By Michael L. Marshall and Jerry L. Taylor
Legends usually die hard in America. That is certainly the case of the one surrounding Kernersville’s origin. For the past 120 years traditional accounts have credited a man named Caleb Story, supposedly an Irishman, with being the town’s first settler despite historical evidence to the contrary. Even today, several web sites in town assert this story as fact.
So, how did the town’s history get off on such a wrong foot? A bit of historical sleuthing has turned up evidence that Thomas Early Whitaker was the gentleman who helped launch the Caleb Story legend.
In his early days, Whitaker, then a staff correspondent for the Durham Recorder, penned a sketch of the town that was reprinted in the January 13, 1888 edition of the Kernersville News & Farm. In it, Whitaker wrote: “Kernersville is one hundred and twenty years old. It was first settled about the year 1760 by Caleb Story, an Irishman. Tradition says that he bought the original tract of 400 acres, in which the town was built, for four gallons of rum. He sold to Dobson, and for many years the town was known by the unpretentious name, “Dobson’s X Roads.” Dobson sold to Shober, and Shober to Joseph Kerner, a native of Germany, in 1818, who bought additional tracts to the amount of 1,100 acres.”
Where Whitaker picked up his version of events is a mystery as it does not seem to have appeared in print prior to this date. In fact, an 1878 account of the town’s origins makes no mention of Story. Whitaker did have connections to Kernersville, so he may have heard it from one of them. Regardless of its origin, Whitaker’s version likely would have had little impact on history had it not been for another event that occurred a few months after its appearance.
As it turned out the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce had commissioned a gentleman named D. P. Robbins to produce a book on the twin city and its environs aimed at attracting new business and investment. Significantly, Robbins also included a sketch of Kernersville in his volume. In order to gather information on the town’s businesses, Robbins visited Kernersville, an event heralded in the June 22, 1888 edition of the News & Farm:
Dr. Robbins has about finished the sketch of Winston-Salem and will be here the first part of next week to gather information for the article on Kernersville. The Doctor has sent us advance pages of more than half the work, which we shall be pleased to show to anyone who will call at our office, and which speaks higher in his praise as a skillful writer and compiler than a column of encomiums from us could do. We are much obliged to Dr. Robbins and to the Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, who have kindly consented to give Kernersville a representation in this worthy work and we trust that the generosity of our citizens will fully repay them for the trouble and space required to give us a proper representation.
Given this confluence of events, it cannot be doubted that during Robbins’ visit he was made aware of the Whitaker’s sketch. In fact, Robbins’ historical account regarding Story is nearly identical to Whitaker’s: “About the year 1760 this nearly level plateau, upon the county’s water shed, was selected by Caleb Story, an Irishman, who, it is said bought 400 acres for four gallons of rum. A few years later Story sold his interest to a Mr. Dobson, the place for many years being known as Dobson’s Cross Roads. Rev. Gottlieb Schober, of Salem, purchased this homestead in 1806 for his son Nathaniel and the Schobers sold to Joseph Kerner in 1817, from whom the place takes its name.”
Dr. Robbins’ work was widely circulated at the time and almost certainly was used as reference by the well-known Moravian historian, Dr. Adelaide Fries, in her history of Forsyth County written in 1898:
Kernersville…was not originally laid out as a town but grew gradually to such a size. About 1756 or 1760, Caleb Story, a native of Ireland, bought 400 acres of land, about 12 miles east of Salem, near the Guilford County line. Tradition says he paid for it with 4 gallons of rum. This tract he sold to a certain Dobson, and from this the place came to be called “Dobson’s Cross Roads,” a name it retained for many years. Mr. Dobson sold the 400 acres to Gottlieb Schober, of Salem, who sold it in 1817, to Joseph Kerner, a German by birth, but then living near Friedland.
Similar versions appeared in subsequent histories published in 1924 (Siewers), 1949 (Fries et al.), 1958 (Jules Gilmer Körner), and in 1971 in a book prepared in celebration of the town’s supposed bicentennial staged that year.
Why these authors were content to simply recount versions of the original Whitaker narrative, when resorting to the factual record would have provided a historically accurate chronicle, is unknown. In truth, it was a Scots-Irish immigrant from Pennsylvania, David Morrow, who received the two earliest land grants in the area of the cross roads, where Main and Mountain Streets intersect today. He entered a claim for a 400-acre parcel of land in August 1778, a tract subsequently granted to him by the State of North Carolina on November 3, 1784, the same day he received another grant for 200 acres. Both were sold by Morrow to William Dobson in February 1788, not 1771 as legend has it.
But what about Caleb Story? Yes, he existed, and he did own one of the six tracts later acquired by Joseph Kerner. However, he did not receive his 125 acres state grant until November 29, 1797 and he sold it to Dobson on February 28, 1801. Dobson too acquired part of the land sold to Joseph Kerner, all state land grants—the first one for 50 acres on July 9, 1794 and the others for 200 acres and 57 acres, on December 19, 1803.
Tom Whitaker eventually settled in Oak Ridge and became head of Oak Ridge Military Institute in 1914, a school he attended 40 years earlier as a student. He was the father of Dr. Richard Whitaker, a well-known Kernersville physician, and brother to Frances Whitaker who married J. R. Blackwell Sr. Their son, J. R. Blackwell Jr. was principal of Kernersville High School for many years, and his wife, Maxine, was a highly respected Kernersville public school music teacher.
It is doubtful Professor Whitaker intended to launch a legend in 1888 when he wrote his essay on Kernersville. In fact, he probably would be surprised if he were alive today to find his words still being echoed, especially across the vastness of cyberspace. ©2008