Pearls of the Coastal Plain: 14 Towns Before the Shore
These towns are buoyed by their proximity to water — river, sound, bay — yet they’re far enough from the ocean that you won’t find sand in your shoes. Here, 14 quirky places claim their fame in boats and bears, local characters and history.
You don’t need to know a skiff from a sloop to enjoy Oriental. You just have to love the water.
Oriental. People population: 898. Boat population: a whole lot more.
Situated on a peninsula and a working harbor, Oriental is so defined by boats and fishing that at Brantley’s, a local restaurant, the meatloaf is served with hush puppies. One of the town’s biggest events is the Croaker Festival, held on the Fourth of July, featuring Miss Minnow and the Croaker Queen waving from convertibles, local bands playing patriotic tunes on a stage, and street dancing.
Among the town’s characters: the publisher of a weekly newspaper, retirees who argue politics over coffee at The Bean (it stands on stilts, just across from the seafood packing plant), and Ms. Sils, whose cream pies are famous, and available for purchase. There are signs for boat repair, boat trailers, and used and new boats for sale. Mailboxes are made from repurposed outboard motors. Artists have painted anchors and stuck them in their yards. Shrimp boats, many with names like Miss This and Lady That, are owned by families, not conglomerates.
Stunning sunrises, bird-watching, fishing, and sailing: In Oriental, a life on the water awaits. photograph by Chris Hannant
There’s also a bit of Jimmy Buffett in Oriental: Instead of “Margaritaville,” the town could be called Marinaville, because there’s one on nearly every creek and tributary wending its way from the Pamlico Sound up the Neuse River.
Marinas aren’t mere docks; they’re more like clubs. On weekends, plenty of North Carolinians head for Oriental to sail, motor, fish, and live aboard their moored boats. At the marina, they have access to swimming pools, a laundry, showers, bikes, and cars to drive to town for provisions.
Just a half-mile inland, the water is given over to fields, and if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to eat in a silo, you can do so at The Silos restaurant, a favorite for pizza and, yes, seafood. Yet, even in the middle of acres of plowed furrows, a boat will be sitting there — grounded, so to speak.
Aurora used to lie under the sea, making it an ideal spot to find fossils of its former residents: sharks.
In the late afternoon sun, a family of three is picking, bare-handed, through Pits of the Pungo, in downtown Aurora, looking for items that the daughter can show off at school. Soon, a mustached man in his 30s shows up, trowel and makeshift sifter in hand. He, too, starts digging in the gray dirt. They are searching for fossils, which is appropriate, because across the street sits the Aurora Fossil Museum, one of the town’s main attractions.
Aurora, population 518, rests on a tendril of the Pamlico River, the last outpost on this peninsula before Hobucken, which sits on the Intracoastal Waterway 15 miles away and has even fewer people. The next tiny town to the west, Chocowinity, is a half-hour drive down long, straight roads and flat farmland, dotted mostly by longleaf pines, small houses, and churches. Driving in from the north or south requires a ferry ride. “You have to be coming here to get here,” says Cynthia Crane, who later brags that despite the isolation, more than 15,000 people walked into her museum last year.
This megalodon tooth is, thankfully, all that remains of a frighteningly large prehistoric shark. photograph by Chris Hannant
They come because of what lurks beneath the ground. This region was once an ocean-covered basin, and over millions of years, fossils piled up. Nobody knew how many until 1964, when a mining company started to strip the land between the town and the river to the north.
First, a large, spinning bucket-wheel excavator scalped the top 30 feet or so of earth, then a series of draglines — garage-size buckets hanging under big cranes — scooped out phosphate, which is used for fertilizer, 100 feet down. Miners immersed the bucketfuls of dirt in water to separate the phosphate, which floats, from the tailings, which don’t.
After miners dumped what they thought was useless material, they noticed a collection of ancient shells, coral, bones, and more. A company official later remarked that a single dragline bucket contained about 185,000 shark teeth. Soon, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution started making regular trips to the area.
• • •
Founded in 1976, the Aurora Fossil Museum opened in 1978 to give people a free look at the more interesting finds. Past a huge, fabricated shark head is an entire room of fossilized shark teeth in framed displays on the wall. The centerpiece? Six-inchers from a massive megalodon, a type of shark that could grow as long as 59 feet and lived from 15.9 million to 2.6 million years ago.
Hand-painted murals of prehistoric animals decorate the walls, along with vertebrae, skulls, and other fragments of the Miocene and Pliocene epochs. Across the street in an annex is a six-foot-long chunk of rock containing a partially intact whale skeleton, which also came out of the mine.
