooley; Newton and his wife, Beth, who serves as secretary; and a small band of commission contributors, the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society Hall has been restored to its former glory. Recently repaired and repainted wooden shutters frame the tall windows, their blue hue a pleasing contrast to the blood orange of the brick walls. A local carpenter is crafting a new finial from cypress. Inside, a wooden dais supports the lectern where debaters once argued their points. Restored bookcases display antique volumes. And a glass case holds the remains of the goblet that was shot up by Sherman’s troops.

In short, there’s all kinds of history here, just waiting to be reflected upon. Take a seat in one of the pews. Listen, like so many generations before, to the staccato call of a pileated woodpecker as it hurtles through the high branches. Let your mind wander back through the years. “This is a very beautiful spot,” Newton says as he looks out over the grounds that he’s taken care of for years. “A nice shady location. A hill overlooking the creek. And a cool spring.”

Of course, times do change. Wine is now offered as a refreshment at the commission’s annual meeting. Down the road, a fourth-generation descendant of the Rev. Daniel White operates Cypress Bend Vineyards, a popular winery. And while temperance has yielded to tolerance in this peaceful corner of Scotland County, an unusual little building stands as an enduring testament to a place where young men and women could look up to the stars on the ceiling and glimpse a better version of themselves, where the devil could find no place to hide, and where one’s thirst for knowledge could always be satisfied.

Richmond Temperance and Literary Society Hall
20669 Arch McLean Road
Wagram, NC 28396

To learn more, email ecooley2@me.com.

This story was published on Jun 12, 2024

Brad Campbell

In addition to being a regular contributor to Our State, Brad Campbell is a storyteller and a winner of multiple Moth StorySLAM competitions.