The Sweet Life: 36 Hours in Hillsborough

BY Pat Bradford

I am on assignment: Go to this small North Carolina town and scout it for a food shoot that encapsulates the locavore — farm to table — movement sweeping the country as Americans realize the downside of eating big-box store food imported from half a world away.

I exit I-40 past Raleigh and RDU; it has been an uneventful trip more than two hours but not fully three. The exit is innocuous as is the approach to the town. A large sign indicates a new medical facility attached to one of the three nearby universities is under construction.

As I drive past the usual small-town junkiness the fast food the car dealer the banks the car wash I think uh-oh where am I going?

Minutes later I breathe easier. As I cross the Eno River passing the Weaver Street Market I am in the historic district on the two-lane main street.

I am taking in the vintage small town store fronts centuries-old brick buildings the impressive Greek-revival old courthouse intimate-looking eateries the inviting sidewalk caf? tables with umbrellas when my car tells me it s time to turn to reach the historic bed and breakfast where I am booked for sleeping during this adventure.

Two blocks later I spy the imposing Inn at Teardrops set high above West King Street. I don t have that much day time left so I bypass the inn and circle back to the main street Churton.

Most of the houses I pass are classic painted white wood frame with impressive 1700s historic designators out front. Wilmington has its historic placards but doing the math I make a mental note: this town is littered with pre-Revolutionary War houses.

As I pass a vintage Arts and Craft two-story cottage I literally stop in the roadway to exclaim at a Poseidon-like statue beside the front steps in a setting that does not seem to warrant the stature. Backing up and holding my phone out the window I snap a photo and text it to the office with the question   Where have you sent me?!

An impressive stone building sits on the hill above the corner at the main thoroughfare as I make the turn out of town. I spy a Federal-style frame house (this one not painted white ) the Burwell School Historic Site 1835. That also looks promising. Making a u-turn after a brief cruise into picturesque countryside I head back to the historic district.

I turn in past the police station find a free parking spot walk and settle my pug dog Bella for a nap in the back seat and head out to see the town. My first stop — that intriguing stone building on the corner — pays off.

There Orange County Historical Museum assistant director Scotty Washington greets me at the door and pulls me into the vivid history of Hillsborough and our great state. A lover of history in no time as he talks my head is jacked up on stories of a time when Native Americans were alone here living without the  benefit  of the white man. Then regions of the country were crisscrossed with paths the Indians traveled seasonally in their hunting and gathering lifestyle. It was not uncommon for inland Indians like the Occoneechee to make use of these paths which often paralleled and intersected rivers to cover great distances including travel to the coast to feast on the sea s bounty. This is followed in rapid succession with stories of North Carolina s role in the Bill of Rights patriots hanged a daring kidnapping and William Hooper. I begin to glow as firm connections to Wilmington are revealed. 

Leaving there I walk south stopping in at light-filled galleries and shops glittering with handmade jewelry art and collectibles. These are delicious places to linger but I push on.

I take note of Radius across the street the pizzeria in a retro bank where I am to lunch the next day and find myself at LaPlace where I am to dine this night.

I pop in to say hi and meet Chef Matt Fox for the first time; he is young and friendly. He says he will be too busy to talk with me that night but I should come and dine. We agree on a time and I set off but only make it two doors away where I turn into Matthew s Chocolates a much-anticipated destination on my itinerary. I am unable to sample any of the handmade chocolates due to the lateness of the day coupled with the now regrettable consumption of inferior chocolates on the drive. The shop promises to be a favorite place.

I drop a copy of Wrightsville Beach Magazine at Antonia s Italian Eatery and crossing King I step into the inviting Eno Gallery and meet proprietor Mark and his dog Payat which means little dust ball but her friends Mark says call her Py. He assures me my Bella would be welcomed into the town s shops. I continue on trying to touch each business in my location scout of the town. I am excited now; it is a fine Wednesday afternoon to be in such a charming little haven and it happens to also be my birthday.

