The area to the north and east of Charlotte has grown as suburban sprawl creeps outward.
Shopping malls and new homes are ever present in Cabarrus and Union counties as more people who work in Charlotte choose to live outside Mecklenburg County.
But you don’t have to travel far to get beyond suburbia and into North Carolina’s rolling countryside. The area has plenty of natural beauty, including the Uwharrie Mountains that span several counties.
This is the kind of place perfect for taking long drives and getting lost on back roads.
Hugging the South Carolina border, there’s a feel of “here but almost there” – certainly North Carolina roots, but plenty of influence from the neighbor to the south.
In the sixth week of our Best-Kept Secrets series, we’re exploring the rolling hills and the rural and fast-growing communities of the southern Piedmont.
We visit the site of a centuries-old Indian mound that gives clues to how Native Americans once lived in central North Carolina. We take a walk through the state’s musical history in celebration of so many great artists. We spend some time in a small town with a deep railroad history. And we loosen our belts a little to enjoy sweet treats from a nearly century-old shop.
The series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And, except for the 39 counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets.
33. Richmond County
Hamlet Depot & Museums, and National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame, Hamlet
The rise of the railroad industry built Hamlet, as hotels, restaurants and saloons popped up at the turn of the 20th century. Dozens of passenger trains stopped each day here, a halfway point between New York and Miami. The depot stood at the crossroads, where passengers could hop a train going north-south or east-west. The original depot still stands, renovated in 2004 and moved farther from the tracks. Downstairs, train lovers will find a sprawling model of Hamlet as it looked in 1952. There’s another model train set across the street in a building that houses a replica of the Tornado, the first train to arrive in Raleigh along the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad. And across town, there’s more train history at the National Railroad Museum, a nonprofit operated by volunteers. The museum features old silverware, conductors’ hats, lanterns, tobacco spittoons and much more. Hamlet Depot & Museums is located at 2 Main St. Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for free tours. 910-582-0603. National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame is at 120 E. Spring St. 910-280-9253.
34. Anson County
Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, Wadesboro
In the 1930s, Lockhart and Hazel Gaddy began to offer their property as a safe haven for more than 10,000 Canada geese each year, attracting people from all over the world who wanted to learn about managing waterfowl. Their efforts led to the establishment of the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, which spans about 8,500 acres. The peak of the geese season at Pee Dee is from Christmas to February, when 15,000 geese might be at the site at once. But during the months when the geese are content to stay in the North, the wildlife refuge provides a place to hunt for deer, and fish for bass and catfish. Visitors can also hike the trails or venture off the beaten path deep into the pines and hardwood trees. Or they can drive the dusty roads, taking in the scenery of the ponds and the 1,000 acres of crop fields. Expect to see plenty of fox squirrels, some with white faces. Hours: open one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. 704-694-4424.
35. Montgomery County
Town Creek Indian Mound, Mount Gilead
Much is known about the Native Americans who lived in Montgomery County hundreds of years ago. They made art by pressing stamps into wet clay to create designs and grew corn, beans, pumpkins and tobacco. They held ceremonial events and games, and probably consumed the “black drink,” a highly caffeinated tea that induced vomiting to cleanse the body. But no one knows the name of the tribe that built a mound and village in what is now Mount Gilead. The Native Americans left before Europeans arrived, but historians figure the people who inhabited the area were greatly influenced by the Pee Dee culture. Several artifacts have been unearthed at the mound, including pieces of pottery and arrowheads and hundreds of skeletons. The area was nearly lost when the land’s owner considered tearing down the mound in the 1930s. But the owner instead decided to donate the 1-acre mound site to the N.C. Archaeological Society and University of North Carolina. A temple on top of the mound has since been recreated. Free tours of the museum and mound are offered or can be self-guided. 910-439-6802.
36. Cabarrus County
N.C. Music Hall of Fame, Kannapolis
There’s no shortage of successful musicians from North Carolina. Rhythm and blues singer Ben E. King, who performed with the Drifters, is from Henderson. Country artist Randy Travis grew up in Marshville. Charlie Daniels, who made a name for himself in country and southern rock, hails from Wilmington. Jazz great John Coltrane was born in Hamlet. These artists and many more are featured at the N.C. Music Hall of Fame, housed in a small building that used to be a jailhouse in downtown Kannapolis. Singers’ outfits and guitars are on display, along with plaques about artists that tell the story of North Carolina’s role in the music industry. The nonprofit group has inducted 83 artists since 1994. More will be inducted this fall, including “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken, who grew up in Raleigh. While there’s plenty of music history to be found, museum keeper Eddie Ray, 87, also has stories to tell. He left his native North Carolina to pursue a career as a music promoter in California before eventually returning. Tours are free, but donations are accepted. 109 W. A St., Kannapolis. Open 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. 704-934-2320.
37. Rowan County
Keaton’s Barbecue, Cleveland
When Keaton’s Barbecue closed in 1989 after owner B.W. Keaton died, customers missed its popular secret sauce. So Keaton’s niece, Kathleen Keaton, decided to reopen the restaurant two years later, and people are still drawn to Keaton’s for a taste of pork or chicken with that sauce made from B.W.’s recipe. They kept coming even when the air conditioning stopped working recently, Keaton said. The air conditioning has been fixed, and Keaton said her uncle’s spirit remains with her as she continues his legacy. Story has it that the Schlitz brewery once offered B.W. Keaton $10,000 for his sauce recipe, but he said he wouldn’t sell it for less than $100,000. Kathleen Keaton doesn’t say much about that recipe, so customers must be content with the mystery. 17365 Cool Spring Road, Cleveland. Open most days from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays. 704-278-1619.
38. Union County
Jesse Helms Center, Wingate
As a well-known U.S. senator, Jesse Helms had strong opinions as he served three decades starting in 1973. Some people loved him, and some, well, didn’t. But Helms’ namesake facility, which opened in 2001 in his home county, isn’t so much about politics. The Jesse Helms Center celebrates the free enterprise that helped North Carolina flourish. There’s even a Free Enterprise Hall of Fame that honors entrepreneurs, including mill founder Charles A. Cannon and retail giant William Henry Belk. A United Nations exhibit pays tribute to Helms’ speech to the U.N. Security Council in 2000, and there are many photos of him with dignitaries from around the world. A replica of Helms’ office in Washington, D.C., features more photos, editorial cartoons and his “no” stamp – in honor of his nickname, “Senator No.”Free admission. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. 704-233-1776.
39. Stanly County
Albemarle Sweet Shop, Albemarle
Customers flock to the Albemarle Sweet Shop for birthday cakes, fruit bars and sugar cookies shaped like clowns. Recipes have been handed down over the years, from owner to owner. Shawn Oke bought the shop in 2000 as a side career; he’s also the town’s fire chief. From what Oke can tell, the store started as Albemarle Bakery in 1914 in Palmerville and moved to downtown Albemarle in 1922. It’s been at its current location, in a small building on a one-way street, since 1960. The size and location might not be ideal, but customers don’t seem to mind. It’s a staple in town. Customers order their goods and leave since there’s nowhere to sit in the shop. But as one customer said, it’s tough to make it out of the parking lot before taking a bite. Bring your cash; debit and credit cards aren’t accepted. The sweet shop likes to keep things simple. 128 King Ave., Albemarle. 704-982-1235.