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When Mark and Jeri Boerger decided to move from rural Wisconsin 18 years ago, their list of “must-have” attributes for a new town included the following: One, a safe place

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When Mark and Jeri Boerger decided to move from rural Wisconsin 18 years ago, their list of “must-have” attributes for a new town included the following: One, a safe place

6 Ways to Experience Valdese

When Mark and Jeri Boerger decided to move from rural Wisconsin 18 years ago, their list of “must-have” attributes for a new town included the following: One, a safe place to raise their eight children. Two, a city rich with history and personality. Three, easy access to nature.

Valdese, an unassuming North Carolina town almost equidistant from Asheville and Charlotte, checks all those boxes — that’s apparent to any visitor. But as a local photographer, Jeri notices the little things that often go unobserved. Like the mushroom varieties popping up in Valdese Lakeside Park; the exact minute to catch the best sunset; the look of anticipation on children’s faces right before their big line in an Old Colony Players community theater production.

Jeri loves to capture these moments through her professional photography, and when her friends and family come to visit, she’s eager to show them where the action happens. To experience the magic of Valdese, plan a day trip, and add the following stops to your itinerary.


See The Arrival sculpture near Massel Avenue. Photography courtesy of Town of Valdese

The Arrival Sculpture

The names of 29 settlers are inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of The Arrival sculpture, designed by local artist Greg Mastin to honor the original Valdese settlers who escaped persecution in Italy — where their church dates to the 12th century. “Hopeful. Strong. ‘Persevering’ is one of the main words for me about them,” says Gretchen Costner, executive director of the Waldensian Heritage Museum. Her grandfather wasn’t one of the original 29, but he arrived later that year as a 4-month-old baby in the arms of his father and alongside his grandfather.

“When they arrived in 1893, they were hoping for a better life than the one they’d escaped in the Italian Alps, where they had gone through a lot of years of persecution and hard times,” she says.

Towering more than 15 feet tall, the full-scale train sculpture with iron silhouettes of the settlers extends 30 feet parallel to Massel Avenue, the same spot where they departed the No. 11 train at the Valdese Depot.


Discover local history at the Waldensian Heritage Museum downtown. Photography courtesy of Town of Valdese

Waldensian Heritage Museum

Take a quick two-block walk up Rodoret Street to continue your Valdese history lesson at the downtown Waldensian Heritage Museum.

Don’t miss the vintage late-’30s Chevrolet truck from the Waldensian bakery. Costner explains the significance of the bakery — still in operation, though no longer under Waldensian ownership. “In the Waldensian valleys in Italy, they would have community bread ovens, where they made what’s like a French bread with a slightly harder crust. So when they came to Valdese in the late 1800s, they built a community oven for the Waldensian families to bake bread for their families.”

The Waldensian Heritage Museum gets visitors from all over the country who come to learn more about the Waldensians, who predate the Protestant Reformation. “We are the history for the Waldensians in the United States,” Costner says.


Old Rock School

As you leave the museum, swing by the Old Rock School (three blocks down Main Street), and take a moment to admire the architecture. It’s impossible not to imagine the perseverance required to build it, especially when you learn that each rock was collected by the Waldensian children and their parents.

Like many things in Valdese, the school stands as a reminder of the Waldensian spirit. “When the Waldensians came here from Italy, they were hoping to farm,” says Costner. Unfortunately, the soil was rocky and impacted with clay, so their farming dreams didn’t come to fruition.

The Old Rock School did, however, opening in 1922 to a parade and marching bands — and it educated children until the late 1970s.

Today, the renovated school is home to Bluegrass at the Rock Concert Series, the Valdese Tourism Department, four private businesses, and four nonprofits. Visitors can check out a show by the Old Colony Players in its 500-seat auditorium or peruse the Rock School Arts Foundation’s two art galleries, which are open to the public.


Grab a bite downtown, then pick up a souvenir. Photography courtesy of Town of Valdese

Downtown Valdese

When you’re ready for lunch, stay downtown to grab a salad or a burger at 100 Main, where the Cheers-like atmosphere is conducive to getting the true Valdese experience. Mountain Burrito is another favorite, and Myra’s Diner serves up some of the best ice cream in the state.

For the perfect souvenir or T-shirt, stop by Valdese Stichery, known for creative embroidery and screen printing. And if you’re into music, you can’t miss the selection at Play it Again Records.

“I love the walkability, the closeness,” Costner says. “In every store, you know the people.”


Learn more about the Waldensian people on the Trail of Faith. Photography courtesy of Town of Valdese

Trail of Faith

In the 16 years that Costner has been giving tours at the Waldensian Heritage Museum, she’s continuously been inspired by the number of Valdese visitors who have a personal connection or know someone related to the original Waldensian settlers.

“Waldensians weren’t huge in number, but they kept the town going,” she says. When the land didn’t work out for farming, they sent representatives down to South Carolina to learn the textile trade and then opened a textile mill in Valdese.

“That’s how the town really thrived in those years. The mill needed more than the local Waldensians to sustain it, so it drew in workers and families from surrounding counties. It’s not unusual for someone to say, ‘My grandfather worked at the Valdese mill and worked side-by-side with a Waldensian, or the children went to school together. That’s why the community supports this heritage so much.”

Take a guided or self-guided tour along the Trail of Faith, an outdoor walking museum, to gain greater insight into the history of the Waldensian people — both in Valdese and in Italy — through monuments and structures, like the original bread oven.


Take a walk across a suspension bridge at McGalliard Falls Park. Photography courtesy of Town of Valdese

Valdese Lakeside Park

Jeri Boerger loves the mountains, and Valdese Lakeside Park makes her feel like she’s there. “We’re big into hiking but don’t have the opportunity to get to the mountains all the time. So we go to Valdese Lakeside Park, where you get everything,” she says. “It’s amazing.”

In addition to the lake with a pier for fishing and launching kayaks, rough forest trails along creeks are ideal for hiking; a groomed trail, complete with a 160-foot suspension bridge, is perfect for a two-mile walk over to McGalliard Falls Park; and plenty of benches offer space for peaceful reflection and meditation.

“There’s a fantastic view of Table Rock,” she says. “I love seeing families out enjoying the park, walking their dogs, swimming in the lake — one man carries his guitar to play for his kids.”

Jeri could easily spend all day, never checking a clock or her phone, but she pays attention when it’s time for sunset. “You need to stick around if the clouds are in the right position,” she says. “I usually try to catch it 20 minutes before it sets — if they say it’s going to set at 8:30, it’s before that when you see the rays on the water that throw color up in the clouds. We did not have sunsets like this in Wisconsin.”

This story was published on Oct 09, 2023

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.