A Farmer, Family Man and Visionary
Life Lessons from a Man Named John Connor
By Mike Savicki
A small grove of fruit trees sits peacefully atop a small hill on John Connor Road in Cornelius as it has for nearly ninety years. Surrounded by million dollar homes and priceless sunset views of Lake Norman, it is easy to see why this grove goes largely unnoticed these days. Before the lake was created, and before the Peninsula homes were built, this grove was the centerpiece of the Connor farm and the spot where John Connor, one of the area’s first African American farmers, would sit and rest in the afternoons. A farmer, family man and visionary, John Connor’s work ethic, strong family values and outgoing personality endeared him to those who knew and loved him.
John Dolphus Connor was born on May 23, 1884, in Lincoln County and was the fifth child of 19 (11 girls and 8 boys) born to Cheasmon Monroe Connor and Sylva Ann Johnson Connor. As an elder son, John took it upon himself to look after his younger siblings and instill in his brothers and sisters the values his parents believed were so important. “I was the baby of the family and so I have all the memories and images of the children and our life on the farm,” said Mildred (Connor) Morey, 97, from her home in Detroit. “My brother John was a wonderful brother, a great farmer and a strong church man,” she added.
At the age of 24, John married Roxie Burton on December 25, 1908, and they raised twelve children (Rosie Lee, Doward, Georgia, Jannie, Josephine, John D. Jr., Cheeseman, Maggie, Robert, Garfield, Lewis and James Arthur). They also raised two foster children, Sherman Burton and Joe Connor. John and Roxie listed their occupations as “farmers” although their work as parents and strong ties to Hunters Chapel United Methodist Church ran deeper.
In 1921, John Connor bought 125 acres of land on Beatties Ford Road near the Catawba River for twenty-six dollars an acre. It is believed that John Connor saved the money from his work as a young railroad man to purchase the land. In the 1920’s, an African American man could not simply arrive at the court house to purchase land, so John Connor asked a white friend, Hugh Kelly, for assistance. Family folklore states that when Hugh Kelly returned, he simply said “Here is your deed, John Connor.”
Forty years later, the creation of Lake Norman turned the Connor farm into prime lakefront property, and with it came opportunity. In 1961, John Connor agreed to sell Duke Power Co. the 65 acres that would be covered with water when Lake Norman was created and he kept the remaining 60 acres for the family farm. A year later, the lake began to fill. “I remember coming to the property and seeing the stakes in the ground to mark where the water would come,” said John Connor, Jr., in a recorded interview seven years ago. “None of us believed that the land where we played would go underwater, but we watched the lake fill and get closer and closer to the stakes until it stopped right where they said it would.” he added.
The 60-acre farm, now situated on the banks of Lake Norman, became the center point of activity for the extended Connor family who traveled from across the region. They produced crops of corn, fruit and cotton and raised livestock such as cows, chickens, ducks, horses and pigs. “There was always activity around the barn,” said grandson Michael Connor, 56. “He tried to have as many different animals on the farm as he could, and I even remember my grandfather telling us not to wear red pants when we came to visit because we would be chased by the bulls.”
Michael Connor is one of eight siblings born to John’s son Cheeseman Connor. A speech and theater professor at Livingstone College in Salisbury, Michael Connor was raised in West Charlotte and regularly made the 45-minute drive up Beatties Ford Road to the Connor farm. He stated it was like traveling out to the country where “there was never a need to go to the grocery store and never a dull moment from sunrise to sunset.”
Connor remembers, “It was a whole different lifestyle up here on the farm. Coming to the country was like a home away from home. All our friends wanted to come up with us because it was such a different place than the city. At night it was so peaceful and quiet,” he added.
Knowing the lake would bring new opportunities for family fun, and wanting his family to remain close, John Connor set aside 8 acres along the shore of Lake Norman for family recreation and built a recreation center that was popular not only with the family, but also with other organizations and groups, as well. Built in 1972, the Lakeview Country Club was a popular summer spot for reggae concerts, family reunions and private parties hosted by many of Charlotte’s top businesses. “It was known as the Connor Family Recreation Center, but we all knew it as The Place,” said Michael Connor. “There was almost always something happening there, from reggae concerts to reunions,” he added.
Even with the seemingly endless recreational opportunities that arrived with the creation of Lake Norman, life on the farm wasn’t always relaxing for the children and grandchildren of John and Roxie. “When we came up from Charlotte on the weekends, it seemed like we never had to go to the store. Everything we needed was right here on the farm. We would wake at sunrise and go out and gather all the peas, corn, berries, peaches, tangerines, apples and vegetables we needed for lunch and dinner. Our aunts would sit and watch us complete our chores. We thought they were making sure we didn’t eat everything we picked, but they were really watching for snakes,” Michael Connor explained.
As he got older, John Connor’s work ethic never wavered. He was almost always doing something physical in the yard. “He was a little man with big dreams and an even bigger heart who loved to keep active,” explained Mildred (Connor) Morey.
John believed that people should take long walks in the fresh air. For many years, neighbors would see him walking along the stretch of Beatties Ford Road and would stop to chat. “I remember at dinner time my aunts and uncles would send us out to find our grandfather,” recalled Michael Connor. “Would you kids please go bring grandpa home for dinner please, they would shout.”
When John died in 1982 at the age of 98, he left each of his 10 children three acres each, 8 acres for family recreation and 22 undivided acres where the family’s brick house stood. While a portion of the land which included the original farmhouse is now contained in the 23 home peninsula named Connor Quay, the remaining land remains in family hands and is home to three new generations of Connors.
Before his death, he told his daughter, Maggie, that the key to a long life was to “love everybody, be kind to everybody, and help people who are in need.” His son, James, added, “He also believed that people should not be allowed alcohol and cigarettes.” While John Connor’s formal education ended around the fourth or fifth grade, “He had the intelligence of a college-educated man,” said John Connor, Jr. in 1990.
Sitting under one of the remaining fruit trees that once lined the family farm, grandson Michael Connor recently summarized the life of his grandfather with an animated smile that belongs on a Broadway stage. “My grandfather always said that land and money are great, but what really matters in life is spending time with the ones you love. What good is land if you don’t have someone to share it with, he would always ask.”
You can learn a lot about life from a man named John Connor.
This article was originally published in the February 2008 edition of Lake Norman Magazine.