H.P. Helper and the Carolina Inn
In August 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Davidson resident H.P. Helper published the following advertisement in regional newspapers:
“Not an Abolitionist. Owing to the well known political course of my brother … I have been made an object of suspicion by some malicious persons, who have again put slanderous reports in circulation about me. For the satisfaction of all, and in justice to myself, I make this announcement, that my loyalty to the south (my home from birth and shall be the remainder of my life,) is or should be known by honestly disposed persons to be sufficiently true to dispel all fears from the minds even of those who willfully seek to misrepresent me. Therefore I hope that due allowance will be made for such attempted mischief hereafter, and that he whose mind may be troubled about me may have the courage to come to me and know the truth, rather than sneakingly run through the neighborhood circulating falsehoods which magnify from every mouth.”* (The Western Democrat, August 13, 1862)
Hanson Pinckney Helper was to become a prominent figure in Davidson’s history. Helper was born in Rowan County in 1825, later moved to Davie County with his family, and may have been living and operating a store in Davidson as early as 1850. He was certainly in town in 1854 when he was appointed postmaster. In 1855 he bought a building, originally built by Lewis Dinkins in 1848, which Leroy Springs had been using as a store. Helper first had a store in the building, and he married local girl Sallie C. Adams, the daughter of the late Abner Adams, on May 1, 1856. By 1860 he had converted the store building into a 13-room hotel, the building on Main Street which we now know as the Carolina Inn. He published an ad in Charlotte’s Western Democrat which described it as a “large and comfortable Hotel and Boarding House…where all who may wish can find good accommodation.”
Helper once again served as Davidson’s postmaster under the Confederate government in 1861. Acccording to the Western Democrat, by July 1862 the hotel was for sale “with all the furniture and fixtures, stock of Provisions, &c.” His first wife, Sallie, must have died during the 1860s, because according to the 1870 census he was working as a merchant and living in Davidson with his wife, Martha, and five children. His obituary indicates that his second wife was Martha “Mattie” McGaw. The hotel may not have sold in 1862, because in an 1874 ad in the Charlotte Observer Helper indicated that he wanted to sell his “Brick Dwelling and Store House, at Davidson College. This property is the best, and the location the best of any other property there, for boarding, hotel, mercantile, or any other business.”
In 1876, in an ad published in Charlotte’s Southern Home, Helper was offering “a large and carefully selected stock of Clothing for gentlemen, youths and boys.” Helper may have also been dealing in property, as he frequently had stores, houses, and land for sale. In January 1879, he advertised “Some Dwelling Houses, large and small” and some farmland for sale. That year, when the town of Davidson College was incorporated, he was a town commissioner.
The 1880 census indicated that Helper was farming in Deweese Township, where he was appointed a constable in 1886, but by 1890, he was again running a hotel. In 1895 many of his holdings in and around Davidson College were sold as part of a foreclosure. By 1902, he was again running a hotel and serving as chief of police. He died that year and was buried in the Davidson College Cemetery. His obituary, published in the Charlotte News on October 2, 1902, called him “one of the oldest and most highly thought of citizens of Mecklenburg County” whose “wise counsel and splendid business ability was duly appreciated.”
* The brother he refers to was Hinton Rowan Helper, an abolitionist who published the controversial book The Impending Crisis of the South in 1857.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.