Between the Triangle and the beaches are a band of towns and cities that were once important in North Carolina’s tobacco economy. Their roles have changed as that industry wanes, but towns like Wilson and its neighbors continue to be culturally vital, architecturally interesting, and full of good places to browse for antiques and to gobble up barbecue.
Henderson is about 45 minutes northeast of Durham, near the Virginia state line. Kerr Lake State Recreation Area (6254 Satterwhite Point Rd., Henderson, 252/438-7791, office 8am-6pm daily, park 8am-6pm daily Nov.-Feb., 8am-8pm daily Mar.-Apr. and Sept.-Oct., 8am-9pm daily May-Aug.), outside Henderson, includes a 50,000-acre artificial lake and 800 miles of woods along the lakeshore straddling the state line.
Boating, including sailing, is the main activity. There are numerous public boat ramps, some available 24 hours daily, and two commercial marinas. It’s also a great place to swim, but be aware that there are no lifeguards. The park offers many, many campsites, both drive-in and walk-in, some right along the shores of the lake. Visit the park’s website to scout out the best camping locations and to read about the complicated fee schedule. To help you sound more like a native, in these parts Kerr is pronounced “car.”
About 80 minutes’ drive northeast of Raleigh, the small town of Hollister is the site of Medoc Mountain State Park(1541 Medoc State Park Rd., Hollister, 252/586-6588, office 8am-5pm daily, park 8am-6pm Nov.-Feb., 8am-8pm Mar.-May and Sept.-Oct., 8am-9pm June-Aug.). The park has more than 10 miles of hiking trails through loblolly pine and hardwood forests and alongside creeks and swamps. Should you happen to be traveling with your horse, you can enjoy 10 miles of bridle trails. There is also fine canoeing along Little Fishing Creek, ideal for beginning paddlers. Contact the park ahead of time to check on water levels; at times the creek can be swollen and less placid. Canoe rentals ($5 for the 1st hour, $3 per additional hour) are available in the park. There are 34 campsites ($20-48) for tents and trailers, 12 with electrical hookup.
A peculiar little stone building on Nash Street East houses an unusual and interesting museum, the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse African-American Museum (1202 Nash St. E., 252/296-3056, 9am-4pm Tues.-Sat., free, donations accepted). The Roundhouse is not a railroad roundhouse but rather a three-room circular building made of stones, saplings, and a mix of strange materials like cola bottles and marbles—with a dinosaur sculpture out front. The museum celebrates the creativity of its builder, Nestus Freeman, as well as the contributions of generations of African Americans in Wilson.
Entertainment and Events
The Arts Council of Wilson (124 Nash St. SW, 252/291-4329) hosts a great annual event, the spring Theater of the American South. The heart of each year’s festival is two repertory productions by prominent Southern playwrights, but it also hosts demonstrations by celebrity Southern chefs held in the homes of hospitable Wilson citizens, gospel concerts, garden parties, and more fun. Plays take place at the Edna Boykin Cultural Centerr (108 W. Nash St., 252/234-6161), a fantastic restored 1919 vaudeville theater.
Sports and Recreation
Wilson’s baseball park, Fleming Stadium, was built in 1939 by the Works Projects Administration. The Wilson Tobs (300 Stadium St., 252/291-8627, $9, box seats $10, games 7pm Mon.-Sat., 6pm Sun.), a Coastal Plain minor-league baseball team, have been playing at Fleming Stadium since that year. The stadium is also home of the North Carolina Baseball Museum (252/296-3048, 10am-4pm Thurs.-Sat., 1pm-5pm Sun., free, donations accepted), which honors North Carolina baseball greats including Negro League star and Rocky Mount native Buck Leonard, Hertford native “Catfish” Hunter, and Roxboro’s Enos “Country” Slaughter.
For many years, farmer Marvin Johnson of Angier was famous in these parts for two things: his elderly pet alligator, whom he handfed hot dogs, and his Gourd Museum (289 N. Raleigh Ave., 919/639-8571, dawn-dusk daily, free). The alligator was called home many years ago, but the Gourd Museum is still going strong. Johnson’s collection contains hundreds of painted and carved gourds—this is a popular craft in North Carolina—including a great many gourd animals, gourd hats, a gourd that looks like Benjamin Franklin, and a scene of the Last Supper in which all the figures are made out of gourd seeds. Marvin Johnson died, and his nephew now maintains the collection. The museum, housed in a small building on family property, is unlocked in the morning and locked up again at night, so stop by and walk right in.
The small town of Selma, located east of Raleigh at the junction of I-95 and U.S. 70, is packed with antiques shops. Among the best and largest is TWM’s Antique Mall (112 S. Pollock St./U.S. 301, 919/965-6699), which is one of those rambling antiques shops with seemingly endless rooms, each filled with the booths of many dealers, crammed with furniture and china and books and toys. Another huge emporium is the Selma Cotton Mills (1105 W. Anderson St., 919/868-8014, 10am-5pm Fri., 9am-5pm Sat.-Sun.), a weekends-only warehouse full of antiques and secondhand items.
Lillington is almost due south of Raleigh, located on U.S. 401. West of town you’ll find Raven Rock State Park (3009 Raven Rock Rd., Lillington, 919/893-4888, office 8am-5pm daily, park 8am-6pm daily Nov.-Feb., 8am-8pm daily Mar.-May and Sept.-Oct., 8am-9pm daily June-Aug.), named for a high rock outcropping that towers over this upper reach of the Cape Fear River. The Cape Fear Canoe Trail runs through the park, although there are no access points within the park. Contact Raven Rock to find out about the nearest put-ins. Beautiful hiking trails loop up and down and around the rock. Camping is available ($13/day), both hike-in and, if you’re traveling the Cape Fear Canoe Trail, canoe-in. Contact the park office for reservations.