Best-Kept Secrets100 counties, 100 things you gotta try

Best-Kept Secrets: A place of rivers, swamps and history

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 22, 2014 

  • Coming next Monday:

    Cabarrus, Stanly, Union, Anson, Montgomery, Richmond and Rowan counties

The northeast corner of North Carolina has swamps and all the lore surrounding the low-lying quagmires.

There are charming small towns that have turned to preservation and historic tours as the drivers of their modern economic engines.

The state and federal highways that traverse the six-county region cross the rivers and brown waterways that once were the corridors of transport for the people and freight of another time.

An array of flora and fauna dot the landscapes and waterlogged areas that stretch from the craggy seashore and the tip of the Atlantic’s noted graveyard for sunken ships and pirates of yesteryear to the swampy inland and quaint riverside towns.

You might see loblolly pines, red maples, cypress trees and tannin-stained swamp canals.

There are many natural treasures and some hidden gems worth exploring.

The series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And, except for the 32 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets. Let us know by going to nando.com/bestkept, sending an email to bestkeptsecrets@newsobserver.com or by calling 919-829-4751.

27. Gates County

Merchants Millpond State Park, Gatesville

In the early 1700s, residents of the northeastern part of the state built Hunters Millpond at the head of Bennetts Creek and used it to create a hub of commerce. Today, the pond’s dark, tea-colored acidic waters are shaded by towering bald cypress and tupelo gum trees, gnarled and twisted by free-growing mistletoe. Spanish moss drapes from tree branches, and resurrection ferns are a common sight. Aquatic plants, such as the floating yellow cow lily and the submerged coontail, thrive. The red and green floating duckweeds and water ferns move across the water slowly, providing a mosaic of colors and patterns. American beech trees mingle with a mixture of pine and hardwood forests surrounding the unusual habitat. Two primitive species of fish – the long-nosed gar and the bowfin – are large and important predators in the blackwater habitats of the coastal plain. Visitors can enjoy the flora and fauna many ways – by canoe, hikes, fishing and camping. 176 Millpond Road, Gatesville. 252-357-1191 or merchants.millpond@ncparks.gov.

28. Chowan County

Taylor Theater, Edenton

As Hollywood phases out 35 mm film and distributes its new movies in digital format, many small-town movie theaters face tough financial questions. Should they make the costly technological conversion or close up? In Edenton, the first colonial capital of North Carolina, residents were not about to let Taylor Theater shut its doors. The theater, built in 1925 by Charles Collins Benton, a leading architect in the state’s eastern region, opened as an opera house. Though it has operated as Edenton’s primary movie house for years, it faced demise several years ago. With two screens, the theater owner needed $150,000 to make the digital conversion. The small town came through in a big way. Mason jars put out in local businesses were filled with change. Colony Tire Corp., a local business that first tried to keep its philanthropy anonymous, offered $100,000 for the “Save the Taylor” campaign as long as townspeople would raise the rest. That happened, and the Taylor offers first-run movies and afternoon and evening fun for travelers interested in a step back in time. 208 S. Broad St. 252-482-2676, www.taylortheater.com

29. Perquimans County

Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum, Hertford

Not too many people have legendary status in New York and Hertford, N.C., but that is the case for Jim “Catfish” Hunter. In this quintessential small town – population about 2,100 – you can delve into the life history of a native son who was more noted for his football prowess (and good looks) in high school than the pitching arm and professional baseball career that gave him national prominence. The Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum offers a hometown glimpse of the pitcher who won 224 games and five world championships in his 15-year major league career with the Kansas City/Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees. Hunter, lauded as one of Major League Baseball’s first real free agents, signed with the Yankees in 1975 for $3.5 million, an amount that made jaws drop then. He retired from baseball when he was 33 and returned to Hertford, where he grew soybeans, corn, peanuts and cotton and coached Little League. He died 20 years later in 1999 after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hunter is buried at Cedarwood Cemetery, next to the field where he played high school baseball. Memorabilia from the town that shaped him is on display at the free museum at 118 W. Market St. Hours: Monday-Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, from 10 a.m. to noon. 252-426-5657.

