Best-Kept Secrets: North Carolina's land where cultures mingle

efrederick@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2014 

  • Coming next Monday:

    Bertie, Edgecombe, Halifax, Hertford, Nash and Northampton counties

    You can keep up with our Best-Kept Secrets statewide over the summer at nando.com/ncsecrets.

It has been said that the southwest Piedmont of North Carolina is where the Old South collided with the New.

It’s where backwoods folk came down from the Appalachians after the Civil War, looking for work in the new textile mills of the Piedmont Plateau -- a rare eastward migration that brought the music, faith and self-reliance of subsistence farmers to an industrial environment.

It’s where other cultures slowly mingled -- recently freed slaves improvising with African string music traditions, and European descendants doing the same with Anglo jigs and reels.

It’s where Thomas F. Dixon Jr., the author who inspired “The Birth of a Nation,” grew up just across the state line from W.J. Cash, whose book “The Mind of the South” was a herald of Southern progressivism.

It’s where tree-covered hills, unchanged for millennia, form an elegant backdrop for countless steeples and towering wooden crosses, but also for the more mundane monuments of small-town commerce.

And it’s sprinkled with lesser-known places where that mix of traditions is being celebrated in ways both quaint and startlingly new.

In the second week of our Best-Kept Secrets series, we’re digging out one of those gems from each of seven counties in the southwest Piedmont.

We’ll visit a former fire station where new research is being done in a shrine of old-fashioned patriotism. We’ll lie on urban grass near a modern museum that celebrates Southern culture, and we’ll gorge on the real thing in a diner so bygone that it has no phone. We’ll explore 19th-century history and folk music on a high-tech “touch table.” And we’ll visit an old moonshiners’ province where the legal stuff is now made in a revolutionary way.

Our series runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. If you have a suggestion for another best-kept secret as we travel the state this summer, go to nando.com/bestkept, send an email to bestkeptsecrets@newsobserver.com or call 919-829-4751.

You can keep up with our Best-Kept Secrets statewide over the summer at nando.com/ncsecrets.

7. Cleveland County

Earl Scruggs Center, Shelby

Earl Scruggs reinvented the bluegrass banjo. This place might reinvent cultural shrines. The old courthouse in the heart of Shelby is now the Earl Scruggs Center, 6 miles from where Scruggs grew up in the Flint Hill community. See the instruments he and his family played, experience his life story, learn about the culture where he grew up, hear the evolution of Southern music, watch videos and listen to oral histories. Study the three main methods of banjo playing, including the three-finger “Scruggs style,” at an interactive exhibit you can play at your own speed. And sit at the digital “touch table,” where you can spend an entire day. Four sets of six strings, each string representing a topic, can be plucked where they intersect on the table to tell stories, show photos and video, play audio and more; you also can select one of the five traditional bluegrass instruments and digitally play your own tune in a “Pickin’ Party.” Open Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1-5 p.m., at 103 S. Lafayette St. Details, including fees, at 704-487-6233 or earlscruggscenter.org.

8. Polk County

House of Flags Museum, Columbus

Ever wonder what the figure on the left in our state seal is holding? Robert Williamson will tell you, and it’s a fascinating tale. Williamson directs the House of Flags, which was opened Sept. 8, 2001, in a warehouse by local resident George Scofield after he saw a lack of respect for the U.S. flag at a July 4 parade. Scofield died in 2008, but Williamson and 24 volunteers now run the museum in a former fire station downtown. It holds more than 300 flags that have represented colonies, states, religions, brigades, veterans, republics and the USA itself; each has a story, and together they tell the story of our country. Ask about the symbolism of snakes and trees, and of flags with one star (North Carolina once had one). Ask about the crescent on the South Carolina flag (it’s not a moon). Get the surprising story of the U.S. flag displayed on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered to end World War II. And ask about Williamson’s new research on presidential flags (and Truman’s lightning bolts). Admission is free; donations are welcome. Open Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 33 Gibson St., Columbus. 828-894-5640.

9. Rutherford County

Blue Ridge Distilling Co., Bostic

If your business is salvage diving, you work brutally hard -- pumping out New York subways after Sandy, for instance -- and you come home with pockets full, nerves racked and hands full of time. What to do? If you’re Tim Ferris of Defiant Marine, you make whisky. Ferris’ storage facility for sea diving equipment, oddly sited on a 100-acre family farm in the hills north of Bostic, in the Golden Valley community, is now a distillery making Defiant single malt whisky from brewer’s barley. Take a tour and watch the distillers control everything with iPads (Popcorn Sutton is rolling in his grave). They’ll also explain their efficient aging process, which takes months instead of years and makes a micro distillery feasible. In a bow to the past, they fill and cork the bottles by hand. (And if they offer a taste, say yes.) Open weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 228 Redbud Lane. Call 828-245-2041 to arrange a tour. Don’t freak as you drive up the gravel lane, past the rusted plows and broken shacks. When you see a ship’s propeller nailed to a tree, you’ve arrived. More at defiantwhisky.com.

