In the 1850s, beneath a huge hickory tree, Henry Robinson built a tavern of logs. The spot was known as "Hickory Tavern." In 1870, Hickory Tavern was established as a town. Three years later in 1873, the name was changed to the Town of Hickory, and in 1889 to the City of Hickory.
The first train operated in the area of Hickory Tavern in 1859. The first lot was sold to Henry Link for $45.00 in 1858. His house is now known as "The 1859 Cafe", a restaurant (closed in 2011).The community of Hickory was the first for many things in North Carolina, including the council-manager form of government it adopted in 1913. Hickory was also one of the first towns to install electric lights in 1888 and a complete sewerage system in 1904.
In 1868, Dr. Jeremiah Ingold, pastor of the German Reformed Grace Church, established Hickory's first school, the Free Academy.
In 1891, Lenoir–Rhyne University (then Highland Academy) was founded by four Lutheran pastors with 12 initial students.
Hickory is home to one of the oldest furniture manufacturers in the United States that is still located and operated on the original site. Hickory White, formerly known as Hickory Manufacturing Company, was built in 1902 and has been in continuous operation ever since. During World War II, the factory made ammunition boxes for the U.S. military instead of furniture.
Hickory was known in the years after World War II for the "Miracle of Hickory". In 1944 the area around Hickory (the Catawba Valley) became the center of one of the worst outbreaks of polio ever recorded. Residents who were then children recall summers of not being allowed to play outside or visit friends for fear of contracting the disease. Since local facilities were inadequate to treat the victims, the citizens of Hickory and the March of Dimes decided to build a hospital to care for the children of the region. From the time the decision was made until equipment, doctors, and patients were in a new facility, took less than 54 hours. Several more buildings were quickly added. A Red Cross official on the scene praised the project "as the most outstanding example of cooperative effort he has ever seen."
The city also came to national attention when the remains of Zahra Baker were found leading to a police investigation where Zahra's stepmother, Elise Baker, was found guilty of second-degree murder. The Zahra Baker All Children's playground, located in Kiwanis Park, is named in her honor.
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