Northeastern North Carolina has made headlines in recent years for its shrinking population. Young people have been leaving small, rural towns to seek better job opportunities elsewhere. And travelers – bound for the Outer Banks or Virginia – tend to pass through at 70 mph, stopping only to get gas or fast food.
But those who write off these rural counties and one-horse towns are missing out on fascinating history, tasty Southern cuisine and even visionary art.
Despite the declining population and vacant storefronts, leaders and business owners here haven’t given up on their communities. And the drivers who trek down U.S. 64, U.S. 158 and Interstate 95 are starting to slow down and take notice.
Out-of-towners are finding their way to restaurants that aren’t advertised on freeway billboards. Museums and galleries that aren’t found in tourism brochures. Natural beauty that isn’t part of the state parks system.
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In the third week of our Best-Kept Secrets series, we’ll check out six counties that span from U.S. 64 to the Virginia border, sharing the hidden treasures that dot tiny towns many Triangle residents haven’t heard of – even though they’re only an hour or two from home.
We’ll take you to a wood-fired barbecue joint on a quiet country road and a small-town diner where every customer is addressed as “sugar.” We’ll discover a chapter of North Carolina history that’s not in any textbooks. We’ll admire the creativity of untrained artists. We’ll cross a river the old-fashioned way. And we’ll trade stares with exotic zoo animals.
The series will continue through Labor Day, hitting each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. And, except for the counties we’ve already covered, it’s not too late to suggest a place we should include among our Best-Kept Secrets. 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 email@example.com or call 919-829-4751.
You can keep up with our Best-Kept Secrets statewide over the summer at nando.com/ncsecrets.
14. Nash County
Four Sisters Gallery of Self-Taught Visionary Art, Rocky Mount
One of North Carolina’s hardest-to-find art galleries is home to some of the state’s most unique outsider art. A collector’s donation in 1989 launched the Four Sisters Gallery of Self-Taught Visionary Art, tucked beside the admissions office at N.C. Wesleyan College. The artists and sculptors featured in the gallery have no formal training, and most have unconventional techniques. Tony Wise is a paralyzed drive-by shooting victim who paints colorful, abstract canvases with a brush in his mouth. Demarquis Johnson has never set foot in an art supplies store and often uses paper bags as a canvas. And Nevin Evans took up painting after getting hit in the head with a baseball and experiencing hallucinations. Gallery curator Everett Adelman has overseen the collection for 20 years, and through donations, he’s able to add at least one new piece each year. He said he’s not just looking for untrained talent – artists join the Four Sisters Gallery “because they’re doing something nobody else does, or they’re using a technique of applying paint that nobody else uses.” New artists are found through referrals or “by dumb luck,” Adelman said. To reach the Four Sisters Gallery, enter Wesleyan’s main entrance on U.S. 301 and follow signs for the Welcome Center. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. ncwc.edu/arts
15. Edgecombe County
Blackbeard’s BBQ and C-Food, Conetoe
A weather-beaten shark hanging from a signpost marks this tiny barbecue joint a few miles off U.S. 64, along what in pre-freeway days was the two-lane connection from Raleigh to Manteo. You wouldn’t know it from the modest storefront, but the menu here goes well beyond the wood-fired, whole-hog ’cue. They even have healthy options like seafood salad (crab, salmon and tuna) and broccoli nut salad. Charissa Summerlin, who owns Blackbeard’s with her husband, Lewis, got her training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, so some of her creations are unusual for a no-stoplight town in Eastern North Carolina. Much of the seafood is straight from the coast, and some of the produce is grown on the Summerlins’ own farm. “I try to keep as much of it fresh and local as I can,” Charissa Summerlin said. And as word spreads about the restaurant, Blackbeard’s has started offering honey barbecue sauce alongside the homemade, Eastern-style vinegar sauce to give Outer Banks-bound tourists a choice. Save room to try Summerlin’s homemade ice cream, with an ever-changing selection of flavors like banana black walnut. It’s at 5232 U.S. 64-A, about 5 miles southeast of Tarboro. The hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Bring cash, because the restaurant doesn’t take cards, and the nearest ATM is miles away. 252-641-0103
16. Northampton County
Grapevine Cafe, Woodland
