Past Times: Hugh McRae recruited immigrants to seed farming colonies

Posted by Teresa Leonard on July 4, 2014 

Hugh MacRae, a developer and industrialist of the early 20th century, presided over many enterprises in southeastern North Carolina. One of the most interesting was his development of six rural “colonies” in Pender, New Hanover and Columbus counties for experimenting with agricultural practices. The colonies, some of which have familiar names, were settled by immigrant farmers. Italians settled in St. Helena, Hollanders in Castle Hayne and Van Eden, Greeks in Marathon, Poles in Artesia, and Germans and Hungarians in New Berlin, later renamed Delco.

In 1939, writer Gladys Best Tripp explained how MacRae took on the project to change farming practices in the Southeast, and the obstacles he faced. He originally recruited farmers from the Midwest, but they were discouraged by the locals who thought agricultural development around Wilmington was destined to fail, so they took the next train back west, all at MacRae’s expense.

But this complete defeat only fueled MacRae’s interest, and he was determined to make a success of the undertaking. There is always a cause for failure, he thought, and usually a remedy can be found. He recognized the fact that the danger of pessimistic views expressed by people, who with the best of intentions were doubtful of new methods, would always stand in the way. So he decided to get people who could not converse in English with the possible pessimists.

The Carolina Trucking Development Company was established to develop eastern North Carolina farm lands by intensive farming and demonstrate the section’s agricultural advantages for early spring vegetables and small fruits for northern markets. Immediately the company sent a representative to Italy to carefully select and bring back 30 families. They formed the settlement of about 2,000 acres 22 miles north of Wilmington in pine woods, which was named St. Helena for the Italian queen.

The Italians began to farm immediately and were very successful with the methods they had brought from the mother country. They cleared the forest. The wood was purchased by the Power Company in Wilmington, owned by Mr. MacRae, and the ashes from the burning of this wood sent back to St. Helena to build up the land’s fertility.

They planted small vineyards and gradually drifted into large grape cultivations. The wine they made was sold mainly through wine merchants in New York until the prohibition was passed. Believing that their business was ruined, the colonists left their farms to accept high wages offered by industries during the World War. And thus the Italian settlement gave up farming.

Another settlement had failed but Mr. MacRae saw only that another element was lacking. From Europe again and from some industrial centers of the United States he secured desirable families of Hollanders, Poles and Hungarians. Most of these were gathered into a settlement named Castle Hayne for the colonial owner of the plantation …

The different nationalities cooperated with each other, and the members of the community learned from the experience of the others.

The N&O July 16,1939

In 1996, Associated Press writer Elizabeth Tennyson visited St. Helena, where descendants of some of the original families still lived.

Saint Helena began as one of six immigrant colonies established by Wilmington developer Hugh MacRae. He lured Italian farmers to Saint Helena with promises of 10 acres and a three-room home for $240, payable over three years.

The first immigrants arrived in 1906 and cleared the wooded land for vineyards. But Prohibition put an end to their wine-making venture and by 1914 all but one Italian family, the Leimones, had moved away.

Rose Leimone still lives in the town her late husband's family helped found. …

When the other Italian immigrants moved, MacRae sent brochures, calendars and real estate agents advertising the community to recent immigrants living in other states.

“When my parents was in Montana, they got a calendar from the MacRae Co.,” said George Spisak, whose lilting speech reflects his Slovakian origins.

Spisak’s father, who was working in a coal mine at the time, was captivated by the calendar’s photo of a family harvesting enormous strawberries. In 1918, he and his wife bought a 20-acre plot without ever visiting the town. …

Those who remember the town before World War II paint pictures of Saint Helena as a vivid community with a rich ethnic fabric.

“We all got along,” said Spisak, whose neighbors were Hungarian. “My mother could speak Slovak and Hungarian, and I could understand Polish.” The N&O April 14, 1996

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.

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