30. Pasquotank County

De’Tours, Elizabeth City

Bonnie Calliotte and her husband, Jim, love a challenging restoration project, and they don’t mind showing others the fruits of their labor. Inside Elizabeth City’s oldest brick house, a Greek revival structure dating to 1853, you can see wonderful antiques – a sampling of furniture and wares from the 1840s Empire Period to the 1890s Eastlake Period – and hear Calliotte tell their stories. Calliotte also offers a scrumptious proper tea. The retired fourth-grade teacher from Portsmouth, Va., puts out her great-grandmother’s hand-painted china and serves her own homemade treats – tiny sandwiches (the crusts cut off), scones and Devonshire cream, hand-rolled truffles, tarts with goat-cheese fillings and an array of sweets. Fans of history and small towns with storied pasts, the Calliottes moved to Elizabeth City’s quaint, historic riverfront in 2007, where the Charles-Harney House struck their fancy. The house is surrounded by a large collection of antebellum buildings and homes that Calliotte shows off during a 20-block walking tour before tea. Teas are by reservation only. 400 W. Main St. 252-333-1940 or 252-435-5427. www.detours.embarqspace.com.

31. Camden County

Camden County Historic Jail, Camden

It is said that new jails can cost an arm and a leg. The Camden County Jail, site of a museum offering a unique view of the past, has cost at least one arm, if you believe no one is pulling your leg about its history. The jail was built 104 years ago after prisoners botched an escape plan. The details of that attempt are part of a tour featuring historical photographs, tattered letters, old weapons, artifacts and 18th-century relics from a Yeopim Indian reservation. It offers a close-up view of how some of the county’s more infamous characters lived a century ago. The second-floor bullpen – four cells designed to hold up to four prisoners each – is a good backdrop for the story of the building’s genesis. Four prisoners tried to escape one March day in 1910, but the jail caught fire in their bungled attempt and burned down around them. The sheriff rescued the inmates and housed them in the courthouse next door. But before sunrise, one of them, Fred Johnson, tried to make a run for it again and picked up a shotgun beside a napping guard. Lore has it that he shot at a constable, aiming for his head and hitting his hat. The constable fired back and hit Johnson in the arm, causing an injury that necessitated amputation. To schedule a group tour, call 252-338-5530.

32. Currituck County

Whalehead Club, Corolla

On the edge of Currituck Sound, the Whalehead Club houses a treasure trove of mysteries. The 21,000-square-foot hunting lodge harkens to another time – the Outer Banks of 1925 encountered by Edward Collings Knight Jr., the wealthy railroad executive and amateur artist who built the Whalehead. It’s a splendid five-story ornamental art noveau winter home built in the Roaring ’20s when North Carolina’s northern shore was dotted with humble fishing villages and the hardy islanders who lived there year-round. Knight, a nature lover and conservationist with a passion for hunting waterfowl, was married to Marie Louise, who preferred pants and the outdoors to party dresses and the jazzy glitz of the era. The Knights spent six winter months at the Whalehead. But in 1933, they left just three weeks after their arrival, an abrupt and unexplained departure. That mystery lingers in the salt-laden air today as the daring take one of two ghost tours offered at the mansion-turned museum. Pirates and seafarers are the subject of ghost stories told on the Whalehead grounds and in the 39-acre Currituck Heritage Park that includes the iconic 214-step Currituck Lighthouse. Inside the old hunting lodge, the stories are spookier. Though the cork floors are relatively quiet to the step, people claim to hear pounding feet in the hallways. People report smelling cigar smoke in the dining room near Knight’s portrait, where he loved to light up, and there are stories of a phantom child roaming the lodge’s lower level and of candles spontaneously lighting. Paranormal researchers from Durham have documented abnormal activity inside the club and on park grounds, according to staff there. Daylight Ghost Tour, Monday- Friday at 3 p.m., $12 adults/$6 for school age. Moonlight Legend, Lore & Ghost Tour, Wednesdays at 8 p.m., $25 per person, ages 9 and older (not recommended for children – or adults – afraid of the dark). 252-453-9040.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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