For decades, the company let collectors sift through the piles of tailings that sat at the bottoms of the open pits. In 2008, though, the bucket wheel broke. There was no way to fix it, and in 2009, the mining company closed its property to collectors.
Nonetheless, people still come to the corner of Main and Fourth streets, to pick through the pile of tailings that the mine’s owner, PotashCorp-Aurora, deposits here twice a year. From afar, it looks like a slag heap, but under closer scrutiny, it reveals gravel, shell chunks, and rocks.
The kick of a boot unearths a thumb-size piece of ancient coral and an intact shell fossil. On the other side of the pile, a father brags that he’s found three tiny shark teeth, just sitting on top. He shows them to his daughter. She squeals.
Just 324 laid-back folks make up the whole of the hamlet.
Of all 100 county seats in North Carolina, Swan Quarter has the honor of having the most enchanting name — inspired by an assembly of swans in a nearby bay.
Yet Swan Quarter, the seat of Hyde County, is not a town, but a community. It’s one of only two county seats — the other is Currituck — that is unincorporated.
Director Judy McLawhorn celebrates the arts center’s acronym: Mattamuskeet Artisans Teaching, Training, Instructing, and Educating. photograph by Chris Hannant
It’s a quiet village of trim houses and a little white church topped with a bell tower. Most of what passes for hubbub goes on inside the modern brick courthouse. Less than a minute’s walk away, on Oyster Creek Street, the MATTIE Arts Center showcases paintings, woodwork, and photographs from artists in and around Hyde County.
Across the street, at Pat Spencer’s service station, a sign out front announces birthday greetings to locals. The words “Pat’s regular” are handwritten on two gas pumps. Lucy, a rottweiler, loafs nearby.
A short piece down Landing Road, a white cinder-block store called Hobo Seafood is set against a backdrop of shrimp boats, their outriggers raised. You can buy a few pounds of shrimp or a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie for the road. One road leads straight to the Swan Quarter Ferry Terminal, where cars slip aboard for a two-hour, 40-minute cruise to Ocracoke Island. Big-name beaches await, as Swan Quarter and its 324 kind souls recede in the rearview mirror.
Spoon River Artworks & Market in Belhaven is a destination for both locals and boaters from afar.
When you arrive in downtown Belhaven and start searching for Spoon River Artworks & Market, remember that there’s no Spoon River, per se. The famed restaurant sits mere steps from where Pantego Creek fills out and becomes the Pungo River, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway.
photograph by Baxter Miller
Spoon River has put Belhaven, population, 1,612, on the map, both literally and figuratively: The eatery is on Pamlico Street, a destination for locals, boaters, and passers-through who make it their business to know the best stops along the 3,000-mile Intracoastal Waterway. The dishes change almost daily, depending on what’s available from local farms, fields, produce stands, butchers, dairies, and the sea. The menu’s handwritten in flowing script on multiple pages clamped to an old-fashioned clipboard. The pages are dog-eared, meaning that you’re not the only one who can’t decide between the ahi tuna with grits and the smoked chicken penne.
Surf and turf and eggplant parmesan sound like dishes from the 1950s, but their flavors and textures are contemporary and complex. Standard entrées like filet mignon are elevated into an entirely different realm. Flights of beer and champagne are a delight, and owner Teresa Goerss Van Staalduinen encourages guests to wander into Spoon River’s market, a small space filled with a variety of wines. With the guidance of an expert adviser, you can select a perfect pairing for your penne.
Or order the famous Bloody Mary. It takes 15 minutes to prepare, and comes with extras like shrimp, pickled okra, pesto, cheeses, olives, gherkins, and a leaf of romaine lettuce as backdrop.
• • •
Beyond the food, which is beautiful and plentiful (the crab cake is the size of a hamburger), is the decor. Hollow fabric squares and round parchment lanterns soften the high ceiling, itself a marvel of cream-painted pressed tin. Sit in a velvet banquette, a Chiavari chair of silver bamboo, or a seat of clear Lucite. Stag heads, with their ocher fur and antlers, are at home mounted above a corner piano backed against tall shelves of jugs and pottery the color of ivory.
In the one spacious room of this old downtown building, a cozy two-top table bears stenciled lace designs, while against a hanging swath of linen, a long wooden farm table seats 10. The effect is both soothing and vibrant, sophisticated and vintage, eclectic and elegant.
