Once again, Holly Springs is in the throes of municipal election season, and it’s a great time to do a little sleuthing into our prior mayors and their contributions to our little town. Although records are a little sketchy in the first fifty years of Holly Springs’ incorporation, there is a decent catalog of all the mayors since 1927, and over the years since then there have been some interesting trends.
In 1877, George Benton Alfred persuaded the North Carolina General Assembly to grant Holly Springs its charter of incorporation. He had moved his mercantile business to Holly Springs from Middle Creek after the Civil War and knew that it was time for the town to be on the map. The original township was one square mile of land around several major crossroads. From 1877 to 1927, there is a record of only one mayor in 1910, but the general lore is that Col. Alfred more or less ran the town until his death in 1923.
Shortly after his death, the Bank of Holly Springs failed (the first one in North Carolina to do so before the Great Depression) and the town struggled for a few years without any real, effective leadership. In 1926, however, the town managed to elect a mayor and town council and begin keeping records of such leadership. mayors were elected for 2-year terms back then, and would be for over 60 years.
The first recorded mayor of Holly Springs was Rufus Templeton, who was elected in 1910. Not much is known about Mr. Templeton, and the next mayor on record after his term isn’t until David Amon Baker in 1926. Baker was the first of several mayors that only served one term or partial terms as the office changed hands every two years or less between 1927 and 1937.
Baker served until 1927, when he was replaced by William Cecil Shaw, who was replaced by L.H. Furr in 1929. Furr resigned mid-term and was replaced by appointee Green Haywood Alford. Alford was re-elected for a new term in 1933, but resigned partway through his term and was replaced by David Amon Baker (sound familiar?). Baker finished out Alford’s term, Carl Massey was elected in 1935, only to resign and be replaced by appointee William Lonnie Price in 1936. Price had served as a commissioner for almost ten years when he stepped up to become mayor, and he was re-elected to four more terms after that to end the trend of musical mayors.
With the town being so young and so small, it took a number of years to get to the point where leadership was sustainable and there were enough residents who wanted to be involved at that level and enough voters to choose consistency in their leaders. With the same mayor for almost 10 years, the town was able to move forward in a positive direction.
Price’s last term was notable for the election of Elizabeth White. The first female commissioner in Holly Springs at the age of 49, Ms. White broke the first barrier for women locally by achieving political office 23 years after women first won the right to vote. She was the first of several women who became commissioners during the World War II years, presumably because of the reduction in available men in town to serve in those positions. Nonetheless, it was a banner moment in Holly Springs history.
In 1945, Irvin Gattman was elected mayor. A transplanted Yankee from New York who moved to Holly Springs after marrying a local girl, Gattman served two terms from 1945-1949 and during his tenure the town began discussing the building of a new town hall. Town leaders had met at a number of locations over the years, including the Mim’s Drug Store and the Masonic Lodge, but it was time for a true town hall of our own.
Thurman Johnson held the position for four years (two terms) from 1949-1953 before Ivan Collins Mims was elected. Mims was a well-known family name in Holly Springs, and Ivan was re-elected three times to serve a total of eight years during the 1950s.
Then, in 1961, Irvin Gattman was re-elected as Mayor of Holly Springs. This time, Gattman worked hard to modernize this small, rural community. Gattman was successful in getting street lights installed within the town limits, and pursued a number of beautification projects. His installation of shrubbery and other landscaping around town won first place in a contest sponsored by the Wake County Community Development Association. Gattman was also instrumental in getting a $145,000 water bond passed in town by a split of 107 to 14 to install the first public water system in Holly Springs. Two large wells and a system of pipes were installed as a result of that project. That was the last infrastructure project that was initiated until the 1980s. During Gattman’s era, future Mayor Gerald Holleman first emerged as a town commissioner.
In 1971, M. Jack Stephens became mayor, and served three full terms until 1975. During Stephens’ tenure, elections moved from May with a June start date to November with a December start date – which is still the case today. Another event of note during Stephens’ last term was the election and swearing in of Holly Springs’ first two black commissioners – James Norris and William Bernice Lassiter – in 1973.
As we reached further into the 1970s, the mayoral post was won by Jimmy Hancock, who served almost three terms before resigning in 1980. Surprisingly, James Norris was appointed mayor in June of 1980, making him the first African-American mayor in Holly Springs’ history. Although Norris only served out the remainder of Hancock’s term, he has been a notable leader in our community ever since.
In 1981, Holly Springs reached another milestone when it elected its first female mayor – Ms. Sylvia Knowles Brooks. During her term in office, Holly Springs organized and ran its first Christmas parade. Brooks only served one term as well, but Holly Springs had truly broken a number of social barriers by the time she served as mayor.
Gerald Holleman, a Holly Springs native who left town for a number of years to pursue a career in sales, returned to town in the early 1980s and was elected mayor in 1983. Over the next 17 years, Holleman would set the stage for Holly Springs to become one of the fastest growing towns in Wake County. Holleman concentrated on infrastructure during his tenure, seeking grant funding for many projects including the town’s first water treatment plant, housing rehab projects, water/sewer improvments, affordable housing, acquisition of water rights for the town, and the restoration of Bass Lake. When he took office in 1983, only 40% of the homes in town had indoor plumbing. Holleman leveraged resources at the state and federal level to build bathrooms in every home, secure grant funding for water rights and negotiate agreements with other towns to secure water for a growing community.
The town changed from two-year terms to staggered four-year terms in 1987, and changed to a Mayor/Council form of government in 1990 and then to a Manager/Council format in 1997 (hired its first town manager). The geographic footprint of Holly Springs also increased from one square mile to over six square miles. By the time Holleman resigned as mayor in 2000, the infrastructure was in place for the commercial and residential development we are seeing today, thanks to $17.5 million in grant-funded projects. To this day, Gerald Holleman has been Holly Springs’ longest-serving mayor in its 140-year history.
When Holleman left Holly Springs in 2000, long-time councilman Parrish “Ham” Womble was appointed to replace him as mayor. With almost 20 years under his belt as an elected official on the town council, Womble was a logical choice to fill the vacant seat until the next election. Although he only served for that one year, Womble successfully ran for town commissioner again in 2003 and served an additional eight years.
In 2000, current Mayor Richard “Dick” Sears successfully ran for mayor and has held that position since January of 2001. Dick Sears has served as mayor through an era of unprecedented growth in Holly Springs’ incorporated history. From 600+ residents in 1877 to over 33,000 in 2016, Sears and the town council have navigated through the challenges of continued infrastructure improvements and significant retail and commercial expansion over the past 15 years.
Our mayors over time have navigated two world wars, the Great Depression, the women’s rights movement, civil rights, growth and expansion issues, changing demographics, and the transformation of Holly Springs from a sleepy, agricultural town to a booming suburban outpost in the Capital County. We look forward to the next 140 years of leadership and compassion for the residents of our town!