Near the banks of the Tar River’s tea-colored waters, the Tuscarora tribe settled, shared ideas, and traded goods for thousands of years. In 1818, at a significant bend in the
Near the banks of the Tar River’s tea-colored waters, the Tuscarora tribe settled, shared ideas, and traded goods for thousands of years. In 1818, at a significant bend in the river, the energy of the water as it rushed over a series of rocky outcrops was harnessed to power Rocky Mount Mills — now the second-oldest cotton mill in the state. In and around the mill, a spirit of entrepreneurship began to define Rocky Mount’s character.
In 1996, after operating for more than 150 years, the mill shut down as a result of lower demand for its products, higher cotton prices, and increasing competition. Its brick walls, tall windows, and wooden floors sat quietly for about two decades. But that spirit of entrepreneurship couldn’t be snuffed out. In 2018, after undergoing extensive renovations by the Capitol Broadcasting Company, the mill opened once more. Now everyone, including women and people of color — two groups that wouldn’t have had the same opportunity when the mill originally opened — can establish new businesses and chase big dreams. And that energy has spread beyond the mill’s boundaries, inspiring other Rocky Mount locals to pursue their own ambitions.
Created over a three-year period, Digital Rocky Mount Mills offers a well-rounded portrait of the mill and its role in Rocky Mount’s history. The website includes a database of images that were taken when the mill was running, a seven-part written history of Rocky Mount that was researched by members of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop, oral accounts from former mill workers, a documentary on racial integration at the mill, information about the enslaved people who built and worked at the mill, and more.
To access this resource, visit rockymountmill.prospect.unc.edu.
Michelle Bradley Robertson, the daughter of a fourth-generation North Carolina peanut and cotton farmer, often dreams of the landscapes of her youth. Sometimes, when the clock strikes noon and Matlock starts on CBS, she paints rows of cotton bolls. While the main character, played by Andy Griffith, solves mysteries in the background, Robertson swipes layers of indigo, hot pink, lavender, and olive green across her canvas. When she’s finished, an impressionistic scene — of farmland or the Pamlico River or the North Carolina coast — looks back at her. Her artistic philosophy reflects her work: “You should be able to put out your grandmother’s china and hang a bold abstract [painting] on the wall,” she says. “There are traditional values [on display], but also personality and pizazz.” Even though Robertson has always loved to create, she never intended to sell her work. But now, she’s found a balance between creating for herself and for others.
Dress to impress: Robertson has designed a line of caftans that will be sourced and manufactured in North Carolina. Some of the garments will have her paintings printed on them.
For more information about her clothing and artwork, visit michellebradleyrobertson.com.
Founded in 1900 by W.A. Bulluck — who left his family farm to open a furniture store — this shop now sells furniture, gifts, and accessories, and has remained a Rocky Mount fixture.
Sisters Melanie and Meredith Davis took over this family business from their father, Doug Davis, who spent nearly 40 years in the furniture industry. The store specializes in home goods and decor.
Navy veteran Theresa Vagnoni shares her love of crafting at her shop in Rocky Mount Mills through paint parties, candlemaking projects, and other DIY experiences.
David Joyner fondly recalls standing on top of the Rocky Mount Event Center, looking down at a line of concertgoers that wound around the 165,000-square-foot facility. In April, Joyner, who is general manager, and his team of more than 65 employees had prepared the venue for a sold-out concert featuring 12 artists who played to a crowd of 3,500 people. “It filled me with an enormous sense of pride,” he says. Due to its flexibility, the event center’s staff has to set up the space for concerts, transform it into a basketball arena or volleyball courts, and also arrange it for the more unusual event here and there — like a monster truck show.
Joyner, a Rocky Mount native who has been involved with many area organizations, previously spent 10 years managing another local convention center. His experience made him the right guy for the job. Now, he helps host sports teams who come from as far away as Seattle and Puerto Rico to compete at the facility, helping the local economy by visiting restaurants and shops. Nash and Edgecombe counties have been designated as “Tier 1” by the state — meaning that they are among the most economically distressed counties in North Carolina. “It’s not common to see a facility like this in a Tier-1 county,” Joyner says. “[The event center is] a symbol that we are proud to have stewardship over.”
