Former Rep. Mike Decker (far left) celebrates Oak Ridge's incorporation with members of the first Town Council: (Left to right) Gary Blackburn, Bill Parrish, Greg Bissett and Mack Peoples. (Not shown: Councilman Roger Howerton)

Oak Ridge History

Although the Town of Oak Ridge was officially incorporated in 1998, its roots as a community extend back to at least the 1700s. Many of the town’s most important structures and sites are part of the town’s Historic District, which was established in 1994, prior to the Town’s incorporation. 


Overview of Early History

For centuries before European settlers arrived, the natural beauty of the Oak Ridge area was a backdrop for human habitation. Tradition holds—and archeological evidence bears it out—that the crest of the ridge, which runs from the southwest some fifty miles to present-day Reidsville in the northeast, was well used by Native Americans. It was along this route in 1781, during the American Revolutionary War, that General Cornwallis’ men passed by Oak Ridge farms on maneuvers that led them to the battle of Guilford Courthouse before Yorktown and surrender.

In the second half of the 18th century, western Guilford County was settled largely by Quakers migrating from Pennsylvania and Nantucket Island and by pioneers out of Virginia. They were described as being “orderly, law-abiding, religious” and, by evidence of their prosperous farms and commodious homes, hard-working. The dwellings of the late 1700s are gone; but several 19th century houses survive, most of which were built by the descendants of the earliest settlers and original founders of today’s Oak Ridge Military Academy.

In 1926, Thomas Early Whitaker described the setting of his beloved Oak Ridge Institute (now Oak Ridge Military Academy) as “in the hill country of northwest Guilford, 1,040 feet above sea level; noted for its healthfulness; accessible to the cities of Piedmont North Carolina; ... a rural community of law-abiding, progressive citizens.”

More than 100 years ago, J.A. Holt, then principal at the Institute, said Oak Ridge was "finely wooded and well watered with the finest of freestone water, and commanding an extensive view of mountain ranges and foothills. The Blue Ridge, the Pilot, Sauratown, Moore's Knob, the Pinnacles of Dan, all loom up ... within a range of fifty miles. The fine oak groves and natural shaded lawns make it an ideal place for a residence.”

With affectionate pride, he concluded: “It has been called ‘God's Country.’”


Creation of the Oak Ridge Historic District

The Oak Ridge Historic District was established on October 18, 1994, and recognizes historic buildings as well as historically significant open spaces and scenic vistas. Its boundaries encompass a one and three-quarter mile stretch of Oak Ridge Road (N.C. Highway 150), between Williard Road at the southwest and Bastille Lane to the northeast. The district also extends northwest for one-half mile from Oak Ridge Road along Linville Road.

More than 400 acres comprise the district, contributing some 70 historical resources in pre-1945 primary and accessory structures and open parcels of traditionally farmed lands. The Oak Ridge Military Academy National Historic District lies within the Oak Ridge District. For additional information on historic structures within the district, click here.

Preservationists agree that historic districts help preserve a town’s unique charm and livability. Even as Oak Ridge’s commercial core and population have grown, the Historic District has ensured there are visual and stylistic connections between the old and the new. The District also plays an important role in protecting property values and supporting local businesses.


Oak Ridge’s Incorporation

(The following is from an article by Sandra Smith included in the Celebrating Oak Ridge / 20 Years publication by the Northwest Observer in 2018)

By 1994, Oak Ridge was well established, and the operation of the Historic District and other zoning matters fell under the jurisdiction of Guilford County. But by the late 1990s, residents began to feel the need for self-governance. For many, those feelings had to do with Greensboro’s aggressive annexation efforts. “During the 1990s the City of Greensboro developed detailed plans to annex 45 square miles of property. Greensboro’s planned unilateral annexation activity within Guilford County spurred the incorporation of several of the counties [sic] newest towns including Oak Ridge, Pleasant Garden, Sedalia and Summerfield,” Russell M. Smith wrote an article in Southeastern Geographer. The Town of Kernersville was also greedily eying the growing community by making plans to cross the Guilford/Forsyth County line.

Fiercely independent, Oak Ridge residents did not want to be gobbled up and controlled by Greensboro or any other neighboring municipality.

