The decline of tobacco and traditional manufacturing have forced Eastern North Carolina towns to find new ways to draw visitors and bring their sleepy downtowns back to life.
For Wilson, the formula includes antiques, barbecue and whirligigs, while Kinston building on the success of a local restaurant and a TV show.
If you’ve only seen Kinston through the lens of “A Chef’s Life,” which chronicles the happenings at farm-to-fork restaurant Chef & The Farmer, downtown supporters and residents want to clear up a few things.
First, Kinston isn’t so tiny, and second, there’s more for foodies to enjoy in terms of shopping, craft brews, and yes, more food.
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The city has made an effort to create an arts and cultural district, with galleries and art shops, in an area once known as the Magic Mile but that lost its magic after shopping malls opened on the edge of town. A new park that’s part of the state’s African-American Music Trails is set to open later this year.
Much of the downtown revitalization is due to chef Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, whose Chef & The Farmer restaurant has garnered national acclaim since it opened in 2006 and has contributed to making Kinston a destination for people from all over the country. The accompanying PBS series has won awards, too.
Jan Parson, director of Visit Kinston, said she has seen a significant increase in the number of inquiries from visitors wanting to know where they should go when coming to the river town of about 22,000 residents. In just the past year, there’s been a 130 percent surge in people asking where to dine alone, she said. Plus, Parson said, the restaurant helps bring more attention to other businesses in town.
Meanwhile, the whirligigs of the late Vollis Simpson have become intertwined with the identify of Wilson, a city of 50,000 once known for its tobacco markets.
What’s a whirligig? It’s part weathervane, part recycling project, part windmill and all whimsy. Simpson, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, built dozens of them on his farm in Lucama, just outside Wilson. The city has hosted a Whirligig Festival each fall for several years and is now home to a growing park where people can see the structures year-round.
The structures stand tall and rotate as the breeze blows, allowing the hundreds of reflective panels, discarded street signs and even metal milkshake canisters to catch the sunlight.
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Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park
Grab some doughnuts from Wilson Doughnut Shop (525 Tarboro St. Annex SW) and head over to the whirligig park at 301 Goldsboro St. South. Eleven structures stand at the park site, which is still a work in progress, as the bulldozers and piles of dirt indicate. It gives a glimpse, though, at what the completed park of 31 structures could look and feel like. The most impressive one spinning is 55 feet long, weighs 4,200 pounds and contains 15 to 20 different structures. Around the corner at Whirligig Repair and Conservation Headquarters at 309 Barnes St. South, seven people painstakingly and lovingly restore the weathered whirligigs from Simpson’s farm piece by piece. It’s a huge undertaking, sometimes involving replacing 800 reflectors on one piece. The workers are happy to talk about the history of the project and the intricate process used to honor Simpson’s original works. Conservation workshop open Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., though heat may shut work down early. www.wilsonwhirligigpark.org, 252-991-6348.
North Carolina Baseball Museum
Baseball fans should prepare to geek out in the museum adjacent to historic Fleming Stadium, home of the Wilson Tobs, a team of collegiate players. The museum has two large rooms of memorabilia – authentic uniforms, signed baseballs, baseball cards and equipment used by baseball icons – of native North Carolina players (Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Enos Slaughter, Buck Leonard) and those who have played at Fleming since it was built in 1938 (Ted Williams, Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts). “There’s nothing fake in here,” said Mike Bell, assistant general manager of the Wilson Tobs, who enjoys having his office next to a daily history lesson. “A lot of people who played in the leagues come here just to remember those days.” Admission is $3 for 18 to 65 years old and $1 for 17 and younger and 65 and older. Open Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. 300 Stadium St. NW. www.ncbaseballmuseum, 252-296-3048. Want to see a game? Go to www.wilsontobs.com.
The Kountry Kitchen
Before you head out of town, swing by The Kountry Kitchen, which specializes in breakfast and homecooked country meals. Owner Tim Whitley runs the restaurant while his brother David keeps the buffet filled with fresh fried chicken, collards, hefty slices of meatloaf, sweet corn and banana pudding with extra fluffy peaks of meringue. It’s the type of place where neighbors catch up with one another and the servers know customers by name. “Are y’all behaving?” one man shouted to an acquaintance across the homey dining room. Tim Whitley said the restaurant has survived “ugly economic times” and still tries to attract visitors who may come to Wilson for the barbecue. “It’s just traditional down-home food,” he said. Breakfast is served Monday to Friday, 7 to 10 a.m. Buffet open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and Sunday. Closed Saturday. 618 Ward Blvd., Wilson. 252-243-0715
Cliffs of the Neuse State Park
This 1,050-acre state park, along the banks of the Neuse River, has been home to a ceremonial ground and hunting expeditions for the Tuscarora and Saponi Indian tribes. Erosion has created 90-foot-high cliffs along the south banks of the river, and a state park was created in 1945. Grab a map at the visitors center. Drive straight through the park to the scenic overlook, a peaceful, unexpectedly high view of the brown river that snakes through Eastern North Carolina. From the lookout point, two trails split off in opposite directions to offer much-needed shade and a little exercise. All of the park’s five trails are 1/2 a mile or less with all but the Spanish Moss Trail categorized as “easy.” Need to cool off? Head to the park’s lake for a swim or to rent boats or stand-up paddleboards. Boat and swim for a fee. Campsites available. Park hours vary by season. 240 Park Entrance Road, Seven Springs. www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/clne/main.php, 919-778-6234.
The blocks around Chef & The Farmer, off Queen Street along the main downtown drag, are filling with restaurants and unique shops. Overland Gallery (125 W. Blount St.) displays and sells works from 65 North Carolina artists, offering jewelry, pottery, glass, paintings and textiles. Three artists have mini-studios set up, so you might get a chance to chat with them as they work. Around the corner, Buy Local Gallery & Wine Bar (115 W. North St.) also sells the works of North Carolina artisans and craftspeople, including unique hand-crafted furniture by Venerable Bench. www.downtownkinston.com. Beside Chef & The Farmer, Vivian Howard and Ben Knight also are behind The Boiler Room (108B W. North St.), an upscale oyster bar that also serves gourmet burgers. Ginger 108 (108A W. North St.) is down a connecting alley and offers a mix of Asian small plates, large plates and a new sushi bar. Sweetie Pie’s Cupcakery (221 N. Herritage St.) sells cronuts and ice cream as well as cupcakes. After a day of eating, unwind at Mother Earth Brewing at 311 N. Herritage St. The taproom serves the brewery’s regular lineup, such as Weeping Willow Wit and Endless River, and seasonal brews. The taproom and outdoor patio are open Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 1 to 10 p.m. Free brewery tours Tuesday through Saturday. The Red Room (220 N. Herritage St.) has live music and karaoke Thursday to Saturday. If you want to make a weekend of it, book one of the seven rooms at the new boutique hotel, The O’Neil (200 N. Queen St.), which opened in a former bank building this spring. The 1924 bank lobby has been transformed into a luxe lounge under a brightly colored ceiling, and you’ll find Mother Earth Brewing beer in a vintage refrigerator inside the bank vault. www.the-oneil.com.
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