10. Lincoln County

City Lunch, Lincolnton

Down the block from the courthouse is a timeless diner – wooden screen doors, Formica bars, racks full of Table Pride buns and Bunny rolls, walls adorned with high school football photos and a letter-board menu with a Cheerwine ad, and one “air conditioner” (a Patton pedestal fan). Opened in 1937, City Lunch was bought by Lynette Greer’s family during Eisenhower’s second term. Read the prices, and you’ll swear Ike’s still in office. And bring a hunger for more than nostalgia. The Big Boy breakfast -- two eggs, grits, flapjacks, sausage, bacon and livermush (think “scrapple,” transplants), with toast and coffee -- will satisfy. The hot dogs, dressed in homemade chili and served in wax paper, are legendary. Lynette’s kids, Brian Greer and Angie Kaiser, and Brian’s wife, Lorna, run the place, and Lynette still pitches in. Even customers’ internal clocks are turned back; the honorific “young man” applies to a regular who’s in his 90s. The family did modernize the place about a year ago -- losing the holding cells out back that had been left from an old jail, and replacing the black-and-white TV with a color portable. City Lunch is at 113 SE Court Square. There’s no phone. Bring cash -- no cards.

11. Catawba County

SALT Block, Hickory

Sciences, Arts and Literature Together, in one block. The SALT Block opened 30 years ago in the 200 block of Third Avenue NE in Hickory, in a 1920s collegiate Gothic building that had been a high school and a women’s college. Brainchild of local leader Harley Shuford, it houses several growing enterprises that enhance life in this valley -- the Catawba Science Center (including an aquarium and planetarium), the Hickory Museum of Art, a folk arts hall, a performance hall, rehearsal space, a lawn for outdoor movies and a library. The CSC, by itself, is impressive. A sprawling collection of interactive exhibits, it’s open to the public (fees and hours are at catawbascience.org) and hosts field trips by students from 22 counties. Its aquarium has sharks, rays, eels, seahorses and a scary little critter called a poison dart frog. At the planetarium, visitors can operate a camera over a Martian landscape. The art museum ( hickoryart.org), which is free, has a folk collection with an eclectic mix of Carolina artists. And you might hear the Western Piedmont Symphony or the Hickory Choral Society rehearsing.

12. Gaston County

Schiele Museum of Natural History, Gastonia

With an emphasis on North Carolina, the Schiele showcases the nature of all of North America and educates visitors on the value of environmental stewardship. It was the dream of naturalist Bud Schiele, who opened it in 1961 as a small collection of preserved fauna, flora and rocks in dioramas. It has grown into a world-class museum, adding a planetarium; several specimens from prehistory, including dinosaurs and a mastodon (a T. rex skeleton towers over the lobby); live animals; and a hall on the history of Native Americans. Many exhibits are interactive. Outside features include a nature trail, a wildlife garden, a re-created Stone Age site, a farm from Revolutionary days and a Catawba Indian village. The Schiele also conducts educational programs, featured exhibits and festivals. It’s open every day; hours and fees are at schielemuseum.org or 704-866-6908. The Schiele is at 1500 E. Garrison Blvd.

13. Mecklenburg County

The Green, Charlotte

There are hundreds of jewels in the crown of the Queen City. But perhaps the most deeply embedded gem is The Green, a serene acre and a half in the 400 block of South Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte. Called a “pocket park,” it opened in 2002 with a literary theme. The grass is lush; you can doff your shoes, even sunbathe. Kids love the tall, sculptured fish around the fountains. Tables, chairs, stools and low walls are decorated with whimsical public art. Two huge sculptures celebrate literary giants: Whitman, Haley, Bronte, Emerson. And directional signs point to distant towns whose names form tributes to great writers – such as Alice (Texas, 1,273 miles) and Walker (Arizona, 2,058 miles). You may stumble on a wedding, a reception, an improv performance or, in summer, a Shakespeare in the Park production. Art museums (Mint, Bechtler, Gantt) and the Knight Theater are a short stroll. Restaurants and shops abound. You can park underneath; it’s $3 for the first half-hour and $2 for every half-hour after that. Or take the Lynx light-rail Blue Line, get off at Third Street and walk toward the Duke Energy tower.

Frederick: 919-829-8956; Twitter: @eric_frederick

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