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Decimal Points: The historical legacy of McNairy Library

Decimal Points: The historical legacy of McNairy Library

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By Tim Cole

The Greensboro Public Library will open a new branch on Lake Jeanette Road this summer, named in honor of Glenn Onslow McNairy (1913-1998), a lifelong resident of Guilford County and a successful businessman who was very active in local civic affairs and volunteerism.

That Glenn McNairy’s name will grace this new facility is fitting. He not only was committed to this community, but his family’s story is so steeped in local history. McNairy was a direct descendant of Francis McNairy, a prominent early Scots-Irish Presbyterian who settled here even before Guilford County existed.

The new library in fact, sits on old McNairy family land, and the story of the McNairy family mirrors much of early Guilford County’s history: its settlement by recent immigrants to America, such as Scots-Irish and Germans — who typically arrived in Pennsylvania and made their way to the Carolinas — as well as the patriotic fervor and resilience of a people which finally culminated in the American Revolution and the making of a new nation.

According to Earl Weatherly’s “The Saga of the McNairy House” (1969) and the Rev. S.M. Rankin’s “History of Buffalo Church and Her People” (1934), shortly after his marriage to Mary Boyd in Lancaster County, Pa., Francis McNairy purchased, in 1762, a large tract of land along Guilford County’s Horsepen Creek from the famous Regulator leader Herman Husband.

No doubt McNairy was drawn to what was then Rowan County (Guilford was created from Rowan and Orange counties in 1771) by the availability of cheap and plentiful land. Like thousands of other frontiersmen who settled in the Carolina backcountry in the mid-18th century, the McNairys likely made their way down the Great Wagon Road through Maryland and Virginia before staking ground in North Carolina.

On their newly acquired Horsepen Creek farm, the McNairys erected a house that survives to this day, though not in its original location. In 1967, the austere log Francis McNairy House was dismantled and moved to the grounds of the Greensboro Historical Museum. Restored and opened to the public in 1969, the McNairy House’s design is described by architectural historian Marvin Brown (“Greensboro: An Architectural Record,” 1995) as a Federal-style dwelling with a “two-story, hall-parlor-plan.”

Francis McNairy sired nine children, farmed and acquired additional lands, including in 1773 a tract near Hunting or Richland Creek . It is on this land that the new library is located. He and his family are also listed by Rankin as early members of Buffalo Presbyterian Church.

At least two of his sons became attorneys, one of whom, John McNairy (1762-1837), is believed to have been a classmate of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson. Weatherly writes that Jackson temporarily resided in the McNairy home for about six months.

Francis McNairy and his son John later moved to Tennessee, but the other attorney-son James (1773-1840) remained in Guilford, living on at the original Francis McNairy home site. A large landowner like his father, he served as a justice of the peace, as well as a member of the state legislature. The present-day McNairys in Guilford are descended through him, Rankin says.

The McNairy homestead also figures in accounts of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, fought on March 15, 1781. Weatherly says the engagement took place “on the very edge of the McNairy property.” Because of the size of the house,” he adds, “and “(it) being situated near the prospective battle area, it was chosen by General Nathanael Greene, commander of the American forces, to serve as a hospital after the battle.”

It is believed that the venerable Dr. David Caldwell (1725-1824), Buffalo Presbyterian’s respected minister and an early Guilford educator, attended to the wounded taken to the McNairy house. In “A Sketch of the Life and Character of the Rev. David Caldwell, D.D.” (1842), some of Dr. Caldwell’s family related to author E.W. Caruthers the minister’s grisly role in the battle’s aftermath.

“(I)n Mr. McNairy’s house,” writes Caruthers, “they cut off legs and arms and threw them into a cart at the door until it was pretty well loaded; and then they were taken away and buried.” When the house was dismantled in the 1960s, Weatherly notes, “a physician’s scalpel, presumably the property of Dr. Caldwell ..., was found under the floor near the fireplace in the great room.”

In their “Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse” (2009) — surprisingly, the first book-length treatment of the battle — Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard make no mention of the McNairy house, but do allude to Lord Cornwallis’ concern that many of the American wounded lacked surgeons to attend to them. This could explain why Caldwell was drafted into such an assignment following the battle.

Today, of course, we do not expect battles in our front yards, and customers of the Glenn McNairy Library will mostly identify the new branch with books and other information resources.

But the name McNairy also can remind us of a legacy of personal sacrifice made here by men and women who fashioned homes and lives from the wilderness and fought for freedom more than two centuries ago.

Tim Cole is collections manager, Greensboro Public Library. Decimal Points is a regular feature provided by the library.

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