By the spring of 1865, the Civil War was all but over. But the brave Union and Confederate soldiers that fought the Battle of Bentonville March 19-21 that same year didn’t know they were participating in the last major battle of the “War between the States”. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was given the daunting task of uniting North Carolina’s thousands of scattered troops in an effort to stop Sherman’s legendary march.
Outnumbered three to one, General Johnston’s 20,000 Rebel soldiers were no match for the approaching Union forces. North Carolina sat between U.S. Grant’s troops in Virginia and the northbound Union forces lead by General William T. Sherman, who had devastated the South Carolina countryside after capturing Columbia. General Johnston was determined to keep Sherman from uniting his troops with those lead by Grant. Bentonville would be the site of the deciding battle.
Johnston County was created from Craven County on June 28, 1746, and named in honor of Gabriel Johnston, North Carolina’s colonial governor at the time. The following counties were subsequently derived from all or part of original Johnston: Orange, now Durham (1752); Dobbs, later divided into Wayne, Greene, Lenior (1758); Wake (1771); and Wilson (1855). Ranking 10th in size among North Carolina’s 100 counties, Johnston’s land area is about 792 square miles. Noted as the fastest growing county in the state, Johnston’s population is approximately 175,000.
Johnston figured prominently in the early affairs of North Carolina during its transition from colony to state. Much groundwork was laid for the colony’s role in the American Revolution when the 13-member Provincial Council held its first two sessions in 1755 at Johnston Court House (chartered as Smithfield in 1777). Smithfield was also the site of the General Assembly’s 1779 session. Between 1779 and 1788, Johnston’s county seat was several times a contender for the location of the state capitol.
The star of such films as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the MGM blockbuster musical Showboat, Ava Gardner was known as “the world’s most beautiful animal” at the peak of her career. With an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Honeybear Kelly in Mogambo, and a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, she is probably best known for being the second Mrs. Frank Sinatra.
The barefoot teenager, who took Tobacco Road to Hollywood via the Big Apple, put Johnston, NC on the map. It’s fitting that the place of her birth is home to the Ava Gardner Museum. It all started with a kiss. Little Tommy Banks was just 12 years old when he first met Ava Gardner in 1939. She was a promising secretarial student at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson. Everyday as Ava sat waiting for her ride home, Tommy and his pals would tease the young beauty and call her their “girlfriend.” One day she playfully responded by chasing Tommy down and giving him a big kiss on the cheek.
Except for a few upgrades and a disastrous fire, Atkinson’s Mill has been in continuous operation since 1757. Located on the picturesque banks of the Little River, Atkinson’s Mill and its original earthen dam were built by John Ritchardson when North Carolina was still a colony. The mill didn’t take up much of the 2,400-acre Ritchardson plantation, but provided a generous supply of ground corn to the plantation as well as to area farmers, who bagged their shelled corn and hauled it to the mill for processing.
While neighboring farmers would receive a good supply of the basic ingredient for corn bread or “pone”, they also used a trip to the mill as an excuse to give them a chance to fish in the mill pond. Corn grew tall and far in the rich Carolina soil, and became a valuable commodity across the state. The mill’s importance to the community grew as well. In addition to the grist mill, the property ultimately expanded to consist of a cotton gin, sawmill, blacksmith shop, and wheat mill. The mill changed hands several times over the next 100 years, but remained in the hands of descendants of John Ritchardson for the better part of two centuries.
Among the Carolina pines along US 301 just off Interstate 95 in Kenly stands the Tobacco Farm Life Museum, which is a testament to the almighty leaf’s significance to Johnston County and North Carolina as a whole. Without money that flue-cured tobacco brought to countless North Carolina farm families, generations of Tarheel farm children would not have attended college, and many farmers would have lost their land.
Located in the middle of North Carolina’s world famous Tobacco Road, nearly half of the nation’s billion pounds of flue-cured tobacco is grown within 50 miles of the museum site each year. What more fitting place could there be for such a museum honoring the farm family’s way of life in Eastern North Carolina.