I have agreed to make this trip to determine if we can pull off an outdoor table-to-farm photo shoot for our monthly food feature. We are scouting the town at the urging of Chef Eric Gephart formerly of Wrightsville s Buoy 32 fame who also served a tour of duty at Mixto in Wilmington.

I learn later that Gephart is a Hillsborough native and moved home with his wife Jenny to raise a family near his parents. Gephart is a fierce advocate for Hillsborough and badgered us to come.

At this point in my day I am exhilarated everyone I have met has been oh so friendly and accommodating. It is a spirit that I would enjoy continuously in both my trips to the town.

At each stop I hand out copies of the April magazine and the beautiful hatted model on the cover charms those who receive them. It is the perfect calling card.

Giving up my exploring as the day wanes I head the few blocks to Teardrops to check in and get settled.

Tom Roberts greets me in the backyard as does the assistant innkeeper Jorge Gonzales. Carrying my stuff to a very sunny large well-appointed room with twin poster beds they leave me to catch my breath.

A town of 6 000 everything in Hillsborough is close and walkable.

I am greeted by Matt Fox as I enter a packed LaPlace. He shows me to a spot at the eat-in bar and as I settle there he slips in beside me. Imagine my surprise when he not only stays with me but after introducing me to the nicely dressed man to my right Tom Stevens he lets me know that this is the town s mayor come to make me feel welcome and tell me about the town.

As I sample exquisite shrimp remoulade and mouth?watering house-made sausages the mayor fills my head and two pages of notes with what I have to see and learn.

He explains that the town was laid out in 1734 in a perfect Colonial town grid where the Great Indian Trading Path crosses the Eno River on a portion of the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail. People here speak about the river in an awed way very different from how we speak of the Cape Fear River. I am intrigued.

Stevens tells me the town is seeing a startling renaissance in residents in shops and businesses in locally owned and operated restaurants and eateries.

He describes how nationally recognized poets novelists essayists journalists historians and professors have congregated in unprecedented numbers in the town.

I learn that on the weekends there is a Saturday morning Eno River Farmers  Market that is 259 years old a prominent part of the original town layout that has live music storytelling and so on. He insists I stay to experience one of the summer-long Last Fridays when the town is alive at night with art openings sidewalk vendors and music on the old courthouse steps.

He extolls the mile-plus Eno River Walk that now includes two river crossings on newly installed foot bridges. Then too I have to walk the Poet s Walk at nearby Ayr Mount the historic plantation home of merchant William Kirkland. In the early 1800s Kirkland owned much of the mercantile district in which the present-day renaissance is taking place. The privately owned 265-acre former plantation on the Eno is open to the public as a house museum. The grounds are for walking.

He says Bella and I must also walk the 4-mile Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail along the river on the 44-acre site that encompasses the only surviving 1949 inaugural season NASCAR dirt track.

Soon I am walking down the block to Antonia s with Chef Fox now Matt to be introduced to owner Claudia Salvadoe Tolan. There sitting together at the bar I sample the delicious Italian food as I get to know Matt and Claudia. She is so charming; it feels as if we are lifelong friends. 

Later I fall asleep spoiled and pampered in my four poster bed. What a wonderful birthday this turned out to be.

The next day after driving with Eric Gephart to select Matt Fox s Iron Horse Farm to stage our production I discover more treasure hunting — a big-time auction house and individual shops including an entire village of antiques not much more than one mile from the historic district on South Churton. Later at Fetch Antiques and Interiors I locate the perfect furnishing to borrow for the outdoor dining scene we later will fondly name   Under the Hillsborough Sun.  Across the street is Vulcan s Forge where blacksmith Paul Gove uses hammer and anvil in the traditional manner creating things I so want to take home with me. My stop in at the headquarters and outlet store for VIETRI pottery stirs similar longings.

On my return trip after a daylong production at Fox s farm spent creating the food spread in these pages photographer Allison Potter and I race to an appointment with a couple of the town s famed literati. When we arrive at CupAJoe we find authors Frances Mayes and Michael Malone sipping coffee with publisher Elizabeth Woodman. Intoxicated from the splendid day I share my phone photos of the farm table scene with Mayes.