“We wanted to be able to make our own decisions and to not be taken over by somebody else,” says Roger Howerton, an Oak Ridge native who has seen many changes in the primarily agricultural community he grew up in. A member of the incorporation effort who served on the first appointed town council, Howerton went on to be elected and served 14 years as town council member and mayor pro tem.

“I personally supported the effort because I knew without incorporation, the ‘town’ of Oak Ridge would cease to exist within a very few years,” says Gary Blackburn, who was Director of Public Relations at Oak Ridge Military Academy at the time and was appointed mayor pro tem of the first town council. “I believed it was the last chance to save the town, and I believed it was worth the fight.”

Jerry Cooke was another local resident who was involved. Cooke had purchased a large farm that encompassed three of the corners at the intersection of N.C. 68 and N.C. 150 in 1975. “It was just a sleepy crossroads,” he recalls of Oak Ridge at that time. In the 1990s, Cooke had tried three times to rezone the northwest corner of the intersection to allow for what is now Oak Ridge Commons shopping center. Each time, he tried to meet individually with the 11 Guilford County commissioners to explain what he wanted to do. Meeting with that many people and trying to get a favorable vote on an area they knew or cared little about was draining. “It was a non-entity as far as they were concerned,” he says of Oak Ridge. “I thought it was important that locally, we make our own decisions. We needed local government.”

Incorporating a town is an arduous task involving much time, effort, and determination over a period of months or even years. It requires many hours of strategy meetings, gathering community support, and getting consent from neighboring municipalities and the county on the effort as well as specific town boundaries. It also entails lobbying state officials to help maneuver legislation through various committees, and approval by a three-fifths majority in both state houses.

Oak Ridge residents were fortunate to find a friend in Mike Decker, a member of the N.C. House of Representatives. Blackburn says Decker not only attended every meeting with Oak Ridge residents, but he promised to introduce the bill and shepherd it through the legislature.

The Northwest Observer, then called the Oak Ridge Observer, covered the incorporation effort in an article entitled “Oak Ridge Pursues Incorporation” on the front cover of its inaugural edition in November 1996, and in many subsequent issues. The article reports on a September 1996 community meeting at Oak Ridge Elementary School: “With Hurricane Fran coming in like a lion, the turnout was amazing” with an estimated 350 residents in attendance.

Neighboring municipalities ran the gamut from supportive to outright hostile. Stokesdale and Summerfield lent their support fairly quickly. Some of those involved recall Greensboro working behind the scenes to derail the effort, but ultimately agreeing to a compromise that moved Oak Ridge’s southern boundary to Reedy Fork Creek, reducing the new town’s overall size.

But Kernersville was a different story, and an all-out war erupted between Kernersville leaders and Oak Ridge residents. “The opposition of (then-) Mayor Larry Brown and the Kernersville Board of Aldermen was total,” Blackburn recalls. “They and their legal team continuously changed tactics and tried to out-maneuver us every step of the way.”

In the end, Oak Ridge residents gave up the proposed plan to incorporate the entire fire district and settled for less, believing that the smaller-than-desired area was better than nothing. “It wasn’t what we wanted, but it was what we had to do,” Howerton says. In order to get approval, Oak Ridge also had to agree not to try to annex any area closer to Greensboro or Kernersville for 20 years.

After the bill was finally approved by the legislature, Oak Ridge faced one more hurdle before it was a town – a vote of the people. When residents came out to vote in the November 1998 election, a whopping 95 percent of those who voted were in favor of incorporation.

With many municipalities seeking incorporation during that time, some began fearing that towns would incorporate simply to receive portions of franchise fees and sales tax revenue and to thwart existing municipalities’ annexation efforts. Such “paper towns,” as they were called, did not provide any services or charge property taxes, but took money from the county and state. So legislation was passed that stipulates any town incorporating after January 1, 2000 must provide at least four services – such as law enforcement, street maintenance or construction, garbage collection, or zoning – and charge a property tax of at least 5 cents per $100 of property value.

That legislation effectively closed the door on many towns, including Colfax, that also wanted to incorporate.

Howerton now counts the fact that the town was able to incorporate and the construction and success of the park as two of his proudest accomplishments in service to the town.

In 2018, Oak Ridge celebrated its 20th anniversary.