Historic Facts & Famous People You May Not Know About

Facts About Rocky Mount NC

From Rocky Mount, NC

The footsteps of Rocky Mount’s history echo not only along the falls of the Tar River, but also throughout North Carolina. The comforting rattle of the train beckons young and old alike to close their eyes and remember the past in order to embrace a brighter future.

Many already know about the “rocky mound” upon which Rocky Mount was built, but are you aware of some of these lesser-known Rocky Mount facts and famous people? Take a stroll with us through history as we examine these treasured tidbits of trivia.

What’s in a name? A lot if you’re president…

Yes, it really was a rocky “mound” that served as the genesis of Rocky Mount’s name. Newcomers hear the word “mount” and assume that Rocky Mount is stationed in the Appalachian Mountains instead of the wide, flat Carolina coastal plain. It’s a common mistake; The president made it, too.

On May 7, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and Governor Terry Sanford visited a tenant farmer near Rocky Mount to promote the president’s war on poverty and launch his tour of underprivileged Appalachia. Johnson even gave a speech in front of Rocky Mount’s City Hall. (You can read the entire speech here.)

Of course, the question arose, why Rocky Mount? It isn’t in Appalachia. Not even close. While many assumed it was that the name may have been responsible for this mishap, others said that it was more a matter of finding a family who would benefit from Johnson’s initiatives, regardless of where they lived within the state. 


A River Runs Through It

That rocky mound would not have been able to develop without the resources of the Tar River. When it comes to the name of the Tar River, there are still a few questions.

While it’s not been definitively verified, many believe that it was originally called the Tau River, based upon the Native American word for “health." There’s even a 1913 story of Confederate soldiers dumping thousands of barrels of pine tar and turpentine into the river to keep it from being used by the Union army.(This was recounted by J.D. Meyers in “How the Yankees Found the Tar River.”) Some even speculate it was named after the Taw River in Devonshire England.

But perhaps most interesting is the fact that this river actually has two names. Traveling to “little” Washington, NC, the name changes from the Tar River to the Pamlico River. Why? It’s not clear. Many speculate that there were two different geological surveys going on at the same time, but even this explanation is problematic. Perhaps this will just have to join other North Carolina moniker mysteries.

"Battle’s Mill" in Rocky Mount Revitalized by Brewery Incubator

Rocky Mount Mills was a gristmill before it made North Carolina history on several fronts:

  • It was the second-oldest cotton mill in the state.
  • It continued operation until 1996, making it the oldest operating textile mill in the southeast.
  • It is now the setting for one of the state’s first brewery incubators.

The mill has gone by the names Great Falls Mill and Battle’s Mill (after the prominent Battle family). 

All Aboard! Trains Drive Development in Rocky Mount

Anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time knows that the Wilmington / Weldon Railroad was vital for the region’s development. What many may not know was that in 1840, it was the longest continuous railroad in the world.

MLK’s Dream Rediscovered Through Discovery of Historic Speech Recordings

While Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech will be forever etched in history against the background of Washington, DC, elements of his speech debuted nine months earlier at the Booker T. Washington School in Rocky Mount. While many are aware of this treasured jewel, a recent discovery in a town library provided rare footage of this Civil Rights icon in Rocky Mount.

An NC State poetry professor, Jason Miller, found a recording of the event in a rusty box with a broken plastic reel. The film has been digitized and it includes three of King’s hallmark phrases: "Let freedom ring," "How long, not long," and "I have a dream." 

Hit the Road Jack!
(another famous person related to Rocky Mount)

Before he went "on the road" to pen one of the greatest novels of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac started the journey in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Kerouac visited his family in their small house on Tarboro Street, right across the Nash County line. Rocky Mount is actually referred to in his ground-breaking novel, only he called it "Testament, Va." This is the only time he used a fictitious name for a town in any of his books. 


The Raleigh News and Observer states:
“Kerouac roared into Rocky Mount on a roadway of words -- by train, bus or a ride that he bummed along the way. During the late 1940s until 1956, Kerouac made extensive visits to Rocky Mount.”

Rocky Mount has left its fingerprint on history through innovation and inspiration. Of course, this list is far from exhaustive. You may wish to check out ten other things you might not know about Rocky Mount or these eight famous people from Rocky Mount, NC. 

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