Yesterday, I had to pick up something at my office. I take a strange route to the office now from my new apartment. I drive down a small road that runs smack between the western-most airport runway and I-485. There’s one turn-off on the road that takes a bridge over I-485 and at that turn-off, there’s a sign with an arrow to Dixie’s Grille.
I’d noticed it a few dozen times before, and had looked it up on Yelp. The photos of cheeseburgers looked tasty and it had decent reviews. The name made me apprehensive though. So, as I was driving home from the office, I decided to swing by Dixie’s Grille just to see if it was a place I might like to visit one day.
This is the story of how I came across the Cooper Log House, a 1780 pioneer home that is likely the oldest standing structure in Mecklenburg County. To most people, this would be a semi-interesting find. To a person who prides herself on her knowledge of Charlotte history, this was basically the equivalent of an Egyptian archeologist accidentally stumbling across the tomb of a mummy they didn’t even know had existed.
The house sits on a corner and I only noticed it after I’d turned around from Dixie’s (which looked promising, by the way). The house is striking in person. It’s so obviously old and makes no sense in the neighborhood. Naturally, I ended up spending a large portion of my evening researching the home and surrounding area. Its history is remarkable. And it’s given me an entirely different perspective on Charlotte’s early history. Here’s what I learned:
The original owner of the home was a pioneer named William Cooper who built the log cabin on 350 acres next to the Catawba River (it’s said William inherited part of the land from his father, John, one of the earliest settlers in the area who came here from Scotland). William was a slaveholder, raising cotton and other crops. He passed the home to his son, who passed it to his son, who fought in the Civil War and went on to be the Sheriff of Mecklenburg County from 1887 to 1898.
The home itself has been added on to many times—mostly in the 1800s. But it’s said to still have original pieces like a fireplace mantle from 1780. It also has several outbuildings from the 1800s.
This part of Charlotte, known as the Dixie Berryhill neighborhood (adjacent to Steele Creek), was originally incredibly prosperous. It included miles of Catawba River shoreline and hundreds of acres of farmland dotted with fancy antebellum homes. Then, in the 1870s, a railroad was built that went directly from Charlotte to Atlanta—its primary crossing was just south of where Wilkinson Boulevard now crosses the Catawba.
The railroad was built there because of the proximity to the crops. Then, in the 1920s, Wilkinson Boulevard was built there because of the proximity to the influential area and closeness to the railroad. Wilkinson quickly became the most major highway in the state of North Carolina. Then, in the 1930s, Ben Douglas built his first runway at what would become Charlotte Douglas International Airport. He chose the location because, at the time, pilots needed landmarks they could see from the air and the perpendicular lines of Wilkinson Boulevard and the Catawba River were perfect. Finally, in the 1990s, when planners were trying to decide where to put the outer loop (I-485), it made sense for it to be close to the airport, but not as far west as the Catawba.
And so now, precisely because it had been the fanciest area in town and home to the wealthiest landowners 200 years ago, that area of town is criss-crossed with major highways, railroads, and an airport—making it a far cry from fancy these days.
I didn’t know any of this before yesterday and I couldn’t be more excited about it. It’s hard to find much Charlotte history beyond 150 years ago. But here’s this little treasure trove right across the river from me.
So, back to the house (and I promise this entry is ending soon): According to Mecklenburg County land records, it’s been owned by the same man since 1989. And according to this weird listing on Zillow, it’s not for sale but it’s “open to offers any time.” Currently, it doesn’t look like a historic home. In fact, it looks a little like a junkyard. (I’m not trying to be disrespectful to the current owner. I think he may actually be running some sort of junkyard from the backyard.)
No one seems to be giving the structure the attention it needs. Beyond some documents I found about being sure to save it when I-485 was being built, it’s been virtually ignored in the public sphere. So, I need someone with a historical focus to make one of those offers, buy this home, and fully restore it. Then open it to the public (me!) so I can visit Mecklenburg County’s oldest home.
All this because I just wanted to check out a burger joint.