— Susan Stafford Kelly
Spoon River ArtWorks & Market 263 Pamlico Street
Belhaven, NC 27810
(252) 945-3899 spoonrivernc.com
In a corner booth, three generations of one family dig into hunks of brownies and vanilla ice cream. The youngest wears a pink, patterned shirt; her hair is braided in two pigtails. At 18 months old, Kaelyn Hinson loves eating dessert with her mom and grandmother at Walter’s Grill in Murfreesboro.
“This is like a once-every-two-months splurge,” says Lynne Brown, the grandmother, who grew up here.
In this town of fewer than 3,000 people, Walter’s is the longest-running business, having opened in 1943, the same year it launched a famous recipe. “We’re well known for our hot dog chili,” says Donna Webb, as she slathers mustard on a hamburger bun.
For 73 years, Walter’s Grill has been a destination for its famous desserts and hot dog chili. photograph by Chris Hannant
Murfreesboro, in Hertford County, predates the American Revolution. In 1746, an Irish immigrant named William Murfree bought a 150-acre tract along the Meherrin River, its scenic cypress-lined banks looping just north of the area. In 1787, the growing settlement was incorporated as a town.
It follows, then, that the Murfreesboro Historic District would be lined with a blacksmith shop, a tin shop, and the Murfree-Smith Law Office, which dates back to the late 1700s. On Broad Street, the Melrose boasts white Ionic columns and a mighty magnolia in the yard. At Broad and Fifth is what locals call the Gingerbread House because of the ornamental woodwork beneath its eaves.
The historical association and chamber of commerce are located in another Greek Revival home: the Roberts-Vaughan House on Main Street. Across the street, King’s Coffee serves a scrumptious mango smoothie, while at Tavern 125, try the fried veggies and scallops.
Nearby, Colon Ballance leads tours at the Brady C. Jefcoat Museum of Americana in the historic Murfreesboro High School. Open only on weekends, the museum is a repository of 19th- and early 20th-century technology: gramophone speakers, clothing irons — made of real cast-iron — and washboards.
Leaving Murfreesboro, it’s time for another stop at Walter’s Grill. Like the town itself, the restaurant beckons you back for another visit.
— Bryan Mims
Walter’s Grill 317 East Main Street
Murfreesboro, NC 27855
When you eat at The Sanitary, a beloved seafood restaurant in Morehead City, the waters of Bogue Sound slosh beneath your feet.
A railroad track bisects Morehead City like a metal median, with the raised humps of crossovers installed every few streets to allow chickens, people, pets, and the like, to get to the other side. It’s hard to imagine the town without that track. It’s even harder to imagine Morehead City without The Sanitary.
The seafood icon stands along the walkable waterfront. Look for the looooong slatted benches out front, because that’s where you’ll wait, even though this restaurant — no, it’s an institution — seats 500 inside.
The Sanitary was founded in 1938 by a couple of fishermen who cooked up their daily catch, and did such a tasty job of it that friends suggested they open a restaurant. Over the past 78 years, The Sanitary has served more than an estimated 12 million pounds of shrimp and flounder, 3 million pounds of french fries, and 500,000 gallons of tea to more than 15 million customers.
photograph by Mike Basher
This history resides in the Port Deck, the Mid Deck, and the Capts Deck, huge rooms with spartan decor. Some 95 tables are covered in humble oilcloth, impervious to butter, tartar sauce, and ketchup stains, oyster and shrimp shells.
Walls are covered with mullioned windows, with views of the water from nearly every spot in the restaurant. In fact, while you’re eating, you can hear it sloshing beneath you: The entire building sits over the Bogue Sound. The preponderance of wood — floors, walls, tables, chairs — means that during hurricanes, everything floats. Holes are cut in the decking to release the pressure of rising water, and to reduce the risk that the building will detach from the sea wall. The water rises inside, and the chairs and tables float around, bang into one another, and eventually come to rest on the hardwood floor.
The restaurant’s no-frills feel attracts generations of campers from nearby Seafarer and Sea Gull, who travel by boat to Morehead City on what’s known as “Long Trip.” They eat at The Sanitary, buy salt water taffy, and return down the Neuse to camp. And a group of Morehead City businessmen comes in so routinely for lunch that they’re known as the Morehead Mafia.
Lisa Garner, daughter of owner Ted Garner, has worked here since she was 15. She and her brother, Jeff, and some 125 employees during busy summer months, run The Sanitary. Would they ever expand the brand? Open a Sanitary, say, at Wrightsville Beach? Lisa laughs. The Sanitary couldn’t be duplicated. Or be anywhere other than Morehead City.
