Clinton: A church-going, flag-waving sports-proud community

By: By Micki Cottle - Special to The Independent

It could be a small town like any small town you might know in almost any county in this beloved USA. Visible links to family and home are scattered everywhere.

OK, it readily admits to being a little old fashioned and about as American as apple pie, Christmas parades and Fourth of July picnics. It’s a church-going, flag-waving, sports-proud community. The high school marching band can strut with the best.

We’re probably just a short drive from your home, (tucked between Wilmington and Raleigh), but there are many places in the Carolinas whistling right around your own corner; waiting to say hello; that might seem hundreds of years removed from the present. So, we welcome you to ours, the progressive town of Clinton, the largest town in Sampson County … one of the largest counties in the state.

Clinton is also the county seat with a population of approximately 10,000 and 60,000 scattered elsewhere, in other towns and hamlets; quite a few tiny crossroads are thriving, some hard to locate on any map. But they are there, smiling in their individuality.

Dependable, mild temperatures, fertile land, good schools; community college, and major hospital, Sampson Regional; beautiful churches of all denominations, plus the many industries and businesses in the area, many signs of healthy growth. In 1998 the Sampson County Agri-Expositon Center arrived, offering live performing arts from all over the country, opening access to a state of the art multi-purpose building, with over 30,000 square feet; ideally suited for any civic or social activity. The Arts Council, Sampson Community Theater, Historical Society, Senior Centers, Fine Arts, Genealogy, and Sampson County History Museum, are all part of Clinton’s cultural resources, and just a few of the reasons it’s such a great place to visit or plant your roots.


Downtown is slowly being revitalized. Overhead lighting has been replaced with new decorative lights, and the traffic signals have mast arms that furnish a feeling of yesterday. A colorful large disc sculpture enhances the simplicity of main street.

Old sidewalks were removed and replaced with a combination of concrete accentuated with brick pavers. Green trees have been naturally placed here and there. It has a quaint “let’s take a stroll” feeling to it. And sometimes, at certain moments when the day begins to lean into evening, when the sun is paying final court, and filters of moonlight slip through the veins of time; there it is, echoing another era. The past sighs gently on every corner and you may feel a slight pull back to the turn of the century; yet, when you look around, signs that Clinton is growing are everywhere.

Actually the area is rich with historical and architecturally important structures. Two buildings are used for Bed and Breakfast operations. The Courthouse Inn, a bed and breakfast housed in a two story Greek Revival building which once served as the Sampson County Courthouse (1818-1904), and the Shield House, a Bed and Breakfast built in 1916 in the Classic Revival style, now the Richert Inn. Clinton beats with the heart of the present; is breathless with progress, and might stay up a little later, but she still looks over her shoulder at her rich heritage. She remembers Sampson was the “Blue Ribbon County” in the forties. And let’s see; W. Eugene Johnson was the chairman of the Sampson County Commissioners, (a dedicated farmer and notable business man from Harrells;) Mr. Eugene , L.A. Hall, and Arthur Naylor cared and worked for the county most of their lives.


Don’t be surprised if suddenly you find yourself listening for carriages, or laughter from a bygone era. Even the Clinton Cemetery whispers a thousand stories. The old Montague Hotel, (one of many long gone), in it’s hey-day was a vital part of Clinton society, alive with “drummers” and a couple of the CPL boys; Mr. Charlie Bland (who roomed there); the NC Telegraph crowd, and just about anybody who craved a good meal for $.25 cents.

The life of the hotel was the bustling Widow, Mary Highsmith Royall Honeycutt and her daughter, Ruth Alese. Between the two of them, they worked from sunup to sundown, making sure the pitchers in each of the 22 rooms were filled with water, the linen spotless, and the boarders fed like royalty. Quite a few of the locals were also regulars at Mrs. Mary’s table. Outspoken (admired,) legendary; Fannie Vann, with her shock of unruly hair, and inquisitive eyes who enjoyed, “agitating,” would stop by from time to time; “ One piece of chicken is more’n enough for you loafers!” She’d chuckle, shaking her head. They say Fannie once challenged a man to a duel on the courthouse square. He didn’t show up, Fannie did!