Located at the center of Woodland’s sleepy one-block downtown, Grapevine Cafe is the classic small-town diner. The town has only 800 residents, but the restaurant is packed at lunchtime with customers who all seem to know each other. Owner Barbara Outland calls everyone “sugar” and takes pride in “a lot of good hospitality and a friendly smile.” Several generations of the Outland family are often helping out, with grandchildren busing tables when things get busy. Her menu is full of Southern diner staples: open-faced roast beef sandwiches smothered in gravy, hamburger steaks and fried catfish. The daily specials come with a choice of a dozen or so sides like butter beans, corn pudding and fried okra. On Sundays, Grapevine sets out a 50-item buffet for the after-church crowd, and the restaurant’s country breakfast menu has an “amen corner” gathering by 6 a.m. Outland bought the Grapevine about three years ago, entering the restaurant business well into her 60s and presiding over a thriving gathering place. “This has been my dream,” she said. “We’ve never seen a stranger here.” Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays at 109 W. Main St. (U.S. 258). 252-587-0345
17. Halifax County
History House Museum, Tillery
The community of Tillery is home to one of the least-known chapters of African-American history in North Carolina. In the 1930s, a New Deal agency called the Resettlement Administration bought up farmland to sell to sharecroppers. In Halifax County, a large chunk of the land was set aside for black farmers, giving them the rare chance to own property. The original plan was to split the area between whites and blacks, but it soon became apparent that much of the property was in the Roanoke River’s flood plain. “You moved the whites out but sold the flood land to black people,” says Gary Grant, a community organizer who runs the History House Museum, which documents Tillery’s past in a restored farmhouse. As black landowners, Tillery residents have fought countless battles to maintain their local school, protect their farms from foreclosure and keep out polluting hog farms. In 1978, community leaders formed Concerned Citizens of Tillery, which has lobbied for racial and economic justice. The History House Museum was created with help from Duke University documentary studies students. It features old photos, artifacts from daily farm life and a video featuring the stories of Tillery’s oldest residents. The museum is at 321 Community Center Road, off N.C. 561, and is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays. Visitors are welcome on other days but should call 252-826-3017 first. www.cct78.org
18. Bertie County
Cashie Wetlands Walk and Mini-Zoo, Windsor
Asheboro might claim the state’s largest zoo, but Windsor is likely the only town where a pair of buffalo roam within a block of downtown. The town operates a free mini-zoo alongside a playground, housing dozens of animals from emus to donkeys to peacocks. It’s the sort of zoo where ducks happily share a pen with a family of goats, and the chickens occasionally get loose on the playground. The zoo has been a fixture of the Bertie County seat for more than 30 years, Mayor Jim Hoggard said. “Someone gave us some exotic birds, and that kind of started it,” Hoggard said. “We just kept adding onto it each year.” The zoo attracts kids from throughout Eastern North Carolina, and town officials say the tourism benefits are well worth the $200,000 spent on the park each year. The park also includes the Cashie Wetlands Walk, a 20-minute boardwalk stroll through a wetland area along the banks of the Cashie River. Visitors can borrow canoes and paddle along the canals leading to the river. The park is open during the summer from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends at 102 N. York St. windsornc.com or 252-794-5553.
19. Hertford County
Parker’s Ferry, Winton
“Honk for ferry” reads the sign at the end of a dusty dirt road in northern Hertford County, about 10 miles from the Virginia border. Your car horn will echo across the calm waters of the Meherrin River, and soon a tiny barge will make its way across to pick you up. Parker’s Ferry is one of three remaining cable ferries in the state (the others are in Bertie and Bladen counties), where a system of steel cables guides the boat across on a short ride across the river. A century ago, these crossings were a common sight along the wide rivers of Eastern North Carolina, but most have long since been replaced by bridges. Parker’s Ferry can handle just two cars and no more than six passengers at a time. The ferry averages about 15 to 20 cars a day, most of them residents of northern Hertford headed to Winton for work, although plenty of tourists make the trek for the novelty. The service runs from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer; take Parker’s Ferry Road south from U.S. 258 in Como or Parker’s Fishery Road north from U.S. 158 near Winton.