— Susan Stafford Kelly
The Sanitary Fish Market & Restaurant 501 Evans Street
Morehead City, NC 28557
(252) 247-3111 sanitaryfishmarket.com
Want to spot a wild bear? Look no further than Tyrrell County, home to more than 1,000 of them.
BEARS. NEXT 15 MILES.
These words are emblazoned on a yellow sign along U.S. Highway 64 East, just outside of Columbia. The advisory is an understatement.
Columbia, population 850, is the biggest town in North Carolina’s least-inhabited county — least-inhabited by humans, anyway. Consider this: Tyrrell County, population 4,109, has an average of 11 people per each of its 390 square miles, compared with, by some estimates, about three or four black bears in the same amount of space.
You don’t have to be in Columbia for long to realize that it’s ideal for bears. Populated by cypresses, bay trees, and pocosins, the area is swampy and low, sitting mostly between the Scuppernong and Alligator rivers. So many animals live in the woods that when the two-lane highway is eventually widened to four — to more quickly shuttle vacationers to the Outer Banks — the new road will include a series of bridges and culverts to let the four-legged creatures cross safely.
With its fertile farms and food sources, Tyrrell County is to bears what an all-you-can-eat buffet is to people. photograph by Neil Jernigan
So, yes, if you’re large and fuzzy, this is a great place, and home to one of the largest black bear habitats on the East Coast.
The sheriff here? Yeah, he gets a lot of bear calls. Sometimes two or three a night in late spring and early summer. A bear is in my trash. I hit a bear with my car. A few years ago, a bear broke into a woman’s house down in Gum Neck. Another time, a guy left a cheeseburger wrapper in his car, and a bear tried to claw his way in to get it.
Bears are so ubiquitous in Tyrrell County that, in a less sensitive time, some people kept them as pets. In the early 1930s, a farmer in Riders Creek domesticated a cub. In the mid-1950s, a general store in Columbia took in another abandoned cub and trained it to drink cola from a bottle in front of customers.
Tyrrell County’s combination of thick forests, sparse roads, and a scarcity of humans means its bears are thriving. A lot of bear health food also flourishes here, including ants, leaves, berries, and blackgum trees. Farmers have been planting less cotton and tobacco (inedible) and more corn and soybeans (yum!) — the equivalent of a bear pizza party.
By state wildlife commission estimates, only 2,000 bears lived in eastern North Carolina in 1980. Today, there are at least 12,000 in the coastal region of the state. So if you come out here to escape people, you’ll still have to live with some nosy neighbors.
The whimsical fiberglass bears that call downtown streets home celebrate the town’s Swiss roots.
As you cross the bridge into New Bern, and see the petite skyline and historic downtown spread along the waterfront below, something within you longs for breeches and a powdered wig, a waistcoat and a corset.
Maybe not the corset.
But this is the first capital city of North Carolina, remember, and, next to Bath, the state’s oldest town. And the presence of stately, formal Tryon Palace — accessible, strollable, smack in the middle of downtown, only short blocks from the bridge — puts you in a colonial frame of mind.
And then you think, What’s up with the bears?
They’re everywhere: gaily colored and life-size; standing, crouching, on all fours, sitting on their rumps. On corners. In front of stores. Randomly occupying a sidewalk.
photograph by Matt Ray Photography
Some 20,000 black bears roam North Carolina, and plenty are found in eastern North Carolina, but … what gives?
In 1710, the Swiss and Palatine Germans founded New Bern; and because they came from Bern, Switzerland — and explorers being explorers — named the town for their old home, and added “New.”
New England. New Hampshire. New York. New Bern.
Plus, if you speak Old German, “bern” is the word for “bear.”
Stands to reason, then, that New Bern adopted the bear as its symbol, and the colors and shield of Bern, Switzerland, for its town banners and wayfinder signs.
For decades, the local school sports teams have been known as the Bears, the Grizzlies, and the Cubs. A bear crawls up the red, white, and blue pole outside the barbershop. You can have yourself a beer at — where else? — the Thirsty Bruin.
New Bern celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding in 2010. As part of the festivities, businesses sponsored the creation of fiberglass statues of bears to dot the city. Local artists collaborated with the sponsors to create personalized bears. Hence, the Coldwell Banker bear holds a set of keys to a house.
