David Freeze: A perfect day in the NC foothills and mountains
Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 20, 2023
Editor’s note: David Freeze is a runner, running coach and long-distance cyclist from China Grove in Rowan County. He is completing a challenge to run in a few miles in every county seat in all 100 N.C. counties. Contact him at email@example.com.
I grabbed another day of county seats on Thursday, April 13, working toward a goal of getting most of those west of here by early May. I love the mountains and looked forward to a pleasant day of driving, running and exploring with the best forecast of any of my recent trips.
Morganton, Burke County’s seat, was first on my list. Arriving just after 9 a.m., I found an already active welcome center with four women at work. I quickly had a downtown map with points of interest. I found the stately Burke County Courthouse as the focal point of the town. Built of local cut stone in 1835, the building also housed the August terms of the State Supreme Court from 1847-1861. The Spanish built a fort near here in 1567, 40 years before the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia.
In 1864, a detachment of Union loyalist North Carolina troops attacked the Western North Carolina Railroad and a Confederate training camp just outside Morganton. Neighborhoods around the downtown area have lots of late 19th and early 20th century homes. The colorful downtown area has plenty of interesting and active stores with most storefronts in use. Just across the street from the historic courthouse is a large movie theatre.
Morganton’s Sam Ervin, U.S. Senator from 1954-74, was notable for the Watergate hearings and has his own statue next to the old courthouse and across from the modern one. Situated on top of the highest knoll in town, the old courthouse offers fantastic views of the surrounding foothills.
I found a “toasted and rolled” ice cream shop, though not open in the morning. New to me, this ice cream has a frozen base that can be rolled out in sheets and rerolled for serving. Can’t wait to try it.
My next stop was Newland, county seat of Avery County. It’s small but seems to have some of everything. Earlier called “Old Fields of Toe,” the town was renamed Newland after Lt. Governor William C. Newland in 1911. The courthouse and jail were both built in 1913. The courthouse also houses a correctional facility. While the courthouse is still in use, the old jail next door is now a museum.
The depot of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad opened in 1914 and is still there along with a restored caboose even though the railroad discontinued operations in 1940.
A pleasant mountain drive took me to Bakersville, county seat of Mitchell County. On a day of small towns, this was the smallest but also likely the most interesting. Started in the 1850s, the town is named after Revolutionary soldier David Baker. His renovated home still stands and is owned by a part of author John Grisham’s family. Famous for its long running annual Rhododendron Festival, I had visited Bakersville several times in the 1990s to run the accompanying 10K race. Nearby on Roan Mountain is the largest rhododendron natural garden in the world with 600 acres. The festival, now in its 76th year, is June 16-18.
Cane Creek runs through the town and its banks form a nice park where one trout fisherman was flyfishing. In 1901, the little creek overflowed in what was called the “May Flood,” washing most of the town away.
Many of the small stores sell local mountain crafts inspired by the nearby Penland School of Crafts, which was a great story in itself. Penland offers spring, summer and fall workshops in craft disciplines that include weaving and dyeing, bead work, glassblowing, pottery, paper making, metalworking and woodworking. It also offers fine arts subjects, such as printmaking, painting and photography. Workshops are taught by visiting American and international artists and professors, a tradition that started in 1929. Academic degrees are not awarded by Penland, but students can receive college credit through Western Carolina University. There are about 1,200 people who study at Penland each year in 50 rustic buildings on 400 acres. Many of the students remain in the area, making more artists per capita than almost anywhere in the world.
The 1907 Mitchell County Courthouse dominates the downtown. I tried the visitor center a couple of times and found no one, so I asked at the Just Local Market. Megan Bell sold me some great cookies and took me to Sharon Rowland across the street at Bowditch Antiques and Collectibles. Sharon did her student teaching at East Rowan High School before changing professions and joining the Agricultural Extension Service. She took me back to the visitor center where I learned the real scoop about the town. Sharon said, “We’ve got a great little town and we just have to promote it.”
As I headed south toward Marion, county seat of McDowell County, I reflected on how much those ladies loved Bakersville and how special they made my visit. Marion, founded in 1844, was named for famous Revolutionary War General Francis Marion, the elusive Swamp Fox.
As the self-designated Salisbury Post Bigfoot expert, I was able to cover the first ever Bigfoot festival in Marion a few years ago. This year’s festival is just ahead on May 20, followed by the Livermush Festival on June 3. Former Kansas and UNC basketball coach Roy Williams was born in Marion and his Carolina friends erected a historical marker in his honor.
Marion’s slogan, “Where Main Street Meets the Mountains” fits because lots of excellent mountain views surround the downtown. A huge fire in 1894 gutted Main Street, destroying most businesses and homes. With no central water supply, citizens fought the fire unsuccessfully with a bucket brigade. A few brick buildings survived with damage, yet a vibrant downtown now exists.
I found gas at a reasonable price and headed home after another productive day. I drove 247 miles and covered 6.3 more on foot. That’s 25 county seats visited and 75 more to go. I’ll be back with more soon.