Check it out: PBS featured the Rocky Mount Event Center in an episode of ncIMPACT focused on sports tourism. To watch, visit pbsnc.org/watch/ncimpact.
Dresses in a rainbow of colors and bold patterns hang on racks along the walls of Clair de Lune, an upscale women’s boutique in an unassuming shopping center in northeast Rocky Mount. Fifty fashion brands, including North Carolina jewelry maker Smith & Co., are represented in the shop, but all the attention is currently focused on the back fitting room. There, Jerri Blanton and Amanda Blanton Smith, the mother and daughter who own Clair de Lune, are showering a customer with compliments on the new pastel dress she’s modeling in the mirror. Opening the boutique in September 2019 was a sort of homecoming for Smith, whose first job was at a former boutique in the area. After graduating from Meredith College with a degree in fashion merchandising and business, she returned home to start her own shop and fulfill a need in Rocky Mount — there hadn’t been a boutique in the city in about 12 years. The reception has been positive, but it’s not all about dressing up, Smith says. “It’s about the experience and relationship and bond with customers.”
Did you know? Clair de Lune is named for the delicate Claude Debussy composition that Smith’s grandmother once played at a piano recital.
Taking in the natural light, white-painted brick walls, and vintage light fixtures inside Books and Beans, it’s hard to imagine that this coffee shop with a rotating book selection, which opened in 2019, was once the canteen at Rocky Mount Mills. One constant has remained: Conversations still take place over food. Coworkers swap ideas over lattes made with espresso from Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee, while friends converse over dishes like the egg sandwich served on a brioche bun or the hot-pressed Hemingway sandwich, made with roast beef, Swiss cheese, balsamic onion jam, and horseradish dill aioli. The shop combines owner Etaf Rum’s two loves, coffee and literature: One side displays books that customers can borrow, while another features newer titles available for purchase. When Rum moved to Rocky Mount from Brooklyn, New York, in 2008, she didn’t think that opening a business like Books and Beans would be possible. “There was barely any diversity and not many places to eat,” she says. “The [renovation of the] mill really changed everything — now there are women-owned businesses and businesses owned by people of color. I’m proud to be somewhere that represents the plurality of Rocky Mount.”
Don’t miss: Mrs. George’s peanut butter pie. The locally made and beloved dessert is only sold at Books and Beans and at Barley and Burger.
Copies of Rum’s New York Times best-selling book, A Woman Is No Man, are stacked by the front counter of Books and Beans. The novel — about two Palestinian American women navigating the confines of a traditional culture — is inspired by Rum’s own experience as an Arab American. Her latest book, Evil Eye, which explores similar themes, will be released on September 5.
Also owned by Ed Wiley III and Yalem Kiros, this restaurant features coffee brewed using a centuries-old tradition from Kiros’s native Ethiopia as well as grab-and-go sandwiches, soups, and salads.
Enjoy barbecue, seafood, and delicious sides — like the award-winning macaroni and cheese and the sweet potatoes in an orange-ginger glaze — that reflect the dedication of owners Ed Wiley III and his wife, Yalem Kiros, to true Southern hospitality.
Voted by locals as the best restaurant in Rocky Mount two years in a row and best burger four years in a row, this spot serves smashburgers, hand-spun milkshakes, and burger bowls — if you want to forgo the bun — in a casual environment.
This relaxed yet elevated restaurant serves artisanal pizzas, wings, salads, and craft beer.
Try one of Tap @ 1918’s pub-style starters — like Scotch eggs, pork rinds, or a bacon-wrapped pretzel — or an entrée with a beer or cocktail.
Expand your wine horizons by grabbing a bottle to enjoy at home, attending a tasting, or joining the club at this family-owned shop.