After two centuries of gritty history, the far-flung town of Murfreesboro could fill a hundred books with the best spots to cook moonshine, the prime season to catch herring in a snake-infested creek or the dark secrets of the local root doctor.
And yet, Murfreesboro, population roughly 2,860, has never had a book store – not a single storefront offering its citizens a dog-eared mystery or a paperback romance, let alone an entry into the local lore.
This deficiency is especially sad considering Frank Stephenson Jr. has already penned much of his hometown’s rustic story, a collection that includes a history of the Gatlin gun’s inventor and a chitlin’ cookbook. Chitlin’ Hash. Chitlin’ Loaf. Chitlin’ Coquettes. With no bookstore, he keeps much of his life’s work in a cabinet at Walter’s Grill on Main Street.
So in a daring move that is part tribute and part invitation, his daughter, Caroline Stephenson, will open Murfreesboro’s first book shop in August – a venture she hopes will enliven a small town where poverty is high and a rich country culture is vanishing. She’s hoping people will chip in on this venture for literacy, which she thinks can be pulled off for a ridiculously modest $7,500.
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“It’s a little ambitious,” she told me. “But I’ve always been kind of a crazy idea person. Like they say, ‘Let’s put on a show.’ ”
A bookstore operating in the middle of rural Hertford County, situated in a town 120 miles northeast of Raleigh that lacks even a Starbucks, might sound improbable. I saw the post on indiegogo.com, seeking even a $10 donation for Cultivator books, and thought I’d just read the most adorable Don Quixote story of the year. Though it is home to Chowan University, fewer than a quarter of the population holds a bachelor’s degree, and finding a spot with WiFi service is tricky. But I learned a few things on my afternoon in Walter’s Grill that made this long shot seem possible.
First of all, Caroline Stephenson, 45, is a freelance film director who works on “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” the AMC series about colonial espionage. She moved back home from Los Angeles in 2010, bringing her German-born film editor husband Jochen Kunstler and their three children to live on the 160-acre family farm in nearby Como. Since then, they’ve compiled a documentary about the Rosenwald Schools in Hertford County – a 41-minute film that got written up in, among other places, the Chicago Tribune.
So she brings some chops to a small-town arts outlet.
“Some days,” she said, “it’s like pushing a boat over a mountain. There’s very little progress here in education. There’s very little progress here with women in politics. There are still racial issues.”
Second of all, her father Frank learned to chronicle local customs from F. Roy Johnson, the newspaper editor whose historic marker stands on Main Street in Murfreesboro, just outside the old furniture store where Cultivator will soon open.
Johnson, a Duke graduate, started a Hertford County paper during the Depression that he wrote, edited and delivered himself. He printed its pages on a press he salvaged from a defunct journal in Surry County, Va., driving back and forth between editions.
“He was a one-man band,” Frank Stephenson said. “The thing that made him tick was folklore. Nobody else would take the time to go out to the country and talk to the elderly people.”
And in that tradition, Stephenson, 76, started turning out his own pages based on his own Hertford County wanderings, particularly moonshine stories culled from outings with his sheriff’s deputy father.
“He got shot at a couple-three times,” Caroline Stephenson said.
In a half-hour of flipping through her father’s book “Carolina Moonshine Raiders,” I learned that corn liquor is also called stump juice or bottled dynamite, and that Hertford County moonshiners tended to place their stills under holly trees where the thick leaves would hide the smoke.
Then there is this story of the hapless lawbreaker who tried to beat revenuers to the Virginia line.
“His thoughts of being home free were premature because when he was about a thousand yards from the Virginia state line he slammed into a 500 pound black bear killing it instantly,” Stephenson wrote. “The impact ... tore up the moonshine runner’s 1949 Ford, busted his load of bootleg, broke his nose and arm and provided him with free room and board in the Hertford County jail.”
I spent an hour and a half with the Stephenson family, and in that time I learned all of this and more. Hertford County used to have a resort called Chowan Beach on the river of the same name – a haven for black vacationers during the Jim Crow years, where B.B. King and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performed. Willie Mays played a game on a barnstorming team against the Chowan Bees, a formidable black baseball team in the days of the Negro Leagues.
This history deserves a platform, a space to absorb and appreciate the life left in what could otherwise be mistaken for a dead town. The pages Stephenson wrote need shelves to stand on – a bookstore where the people still left in Murfreesboro can read them and then write more.
How to help
To contribute to Cultivator, Murfreesboro’s first bookstore, go to indiegogo.com and enter Cultivator in the search box. The book store campaign will appear under a picture of an antique plow.