Shelby (population 21,263) was incorporated as the county seat of Cleveland County in 1843. The community grew slowly during its early years, but the advent of rail service in the 1880s led to new economic development. Shelby became a shipping point for local produce.
In the early 20th century, cotton became the area’s principal crop, and by 1948 Cleveland County was North Carolina’s largest cotton producer. The textile industry dominated Shelby’s economy, but by the 1990s most of the mills had closed, and new economic drivers were needed. Recently, historic preservation, heritage tourism, and related business opportunities have provided Shelby with new opportunities.
The Central Shelby Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cleveland County Courthouse is the district’s architectural centerpiece and is surrounded by blocks of late 19th- and early 20th century buildings. Nearby is the East Marion-Belvedere Park National Register Historic District, one of Shelby’s earliest suburban neighborhoods.
In 2004, the city, county, and private partners joined to renovate the exterior and grounds of the 1907 courthouse. The courthouse square is now a focal point for community activities, many sponsored by the Uptown Shelby Association. Created in 1982, it was one of North Carolina's earliest Main Street organizations.
The historic courthouse is slated to house the Earl Scruggs Center, which will interpret the region's musical heritage. Plans are also under development to turn the 1939 Art Deco State Theater into a performing arts center named for another famous musician from Shelby, singer/songwriter Don Gibson.
Designated a Preserve America Community in July 2007.