A Brief History of Farmville

April 16, 2024 / Peg O’Connell

The small and lovely town of Farmville, North Carolina, was chartered in 1872 and recently celebrated its Sesquicentennial.  The history of the town is one of progress and, as the Centennial town seal indicates, a commitment to “education, industry, religion and agriculture.” This history of this area of Pitt County is also one of famous families and early pioneers. 

Although the town is 150 years old, Farmville’s roots are more than 250 years old going back to the early settlers to the area. Outstanding among these early “pioneers” was Major (Revolutionary War militia) Benjamin May who arrived from Scotland in 1750 and settled in what is now Pitt County where he acquired thousands of acres of land in the Farmville vicinity. 

According to records, Major May was married three times and left a large family in the western part of Pitt County.  His first wife was Mary Tyson, the daughter of Cornelius Tyson, also an early Pitt County settler. Tyson became a large landowner on the north side of Little Contentnea Creek to the east of Farmville. 

The forefathers of many of the outstanding names in the history of Farmville were also early settlers to the area, purchasing land and receiving grants in or near the Town.  Many of names are reflected in a statement by Farmville’s great leader and benefactor R. L. Davis on the Town’s 60th anniversary celebration, “This was one of the most advanced sections of the County before the Civil War.  There were many large landowners. Prominent among them were the Joyners, Kings, Moyes, Mays, Belchers, Turnages and Askews.”  The names of these families can still be seen on street signs, at crossroads and on the mailboxes all over present-day Farmville.

What we know as Farmville, almost wasn’t Farmville at all. The area was originally called “New Town” and was a sparsely settled area around the log cabin dwelling of Miss Sallie Williams (circa 1840), the Antioch Disciple Church (established in 1854) and the Pitt County Female Institute (built in 1857).  The village grew in the midst of farm lands, some of the most fertile and productive in the world.

The village was close-knit from the beginning with nearly all the citizens descendants of the pioneer families. Following a large community meeting in February 1872, the residents of the town asked the North Carolina General Assembly for a Charter of Incorporation.  The Charter Act, ratified on February 12, 1872, named as the town’s original commissioners James W. May, Sherrod Belcher, Dorsey Jones, Williams Joyner, William G. Lang and James Joyner.  

Upon incorporation, the name “Farmville” was chosen because it was a community of farmers and virtually all its businesses and activities were farm related.   There is some disagreement on who actually proposed the new name, but it was clearly the perfect name for town located in the perfect agricultural setting.

The writers of the Farmville’s 100th Anniversary history noted that in the year of incorporation, “Ulysses S. Grant was President and Todd Robinson Caldwell was Governor of the State of North Carolina.”  These are interesting facts, but also an indication that while much of the South was struggling in the post-war years, the leaders of the new town of Farmville were optimistic about a bright future for their community.

Farmville grew slowly in population at first.  The 1880 census show only 111 in Farmville and 79 in the neighboring community of or Marlborough.  The 1890 census showed an increase of only 29 in ten years. But the turn of the century finally brought prosperity and growth to the little town.  (By, 2023, the population of Farmville had grown to 4521.)  

The cultivation of tobacco had begun in Pitt County and this, with the coming of the East Carolina Railroad in 1900, brought a business boom and the beginning of Farmville’s long and prosperous association with tobacco.  The tobacco market , where farmers would bring their crop to be graded and sold, began in 1905. The first tobacco sold on the Farmville Market was bought by A. C. Monk.  A. C. Monk and Company grew and expanded steadily and became one of the largest independent dealers and exporters of tobacco in the world, as well as one of Farmville’s largest employers.

The signs of the growing economy were everywhere. Brick buildings, made with brick from a kiln in Farmville, began to replace wooden structures.   More mercantile businesses began to appear, as well as banks, a tobacco plant, an oil and fertilizer plant, automobile businesses, stables for mules (an important element of the tobacco economy), lumber mills and in 1908, The Norfolk and Southern Railroad came to town.  

As Farmville prospered, more businesses came and the residents formed a variety of social and service organizations. The local newspaper noted the 1919 organization of the Farmville Boy Scouts, the Merry Matrons and the Farmville Social Club. In 1922, Farmville’s first public library was established and Farmville erected its first baseball park.  This was the first year that Farmville played in East Carolina Baseball League. 

The town’s vision for a bright future has always been informed by an appreciation of the past and those leaders who first came to settle in this area of western Pitt County.  

The May Museum and Park is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the Town of Farmville and the surrounding areas of western Pitt County. It chronicles the agricultural, commercial, domestic life, and transportation history of the area from colonial times to the present. The museum interprets the area’s history through permanent displays, rotating exhibits, and special programs, which are offered periodically throughout the year.  The Museum occupies an 1850’s era home which is located in the National Register of Historic Places Farmville Historic District. 

In 1926, the Major Benjamin May Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was chartered and in 1938 the DAR Chapter House was dedicated.  It was completed in 1949. This Chapter House not only serves as a repository for Revolutionary era history and genealogy, but is also available to community members as a gathering place.  The Farmville DAR building is distinctive in that it is one of the few Chapter Houses originally built to serve as a Chapter House still in existence. 

Although Farmville’s economy has changed and the tobacco market is now gone, the town’s economy remains robust. Over the years, Farmville has recruited a variety of manufacturing and service industry concerns to the area and has most recently focused on developing tourism and has made a strong commitment to the arts and education.

In a letter to the residents of Farmville on the occasion of the town’s Centennial anniversary, then Farmville resident and Congressman Walter B. Jones saluted the town with these words, “The first 100 years have shown a marked degree of progress; this, of course due to an inherent desire on the part of all for a wholesome community and a progressive spirit.” 

This commitment to progress and community continues in the Town of Farmville today and will long onto the future, welcoming all who come whether they be visitors or new neighbors.  Farmville’s doors are always open.

Peg O'Connell