The community which has grown into the town of Clayton was built on a road cut by Governor Tryon‘s troops around 1770 as they marched northwest from New Bern to Hillsborough against the Regulators. Nearly 100 years later the railroad came through and the community had its first name—Stallings’ Station, since the depot for the North Carolina Railroad was in the home of Mrs. Sarah Stallings. The name lasted only three years, however, before officially becoming Clayton. Incorporation followed in 1869.
The new town was far from prosperous, and the Civil War made a depressed local economy even worse. Many long-time citizens moved away during that period.
Following the war, the railroad was extended and businesses began to pop up. Ashley Horne developed a successful farming and merchandising business to become one of the most successful merchants and manufacturers in all of North Carolina. Horne’s success inspired two other men, McCullers and Barbour, to open businesses that also did well, beginning an era of growth that lasted well into the next century. Some of the businesses that flourished during that time were lumber plants, a brick kiln, a cotton gin, a gristmill, a sawmill, tobacco warehouses, cotton mills and a turpentine distillery.
By the early 1900s, the town had become a major market for cotton, watermelons and tobacco. In 1907, the Evening Times of nearby Raleigh wrote that there was “more money per capita in Clayton than any city its size in the world.”
Unfortunately, the town lost its financial eminence in the 1930s with the onset of the Great Depression, and its population grew slowly for the next forty years. The three local cotton mills continued to be a major source of jobs during that time, with 1,000 employees, but the local economy was modest and cotton was soon on its way out. By the early 1960s the mills were gone and cotton was no longer a player in the local economy. But the tobacco industry was bustling and the population shot up for a while before settling back down as farming became less and less profitable.
The state began to change during the 1970s. An industrial base began taking shape and residential growth was increasing in the Raleigh area nearby. Clayton’s workforce adapted, shifting to a more service/trades-oriented economy, and the town began to grow once again. By 1980, the population had grown to 4,091 and to 4,756 by 1990. The population then jumped to 6,973 in the 2000 census. Today, manufacturers like Caterpillar and bio-pharmaceutical companies like Grifols (formerly Talecris) and Novo Nordisk are big local employers. In 2010, the population had increased to 16,116.
The Clayton Banking Company Building, Clayton Graded School and Clayton Grammar School-Municipal Auditorium, Clayton Historic District, Cleveland School, Ellington-Ellis Farm, Walter R. and Eliza Smith Moore House, Sanders-Hairr House, and Stallings-Carpenter House are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.