Painted in bold colors, some 50 bears can be found in and around New Bern — so many that visitors now come to “track” them. There are bears with names like Gentle Giant and Semper Fi and Barrister Bear. And in this place where Pepsi-Cola was invented, you can buy bear Christmas ornaments with bottles of the soda that made this town famous.
Editor’s note: Martin Supply Company closed in 2017.
The gleaming metal pyramid appears to be a Christmas tree, but look more closely. It’s a display of traps: Raccoon traps. Bear traps. Dog-proof traps. Rubber-jaw traps. All are heavy-duty and lethally toothed. They mean business.
The five fellows lounging in mismatched chairs beneath a sign that reads “College of Knowledge” are maybe not so different from the fellows who, for years, used to show up here at Martin Supply Company in Williamston at 6 in the morning and “start solving the world’s problems,” according to Benny Swift, who’s been working here since 1976.
“Basically,” Swift says, Martin Supply “was the Democratic headquarters and the board of education.”
Williamston lies on the Roanoke River, but it’s a farm town. That’s how four farmers came to open Martin Supply in 1941. At one time, Martin Supply was “basically a downtown shopping center,” Swift says. “A farmer could come here and buy his shoes, his clothes, his wife’s clothes, his children’s Christmas presents, and fertilizer for his fields.”
• • •
Martin supply still sells and carries plenty of odd items that attract visitors from throughout the state. “Some people in Raleigh get up on Sunday mornings and throw a dart at the map and decide where they’re going for the day and come here,” Swift says.
Need boots or a camouflage jacket? At Martin Supply, Benny Swift will make sure you get a perfect fit. photograph by Chris Hannant
The main room — as good-smelling as my grandfather’s wholesale grocery — looks like camouflage central. Need ammo or high-tech sunglasses? Available here. Behind the cash register, shelves are lined with products for survival: pork and beans, snuff tins, Lance crackers. The wooden counter holds a red-waxed round of hoop cheese.
Another room is devoted to local sports. “There are only two places between here and the Virginia state line where you can buy a baseball bat,” Swift says. “And we’re one of them.”
Need your pecans shelled? “Get in line,” Swift advises. “We have a two-and-half-page list of people waiting. If you need a transplant, you’ll get a new heart before you get your pecans shelled.”
What about the sled in the front window? “It’s a national holiday here when it snows,” Swift says. “Everyone comes in for a sled. If we threw ashes on the roof from a leftover fire, they’d come in for a sled.”
Later, I head for the Sunny Side Oyster Bar, Williamston’s other famous establishment, a few blocks away. On one of the wooden stools, his elbows on the paper placemat, sits Swift. “Order a Red Rooster,” he says, and laughs.
Consider yourself warned: If you need an antidote for too much horseradish, Martin Supply is closed for the day.
— Susan Stafford Kelly
Martin Supply Company 118 Washington Street
Williamston, NC 27892
Oysters and shrimp, fish and crabs: This town’s livelihood is in the water.
At some point, an English teacher probably corrected your “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay. “You didn’t eat jumbo shrimp,” she likely said. “ ‘Jumbo shrimp’ is an oxymoron.” An oxymoron is two words with contradictory meanings that are placed together. How can something small (shrimp) be jumbo?
But on the banks of the New River, in Sneads Ferry, shrimp are big, as in a big deal. Small, medium, large, and jumbo, North Carolina shrimp are synonymous with Sneads Ferry. So synonymous that every August, the town holds a two-day festival honoring the crustacean, with heading contests, bands, a parade, and Little Miss Shrimp(s).
What you won’t find is a ferry, although at one point in history, there were two: one operated by Edmund Ennett, beginning in 1725, and, about 30 years later, one on the north side of the New, owned and operated by — you guessed it — Robert Snead.
In Sneads Ferry, the dual arms of moored shrimp boats, the workhorses of the sea, reach higher than most dwellings. photograph by Millie Holloman Photography
It seems unclear what happened first: whether Snead lost possession of the ferry when a bridge was built over the New, or whether he lost possession of the entire village named for him — and, therefore, the apostrophe.
What you will find in Sneads Ferry are shrimp boats, seafood, and the accoutrements of fishing. The annual catch totals 385 tons of shrimp, 25 tons of flounder, and 493 tons of scallops, oysters, crabs, mullet, grouper, and their scaled and swimming brethren.