After photos there we cross West King Street to the Purple Crow next to Dual Supply Co an old-fashioned hardware store selling paint hardware plumbing clothing and bootery.

Sharon Wheeler s Purple Crow Books is a wonderfully independent local book store described to me later by a retired judge as the literati s  club house.   Lee Smith walking her dog Betty joins us in the bookstore for more fun photos and autographs. Like Smith the town s 30 or so prose poetry paint camera and music greats can be seen walking their dogs dining with friends in the outstanding restaurants and holding readings at the Burwell School historic site.

Across King we eye Carolina Game and Fish which still weighs a hunter s prize.

Surrounding the town are side-by-side small to large farms like Latta Eggs and Maple View Dairy raising food to feed families supply restaurants and for export. It is not surprising that the town is anchored by a cooperative Weaver Street Market also on Churton as one enters the historic district from the south. Beside Radius where we eat an amazing couple of pizzas behind an innocuous placard is YepRoc Records the Hillsborough-based folk and rock haven that represents 122 artists releasing 326 albums since 1997.

This is a town that wakes slowly except for the attorney firms sprinkled among all this and the courthouses and law enforcement facilities in the center of town.

I find what s absent — that is often prevalent in other near-college towns — is the pickup bar scene. Here modestly dressed people go out to converse dine and linger. Also conspicuously absent are people communicating electronically by cell phone and tablet rather than face-to-face. In this town people stop one another on the street to chat. Time moves blissfully slower.

The town convenient to Duke Medical Center Duke University University of North Carolina Hospital the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill North Carolina State and RDU is beyond lovely and makes an excellent choice for a long weekend one in which travel from the coast will cost you about a tank of fuel.

On my last afternoon in town we are directed by Michael Malone to his friend author Allan Gurganus  house as a potential photo opp only to discover in the yard the Poseidon-like statue I was dumbstruck by on my first day. It is Gurganus  house!

How very Hillsborough. 


Hopping Hillsborough Restaurants

Within three blocks there are nine sit-down fine restaurants

By Pat Bradford

The town of Hillsborough is gaining acclaim for its stellar restaurants its young chefs.

These include Pancuito where 30-something chef/owner Aaron Vandemark serves small farm- and garden-sourced suppers for which he has won acclaim as a James Beard Foundation Semifinalist Best Chef: Southeast for 2014 2013 2012 and 2011. He was also nominated by Food & Wine Magazine in 2011 as  The People s Best New Chef.

Continuing the locavore movement that the town has fully embraced is Chef Matt Fox at LaPlace a Louisiana cookery serving Cajun cuisine with local and regional fare including delicacies like house made sausages. The restaurant set in a former pharmacy is intimate but casual. While dining there expect to spot members of the famed literati who call this town home. Fox gained renown for the Wooden Nickel located next door.

Next to this on the central corner in the historic district find regional Italian cuisine at Antonia s where owner/manager Claudia Salvadore Tolan or her son Lucan will most nights greet you at the door. Named Best in Class for Italian Cuisine by The News and Observer the atmosphere food and company are superb.

Across Churton lies Radius a wood-fired pizzeria residing in a retro 1960s bank building. There chef/husband and wife team Mick and Kate Carroll spin out personal gourmet pizza pies topped with locally sourced food from a radius of 50 miles or fewer that will forever set the bar for pizza. The couple moved to Hillsborough for the quality of life desiring a more rural environment to raise their boys.

There is also a staple steak house upstairs in the heart of downtown the Saratoga Grill along with Bandido s Mexican Caf? all located on Churton Street. Around the corner from the Weaver Street Market is a much-talked-about mouthwatering BBQ joint Hillsborough BBQ Company.

There too sandwiched between the immensely popular Wooden Nickel and Antonia s is Matthew s Chocolates where the proprietor Matthew Shepherd airbrushes brilliant edible colors onto indulgent handmade chocolates. The shop offers cakes and even gluten-free cookies. His hot chocolate laced with memorable homemade marshmallows is perhaps the best ever. Plan to take home plenty for yourself not just gifts because I guarantee in a few days away from this town you ll be longing for Matthew s chocolate creations.

