Why This Matters: The Levine Museum of the New South exhibit “Splendid Service: Camp Greene & the Making of a New South City” explores the history of Charlotte’s World War I military camp and its impact on the Queen City.
By Bernie Petit
A turning point in Charlotte’s race to become the largest city in North Carolina can be traced back to a forgotten military camp that seemingly popped up overnight 100 years ago.
The centennial anniversary of that base is celebrated in the exhibition “Splendid Service: Camp Greene & the Making of a New South City” at Levine Museum of the New South. The exhibit, which opened in October, places the history of the camp into the broader contexts of World War I and Charlotte’s growth.
Camp Greene “brought wartime industries into the city at a time where we had a flagging economy,” said Brenda Tindal, staff historian at Levine Museum. “It also brought new people into the region, so it’s interesting to look at how what comes out of war can transform the urban landscape.”
Camp Comes to Town
Today, Charlotte is a city of 842,000 people. But in 1917, the population was roughly 30,000. Textile mills, cotton fields and railroads dominated the city landscape. Charlotte was jockeying to become the largest city in the state, racing against coastal cities New Bern and Wilmington and inland cities Raleigh and Winston-Salem, said historian Dr. Tom Hanchett.
The United States also entered WWI that year. After learning the federal government was building training camps across the country to support the war effort, Charlotte leaders lobbied successfully for one.
“Getting the federal government to spend money in your community is one of the great American pastimes,” Hanchett said. “Having that federal investment would be one thing that would put Charlotte in the lead.”
Railways and Ice
Located about a mile west of Charlotte’s center city, the camp went up in 90 days and covered 6,000 acres (roughly the size of 4,560 football fields). The base included:
- Its own hospital, an airport and a firing range;
- A mile’s worth of stables for horses;
- Miles of trenches to prepare troops for the fights they would encounter in Europe; and
- Hundreds of tents and wooden barracks that housed the more than 60,000 soldiers that came through the camp.
“It came out of nowhere and changed Charlotte’s population overnight,” said Katie Lloyd, who lives in the Camp Greene neighborhood that eventually sprang up where the camp once stood and manages the neighborhood association website.
Charlotte’s railways and mild climate helped it land Camp Greene, named after Nathanael Green, who assumed command of the American army opposing British forces in 1780 during the Revolutionary War.
Charlotte’s train system provided reliable in getting soldiers in and out of the city. However, the weather proved to be more of a challenge than expected, said Jack Dillard. Dillard wrote and produced the 2011 documentary “City of Canvas: The Story of Camp Greene.”
“That happened to be the worst winter ever in Charlotte to that point,” Dillard said. “There were 16 snow or precipitation events, ice or snow or whatever, between a two- or three-month period. They had to halt some of the training because the ground was too slippery. And when it melted, the ground became a sea of red Carolina clay mud.”
Camp Greene continued to influence the city’s landscape and population after it was disassembled after the war ended in 1918. The area attracted working-class and African-American families in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Several landmarks associated with the community were built during those decades, including:
- Wilkinson Boulevard, the first four-lane paved highway in North Carolina, opened in the mid-1920s;
- Early homes in Reid Park – the predominately African-American neighborhood founded in the 1930s by Ross Reid, an African-American WWI veteran – were built from wood from the Camp Greene barracks; and
- The oldest Dairy Queen in the state and one of the oldest in the Southeast was built in 1947 on Wilkinson Boulevard.
The hospitality soldiers and visitors experienced in Charlotte while visiting Camp Greene enticed many of them to come back for good, Dillard said. One of those soldiers that returned to Charlotte to live was Walter McCrory. McCrory came to Camp Greene from Wisconsin before being sent to war.
“The story is, he was a pharmacist, and when he filled out his form and put down he was a pharmacist, they read it as ‘farmer’ and they put him in charge of the horses,” Dillard said.
McCrory was the grandfather of former Charlotte mayor and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.
Other reminders of the camp can still be found:
- The James C. Dowd House, which was built in 1879 and became the headquarters of the camp, still stands on Monument Street;
- Remount Road got its name from being the road that led to the camp stables, where soldiers would dismount tired horses and “remount” fresh ones; and
- Camp Greene Street runs perpendicular between Wilkinson Boulevard and Freedom Drive, where the public artwork “Faces of Freedom” includes a mosaic representation of the historic camp.
In spite of these reminders and other artifacts that still exist, “I found that almost nobody had heard of Camp Greene except for historians,” Dillard said.
That doesn’t mean the camp isn’t relevant to Charlotte today.
“It was an early moment where we started out on the national stage,” Hanchett said. “It’s something we can look back on with some pride.”
Want to Go?
“Splendid Service: Camp Greene & the Making of a New South City” explores the rich history of the people of Camp Greene and the enduring impact of the military base on Charlotte’s social, political and economic transformation during and after World War I. It is currently on exhibit at Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. 7th St., Charlotte. For hours, admission and more information, visit MusemOfTheNewSouth.org.