• • •
In Sneads Ferry, whelk shells line porch railings and coolers line porch floorboards. Like the town’s citizens, cats lead contented lives in Sneads Ferry, where they wander down to the shore for dinner. And beside a seafood restaurant, the ramp to the water leads to the very spot where your fresh shrimp was dumped from nets only hours earlier. It’s a village where crab pots and boats outnumber cars. The only sidewalks have docks attached to them.
Along the river, each bend in the winding road reveals a seafood establishment — store, wholesale, and restaurant. “Crab shack” means exactly that: a shack that serves crabs. Even the children’s backyard playhouses are built to look like boats. Why not? Most of the population of nearly 10,000 — having nearly doubled in 15 years, thanks to the presence of nearby Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune — earns its living from the water.
Nearly every calling card stapled on a kiosk near the cash register at a store or eatery involves the seafood industry. On tables, you’ll find a selection of condiments intended for fish: Texas Pete, ketchup, at least two kinds of cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, and a shaker of vinegar.
Sneads Ferry is that place where, on any restaurant menu, the first line of the selections simply says “Shrimp.” Not fried, broiled, or stuffed; not in gumbo or fricassee or scampi or any of those ways the fellow in Forrest Gump rattled off.
Famous for its peonies, Pantego has roots in Holland, where the Dutch nurtured their love of flowers.
At more than 70 years old, the Van Staalduinen family home, cedar-sided and painted many times over, sits on more than 150 acres of farmland in Pantego in rural Beaufort County. A simple metal sign, its paint fading and flaking, is welded to one of the corrugated tin production warehouses that dot the property. “The Terra Ceia Farms,” it reads.
Many of the names on the mailboxes in Pantego, population 177, are Dutch. The story of this town is a story of immigrants — and flowers.
In the early 1900s, waves of Dutch nationals came to America from Holland. “Europe was a very nasty place prior to the first World War,” says Carl Van Staalduinen (pronounced stall-doo-nen). These newcomers had grown flowers in Holland, and brought their livelihoods to Pantego’s flatlands.
“We have 18 inches of topsoil,” Van Staalduinen says, unspooling historical and geographical facts: swampland covered eastern North Carolina; wealthy landowners cut the cypress and cedar trees, drained the swamps, and sold the acres of dark, fertile loam to Europeans.
A peony plant takes five years to mature and become profitable. Photography courtesy of Terra Ceia Farms
Under the wooden counter in the farm’s main building are newspaper clippings documenting a century of the Van Staalduinens’ flower farm. Van Staalduinen’s grandfather, Leendert, with his 10 children, immigrated to the United States in 1943, and established Terra Ceia Farms to grow cut flowers. In the 1960s, Van Staalduinen’s father, Case, took over the business, which by this time included mail-order bulbs. The farm became so successful that when Case retired in 1996, there were 35 acres of peonies. Now Carl Van Staalduinen has expanded the peony patch to 150 acres.
Early in the growth stage, the “laterals” — similar to tomato plant suckers — are cut off by hand, to force a single big, bursting bloom. The flowers are cut “in the bud,” just as they’re beginning to “soften,” and long after the ants are gone. In the last of the day’s light, workers grade, bind, and box the blooms. The flowers are immediately loaded onto refrigerated trucks. Peonies at the grocery often have been cut for less than 24 hours.
Cut-flower crops are vulnerable to swings in the weather. North Carolina is about the farthest south that peonies can be grown, Van Staalduinen says. It’s no wonder he can recite the exact years of natural disasters.
• • •
In 2013, a tornado swept up from the Pamlico Sound and, in mere minutes, destroyed 40 percent of the peony crop just three days before the harvest.
In 2007, an unexpected Easter freeze ruined 90 percent of the harvest. The good news? Although the buds are tender, the plants are hardy. As a rule, “peony plants outlive their owners,” Van Staalduinen says.
You can visit Terra Ceia and buy fragrant bouquets of peonies. Destined for wedding or Mother’s Day bouquets or elegant table centerpieces, these flowers embody not only the story of immigrants, but also their endurance and resilience.
— Susan Stafford Kelly
The Terra Ceia Farms 3810 Terra Ceia Road
Pantego, NC 27860
(800) 858-2852 terraceiafarms.com
A small town loses its historic newspaper, but keeps its soul.
An elderly woman approached the front door of The Daily Southerner, Tarboro’s hometown newspaper. She had been crying.
“People were devastated,” says Calvin Adkins, then the paper’s editor. “They came up to me for three or four weeks, and asked ‘What happened?’”