Crossroads of History and Synchronicity

By Scotty Washington

I often describe Hillsborough to visitors as a crossroads of history and synchronicity. That could be said of Wilmington too. These towns have a shared history.

Hillsborough has a 600 million-year-old mountain with a panoramic view that goes on for miles. Down below the scenic Eno River weaves through the Colonial-era town.

The Native American Occaneechi (also spelled Occoneechee) tribe of Hillsborough and the Cape Fear Indians of Wilmington whose origins have been lost to history had lived in these areas for generations before John Lawson an early 18th-century explorer traveled through the Carolinas.

With the coming of European settlers in the 18th century two towns now known as Wilmington and Hillsborough played pivotal roles in Revolutionary War-era protest and resistance as unjust British Colonial policies increased in the 1760s. 

Wilmington patriots were the first to protest unfair taxation that came with the Stamp Act in 1765 which led to widespread resistance throughout the other 13 colonies and its eventual repeal by Britain in 1766. Orange County patriots known as Regulators protested similar unfair colonial policies. English Colonial Governor William Tryon marched out in May 1771 to confront these protestors at what is now the Alamance Battleground where he attacked them with deadly force. Tryon inflicted terrible casualties confiscated property burned farms and hanged six men in Hillsborough in June 1771 on the grounds of  high treason  for daring to question Colonial authority.

Most importantly Hillsborough and Wilmington are responsible for helping generate two of America s greatest documents. When Wilmington patriots decisively defeated Scottish highlanders near Wilmington at the Battle of Moore s Creek Bridge in February 1776 they tipped the scales in favor of independence. On April 12 1776 one of the historic dates on North Carolina s flag delegates meeting in Halifax voted to instruct the NC delegation to lobby the other colonies for independence from Britain the first colony to do so. Two and one-half months later the American Declaration of Independence gave a young nation s leaders the reasons they needed to risk everything for freedom.

Hillsborough played a pivotal role in the shaping of another key American document: the US Constitution. In the summer of 1788 delegates from around the state gathered in Hillsborough for a special Constitutional Convention to meet on the premise — if all went well they would ratify the  new  US Constitution. But that didn t happen. Instead North Carolina became the only state to refuse to ratify the Constitution until provisions were made for a Bill of Rights. That forced Congress to act and act quickly.

The Orange County Historical Museum stands today where the 1788 convention occurred. A signer of the Declaration of Independence William Hooper lived in Wilmington and owned a large plantation on Masonboro Sound with his family until the British forced him to flee and relocate to Hillsborough.

Visitors to the Alexander Dickson House can visit the building where Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston worked to bring the next war to an end in April 1865 after Appomattox. A nearby classic Federal-era plantation home built in 1815 the Ayr Mount estate offers visitors the same country vistas enjoyed 200 years ago. Its original owner William Kirkland named the house in honor of his birthplace Ayr Scotland. Today Ayr Mount is privately owned by Richard H. Jenrette and open to the public as a house museum.

Scotty Washington is assistant director of the Orange County Historical Museum.


The Burwell School House Museum

The Burwell School Historic Site is the place to hear the story of the Rev. and Mrs. Burwell and their pre-Civil War school which educated young women from across the Southeast for 20 years including Anne Eliza Ashe and Caroline E.  Cuddy  Cowan from Wilmington. Ashe s brother Capt. Samuel O Court Ashe served in the Civil War as did her father former congressman Major William Shepperd Ashe. Her husband James Arrington Miller was a doctor during the 1861 yellow fever epidemic in Wilmington.

The school is also a place to learn about a remarkable woman featured in the movie   Lincoln   directed by Stephen Spielberg. Elizabeth Keckly born into and growing up as an enslaved member of the Burwell family went on to buy her freedom (and her son s) as a maker and seller of fashionable gowns and millinery for women. As a freewoman in Washington DC she became Mary Todd Lincoln s modiste close friend and confidante.

A link to the Keckley memoir from the Gutenberg project can be downloaded in a variety of formats: