Swashbuckling in Greenville
By Michael E.C. Gery
As “the heart of eastern North Carolina,” Greenville stays lively in all seasons because of its Tar River heritage, dedication to education, premier medical care facilities and a certain breed of pirates.
The town formed first in Log Town when John Hardee in 1760 turned his house into a courthouse for the new Pitt County. Richard Evans in 1771 laid out his plantation for what we know today as uptown Greenville. Back then it was called Martinsborough, in honor of a roundly disliked New Yorker who was the colonial governor of North Carolina at New Bern. In 1787, the state legislature renamed the town for Gen. Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War hero who drove the British army out of the Carolinas. At the same time, the legislature chartered Pitt Academy, and ever since the town has been a hotbed of educators and other heroes. (It was Gen. Greene who said, “Learning is not virtue but the means to bring us an acquaintance with it,” as well as, “We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again.”)
The river saw heavy navigation in service to cotton plantations and later tobacco farms. A hundred years ago, Greenville was one of the world’s largest tobacco markets. Today’s East Carolina University was emerging from adolescence then, formed by the legislature in 1907 as the co-educational East Carolina Teachers Training School. William Blow was the leading doctor here in the first half of the 1800s, succeeded by Charles J. O’Hagan, who came as a teacher then studied medicine in New York and returned to Greenville to practice in the years leading up to the Civil War. While local women ran makeshift hospitals during that war, Greenville’s first official one was opened in 1924 by four doctors, including Dr. O’Hagan’s grandson.
Greenville emerged into the modern era in the 1960s. Maybe the first sign was the drive-through burger stand opened in 1960 at the popular college cruising zone of 14th and Charles by local boy Wilbur Hardee. Or maybe it was Lively Louie, The Talking Litter Box, at Five Points that said “thank you.” Major “redevelopment” occurred during ensuing years, including the controversial razing of the so-called “Tenderloin” district or “downtown,” now the Town Common area along the river.
Today, Greenville is home to 87,000 residents, about 27,000 ECU students, some 1,700 licensed providers at Vidant Medical Center, and about 1,400 employees at DSM Pharmaceuticals, not to mention champion BMX stunt bikers, Extreme cheerleaders and skaters, and the world’s largest hammock maker.
Besides all this, Greenville is well known for its celebrations. Merchants over the years have staged Confederate Day, Dollar Day, Farmers Day, Hi Neighbor Day, Straw Hat Day and Turkey Day among others. There’s Freeboot Fridays during football season, as well as First Friday and summer’s Sunday in the Park series.