(Editor’s note: First in a series on the history of Ronda.)
Revolutionary War heroes, Southern plantations, visits by Stoneman’s raiders during the Civil War and early progress highlight the rich history of Ronda.
The area was home to one of the earliest schools in the county. Midway Academy was established in 1866 by the Gwyn and Hickerson families living in the area. The school was named Midway because it was located between the two families.
Ronda Academy was established in 1884 as the apparent successor to Midway and was recommended by the Brier Creek Baptist Association, according to Dr. Bill Davis, a local historian and retired Wilkes Community College vice president.
Progress continued through the next century in Ronda. Quoting a history of Wilkes County published in 1914, historian J.J. Anderson wrote that Ronda was a “busy and growing town rapidly coming to the front as an industrial center for a large territory.”
In the early 1920s the town’s close proximity to the Southern Railway made it an important stop between North Wilkesboro and Greensboro.
The town had its own light plant in the 1920s when much of Wilkes County was without electricity. Arthur “Tump” Gwyn started the generator each morning at 4 a.m. and turned it off about 9 p.m. unless he was asked to keep it on because of family illness, visits or cooking, according to Anderson.
Several manufacturing plants, a brick kiln, two canning companies, “some of the handsomest homes in the county, large crops of corn, wheat and watermelons, and all kinds of vegetables and the largest lumber market between North Wilkesboro and Winston” made Ronda a desirable place to live, according to “The Great State of Wilkes.”
Anderson said the floods of 1916 and 1940, the Great Depression, population and industry changes left Ronda a smaller town with fewer industries.
The Yadkin River and the Great Roundabout, the farm of Revolutionary War hero Col. Benjamin Cleveland, have been an integral part of the area since the 1770s, when the community was settled.
Cleveland organized and led the Wilkes militia at the Battle of Kings Mountain, which was instrumental in the ultimate defeat of the British.
Cleveland is also remembered for his hanging of Tories (British sympathizers), especially at the Tory Oak in Wilkesboro.
Cleveland may have also hung a few Tories at Roundabout, close to the Yadkin River. Members of the Chatham family, current owners of the 1,300-acre farm, can identify the giant sycamore tree where they say Tories were hung.
The oft-repeated tale of Zachariah Wells, a known Tory, places his hanging by Cleveland at that same tree at Roundabout. Other sources place Wells’ hanging at Hughes Creek, located a mile below Roundabout, on the east side of Ronda, and near what is now East Wilkes High School, said Davis.
While the location of the story is in dispute, the key points are the same. Two young boys were at the hanging of Wells and begged Cleveland to have mercy.
But Cleveland was determined, telling the boys, “he is a bad man; we must hang all such dangerous Tories and get them out of their misery,” according to Davis.
Stories also vary on how the area became known as Ronda. Davis says the differing opinions come from two brothers whose family, the Hickersons, bought the Great Roundabout Farm in 1830.
The big round about bend in the Yadkin River, easily visible from Roundabout, is the most recognized version for how the town got its name. The bend almost wraps completely around Ronda and is also the reason for the plantation’s name.
Cleveland purchased 348 acres of land near the river in 1779, identified in the deed as the Great Roundabout. The exact location of Cleveland’s house, probably a log cabin, is unknown.
This more familiar version comes from Dr. Felix Hickerson’s book “Happy Valley.” Hickerson wrote it in 1940 while his family still owned the Great Roundabout farm.
However his brother, Robert Lee Hickerson, says the first version is incorrect, according to a Winston-Salem Journal article written in 1958.
Hickerson says that a man from Richmond, Va. came to Roundabout Farm seeking a right of way for the new railroad. There would be a post office and that meant a name had to be found for the new train stop.
The man from Richmond suggested Ronda since there was no other town with such a name.
During the celebration for Ronda’s centennial in 2007, Davis told the crowd that “however Ronda got its name we do know that Round About Farm and Benjamin Cleveland who was known as “Round About himself, because of his size, have brought significant identity to the town.”
Cleveland is also a main figure in many ghost stories told by R.G. Absher, local historian of Wilkes. In his “Ghosts of Yadkin Valley,” Absher writes that Cleveland was given a magnificent white Arabian horse because of his bravery at the Battle of King’s Mountain.
The horse was owned by the Major Patrick Ferguson, who commanded the British forces, at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Cleveland took the horse back to Roundabout and it became a favorite in the community.
When the horse died, a “fantastic” tale emerged, writes Absher. “For years and even up to present time, people report seeing a strange white horse with a red-coated rider carrying a sword and galloping along the river bottoms along the old Roundabout Plantation at the confluence of Bugaboo Creek and the Yadkin River.
“To this day people riding through the area along N.C. 268 East complain their cell phones routinely go out when they cross Bugabo Creek.”
(Future stories will focus on the Roundabout Farm, Green Hills and Claymont Hill Plantation, Ronda businesses and schools.)