Suddenly it’s 1925, and you are there; yesterday is offering you a front row seat. A few Motel T’s or “Tin Lizzies” are scattered around, but for the most part hitching posts are still doing a lively business. If court was in session or Saturday marked the calendar, Clinton would be bursting at the seams. Otherwise things moved slowly. Time just kept adjusting. A


Clinton lies nicely curved in the southeastern part of North Carolina, and if you don’t fiddle around or stop to visit one of the downtown musical afternoon shows; or wander over to the Spivey’s Corner Hollerin’ contest (in June), or decide to bat the breeze with our Register of Deeds; maybe a chat with Ed.Carr, one of the best realtors in the area; Ed. Causey, (county manager) might even buy you a cup of coffee; they’re friendly folk. Or maybe you’re craving some rantin’ and ravin’ with the crowd at one of the “locals.” You can still easily hit the coast in a leisurely hour, or show up in Raleigh in about the same time. Highways 1-40, U.S. 421, U.S. 701, N.C. 24 and N.C. 403, plus a few side-streets will eventually bring you smack dab to the courthouse right in the center of town.

It is noted that the first (log) courthouse was built on an acre, of a five-acre plot given by Richard Clinton, in 1784, (after Sampson was separated from Duplin). The town was named in his honor in 1818. Richard would represent his state and county well. He was appointed Brigadier General in the State Militia, and served valiantly throughout the Revolutionary War. He was Register of Deeds from 1774-1783, and served in the State Senate from 1784-1795. Foster son of John Sampson, their history is rich.

The original post office was established on August 22, 1794. The town of Clinton was initially incorporated in 1822. The first settlers, (mostly Scotch-Irish (Highlanders) from Northern Ireland) came to the area around 1740. These European colonist were met by the Coharie Indians who descended from the Aboriginal Neusiok Indians tribe. Certainly true sons of America, Indians fought side by side with the colonists and with them gained their freedom and independence from England.

The state and nation have offered some degree of praise and honor to the Indians in a verse by historian, Eno Will. “Their memory sparkles over the fountains, their names inscribed on lofty mountains, the smallest rill, and the mightiest river, rolls on, mingled with their names forever.” So, though it’s quite modern now, time was, before “progress,” the soil was a little richer, the rivers brimming with a few more fish and the forest thickly inhabited with herds of deer and other game. So it began, slowly, surviving all the wars and growing pains; the future began.

Today, the rustic statue of a Confederate soldier, keeper of battles long past, stands erect in his silent dignity, marking his years of solemn vigil at the courthouse. Sherman’s battle cries would trouble him no more.

The monument to Vice President, William Rufus King, guards the north entrance. Much revered by the county of his birth (Sampson), the weathered monument bears the words: “William Rufus King 1786-1853, Statesman, Diplomat, and Vice President of the United States.” King, was elected by large majority to the distinguished post of Vice President, but he never lived to serve, dying from T.B., six weeks after taking the oath of office.

There are other tributes, all of equal importance. The first Sampson man killed in WWII is recorded; “Robert Fields, E. M3C .” Another face in time, lost on Dec. 7, 1941. He is remembered as are “all native sons who joined a cause for freedom and gave their lives.”


In backyards across this quilted piece of the South, the delicate, green leaves of tender, new growth, have long patched the scars of winters past, and now wait eagerly for new beginnings. Whistling down city streets, maples and indecisive dogwoods pout, still trying to make up their minds about summer. While fall whispers, “my turn.”

The excited shouts of day care children in the downtown Baptist Church, carry gently in the breeze, and bring smiles to the folks riding by with their windows down, halfway listening to the “Oldies” or over at the J.C. Memorial Holiday Library where the Reference Librarian, Philip Teachey works diligently in the History Room, his warm greetings a constant, his patience an asset to a friendly library staff that works hard to provide the community with opportunities for knowledge, entertainment, continuing education, and historical research.

Spring or fall never comes unnoticed in Sampson. The renewal begins gradually before it finally peaks in a couple of weeks, give or take a shadow or two. Daffodils and tulips bravely dodged threats of frost, and scampered out like busy toddlers never ceasing to amaze. The azaleas nod timidly from their showy-deep-green-homes, hesitant to put their great beauty on show, and like nervous beauty queens, promise spectacular things to come. And they do produce spectacular beauty. They know their worth! Gone for now with promises for another day.

Lush fields are being made ready for yet another year of planting. Cattle dot the wayside. Here and there neat mounds of hay, old survivors from the hushed season, are gathered in ancient giant circles; and the same gorgeous sunsets that seemed to waltz away so quickly during the fall and winter now stay till the dance is over. On the wing a streak of white flashes through the sky like a blaze of lightning. The songs birds are rehearsing for upcoming concerts. There is an awakening and another small town in North Carolina quietly stretches, pulling her children awake, ready for a new day.

A photo of downtown Clinton in the mid-1950s. photo of downtown Clinton in the mid-1950s.

By Micki Cottle

Special to The Independent