For 188 years, The Daily Southerner had been the paper of record for Tarboro. Unlike their big-city counterparts, small-town newspapers have a duty beyond reporting the day’s scuttle. Ribbon-cuttings and weddings, honor rolls and church suppers, heat waves and cold spells: These events celebrate the milestones, not only of a newspaper, but also of its readers.
“You know what else people asked me?” Adkins says. “‘How are we going to find out who died?’”
• • •
George Howard began publishing the paper on March 25, 1826, as the Tarborough Free Press. The front page of its inaugural edition included no local news at all, however; instead, it printed dispatches from France, England, and South America.
Over time, the stories better reflected local concerns: a scourge of boll weevils, bootlegging busts, Civil War battles, and natural disasters, including Hurricane Floyd, whose winds felled more than 20 trees in the Town Common and whose rains forced the Tar River over its banks.
The Daily Southerner was the pulse of Tarboro from 1826 to 2014. photograph by Geoff Wood
While today’s newspapers often are accused of sensationalism, the headlines of yesteryear could be just as indelicate. Detailed accounts of crimes made front-page news in Tarboro, as did stories about executions. “Two Shocks Necessary to Kill Condemned Man” was, unfortunately, placed above the story, “Quarrelling Church Is Hit by Lightning.”
• • •
Tarboro high school won three straight 2-A state football championships — from 2008 to 2010 — and Adkins, also a photographer and sportswriter, covered the hoopla. “Everybody wants to read the highlights,” Adkins says. “A successful team needs a good paper to report on it.”
But while the football team enjoyed success, the national and local economy started to wane. The number of subscribers and advertisers dropped, and so began The Daily Southerner’s financial unwinding. On May 29, 2014, the paper’s Alabama-based owners assembled about a half-dozen staff members into a room. “They said, ‘As of tonight, this is the last paper’, ” Adkins says. “I was stunned.”
The next morning’s paper featured the front-page headline — “Daily Southerner closes today.” Yet, in the rest of the 10-page edition, life went on as usual in Tarboro. Other Page 1 stories covered a beach music festival, a job fair, and the county’s unemployment rate. Near the back, a listing of church services, notices for the Ebonette Club, classified ads for yard sales and free kittens.
Over the next week, Adkins packed up. He toured the brown-brick building on West Wilson Street one last time. “I found myself going into the darkroom, where I got my start,” he says. “I had a smile on my face.”
Now Tarboro has not one, but two newspapers. The Edgecombe Tribune is on Main Street, across from the Tarboro Weekly. Both capture the essence of small-town life: new downtown businesses, the resignation of the mayor, a key victory for high school girls’ softball team. “I had a lot of happy memories,” says Adkins, who works for the Town of Princeville. “It was home for me.”
In Washington, the nation’s second-largest estuary makes a home for wildlife.
Sure, Washington is squarely inland, on the western edge of Beaufort County, 40 miles upriver from the Pamlico Sound, and 70 miles from the Virginia state line. But Washington is really a water town. Stand on the brick riverwalk downtown, and find the clues: in the distance, cypress trees in a wetland forest, an occasional dolphin swimming in the Pamlico River, and sometimes, sharks.
Washington sits close to the second-largest estuary in the United States. It’s the perfect spot for the North Carolina Estuarium. Which is, what, exactly? “It’s an aquarium about estuaries,” says Tom Stroud, the director, before he pauses for the punch line. “And then we have to explain what an estuary is.”
An estuary is where the freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with the salt water from the ocean. The one in Washington encompasses Pamlico and Albemarle sounds. Sea life depends on it. About 90 percent of the species that are caught for seafood spend time here.
The North Carolina Estuarium opened in 1998. It’s a temple to Washington’s wetlands and wildlife. photograph by Chris Hannant
“I tell the kids it’s a grocery store and a nursery,” says Russ Chesson, the estuarium’s operations and programming specialist.
There is even a small wetland on East Water Street, along, aptly, the waterfront. When rain falls on the roads, it ends up in the wetland, where it spends three days slowly filtering its way through the swampy soil and tangled brush on its way to the river.
But this spot wasn’t always a wetland; it used to be a lumberyard. Then, the folks who built the North Carolina Estuarium here in 1998 constructed the wetland in 2000. Imagine this place without the wooden walkways, the paved streets, and the modern buildings: The scrub that remains is what lined both sides of the river 300 years ago.
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The estuarium is where kids can go inside and look at live blue crabs, turtles, and corn snakes, and learn about the benefits of, and threats to, the estuary. There are boat rides, too, so that people can go outside and see the water, trees, and animals up close.
Washington is an old town, founded in the 1770s. It’s now a place where people retire and visitors stroll along the cozy streets, or browse an art gallery. And the estuary, Stroud says, needs to be here. “It gives the city an identity,” he says. The town, much like the water that runs past it, is the perfect mix.
Once the final stop for moonshine, the town is now known for oysters and a tranquil way of life.
Don’t look for Last Chance on the map. It’s not on the map. At least not on paper maps, like in my trusty North Carolina Gazetteer. I did spot it on Google Maps, the words “Last Chance” imprinted over Gull Rock Road just west of Gray Ditch and southwest of Nebraska.
Judging from the satellite imagery of this patch of Hyde County, it looks like the state of Nebraska: the farm fields are sprawling and fertile and ribboned with corn. Although it’s one of our easternmost and wettest counties, Hyde County has a Western frontier feel. The spaces are so wide, and the sky so big, that Great Ditch Road could very well be the Great Plains.
Don’t look for Last Chance on road signs, either. It’s not on road signs. Not even those small, old-fashioned, off-white signs listing the mileage and arrows pointing to this town or that highway. Great Ditch Road turns into White Plains Road, which turns into Nebraska Road, which makes a hard right turn before the turnoff to Gull Rock Road. Head due south on Gull Rock Road toward Wysocking Bay, then take another hard right turn at Carolina’s Best Seafood. All-knowing Google says this is Last Chance … but I don’t know.
Last Chance is so small that it is unincorporated, like all of the towns in Hyde County. photograph by Chris Hannant
Never too proud to ask for directions, I stop at the seafood business and walk past head-high mounds of oyster shells, inhaling whiffs of fish and marsh. There’s a man, his skin browned and creased from decades of harvesting oysters, getting into a white work truck. His name is Ronald Voliva. I tell him I’m looking for Last Chance. “This is it,” he says.
I utter something inane like, “Well, how ’bout that” before asking the obvious question: “Why, pray tell, is it called Last Chance?”
Voliva gives me an answer that reinforces my romanticized idea of the place. “The old-timers say it was the last chance to get a drink of moonshine before they got home,” he says. At first, I’m incredulous, but then it strikes me as entirely plausible, given the remoteness of the place and the history of bootlegging in North Carolina.
Voliva gestures up the road, which is bordered mostly by single-level houses of brick and vinyl siding, with the occasional old house covered in peeling paint, and suggests I go speak with the people who live there. I stop at one house where a fellow directs me to another address, the first brick house on the left, to speak with Willie Mae Harris.
I rap on her storm door, and she opens it to a kitchen warm and humid with the smell of oysters frying, collards simmering, and pig feet boiling.
Harris invites me in, smiling as if I’m an old acquaintance who’s come by to say hello. Rotund pots sit on the burners, and white bags of cornmeal, seafood breader, and grits line the wall over the oven. She’s 80 years old. One of 11 children, she is the mother of 11 children herself.
Harris has lived around here all her life, and this self-proclaimed teetotaler knows that this scenic backwater has a background in booze. “Back in the day, there were a lot of people making those jars of liquor,” she says.
“Down here, it’s never been rough. Nobody bothers you.”
A section in the Hyde County History Book tells of several saloons in the community in the mid-1850s, when it was known as Turtle Shell, so named because of the shape of a local bridge. But around this time, Edom Gibbs started calling this spot at land’s end “Last Chance” because it “offered a man his last chance to get a drink before he set sail to Pamlico Sound.” And the name stuck.
The book mentions a saloon called Last Chance Whiskey Shop, which closed just before 1900, and three or four other stores in the community around the late 1800s. Last Chance also claimed two blacksmith shops and a gristmill run by Charles Knickerbocker, who always wanted to know if his cornmeal was “fine enough for mother.”
No businesses remain in Last Chance these days, save for Carolina’s Best Seafood. The hamlet is little more than the row of houses on either side of Gull Rock Road, Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, stands of loblolly pines, and reeds swaying beside a canal. It’s a thoroughly peaceful place, far from the Wild West outpost of my imagination. “Down here, it’s never been rough,” Harris says. “Nobody bothers you. We’ve never had any problems.”
I never really had a problem finding the place, either, even if it remains nameless on most maps. It welcomed me with an oysterman’s “hoi toider” accent, the aroma of oysters frying in a sweet lady’s kitchen, and the glint of Wysocking Bay beneath a cloudless sky. For me, Last Chance made a good first impression.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.