DAVID FREEZE COLUMN: Exploring the last county seat in the journey
Published 9:41 am Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Editor’s note: David Freeze is a runner, running coach and long-distance cyclist from China Grove in Rowan County. He has completed a challenge to run a few miles in every county seat in all 100 N.C. counties. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I began this long journey in March, expecting to take a year to visit all 100 county seats within the next year.
All along, I expected to finish in Salisbury. On Monday, I did. I treated the visit like all the others. I checked Wikipedia ahead for things I didn’t know and what to see. At some point, before or after, I checked the town websites and other sources for historical information. Here is a summary of my visit.
Rowan Court House, by permission of the Colonial Assembly, became Rowan County’s seat in 1753 when the county extended to the Mississippi River. Rowan was originally formed from Anson County and eventually spawned 26 other counties.
The name Salisbury became official in 1755 and is the longest continuously populated colonial town in western North Carolina. The original purpose of the county seat was to provide the courthouse and a jail.
On the earliest 40 acres granted for the purpose, public buildings were erected near the intersection of the Great Wagon Road, a trade road from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and the Trading Path from eastern Virginia. The first post office was created in 1792 and one has been in continuous service since. The town layout was based on the city of Philadelphia.
Cotton was the main commodity crop as entrepreneurs developed many textile mills in the area. Salisbury played parts in the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Salisbury was twice occupied by British troops during the Revolutionary War. Civil War Salisbury was most notable for the housing of Union prisoners in an overcrowded former yarn mill and Gen. George Stoneman’s raid which passed through Salisbury in April 1865. Stoneman destroyed warehouses that stored ammunition, clothing, food and more meant for the Confederate armies. He also wanted to free the prisoners, but they had already been transported to other towns.
The North Carolina Railroad came to town in 1855, and by 1900 train traffic was at an all-time high. Electric lights and telephones were common and street cars followed in 1906.
Numerous houses were built by wealthy planters and merchants in the 19th century, providing the beginning of 10 historic districts with approximately 1,200 recognized homes and other buildings today. I took the walking tour of Salisbury obtained at the Rowan County Visitor Center.
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I started the big county seat challenge on March 7 with the closest towns. I wanted to develop a plan and keep the same format with each county seat. I did that all the way through, although some of the smaller towns had very little to see.
Usually, I knew ahead a few basic things about the town. Siri almost always took me to the courthouse area, which was a wonderful starting point. I was mesmerized by most of the historic courthouses. Most of the time, the courthouse was in or near the center of the most interesting part of the town.
My Garmin running watch and my iPad, the same one that does photos for my bike trips, along with a pen, notepad and running shoes were the only requirements. Usually, I bought something special to eat in the town, and some of those places are quite memorable. The Strong Arm Bakery in Oxford was one of those, with my first ever whoopie pie. The Goody Shop Café in Albemarle, 104 years old, was another winner.
I ran or walked at least one and a half miles in each town while taking photos and making notes. Some towns were more runnable or walkable than others.
Visits to the big cities like Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh came on the weekends. First county seats were visited on day trips, but gradually two- and three-night excursions became the norm.
Gas prices locally are some of the highest on average in the state, so I took my available days and planned a round trip through more county seats. The best singular trip included most of the Inner and Outer banks. I received one parking ticket, in Fayetteville.
Certain themes were common. Stoneman’s Raid, Civil War history, the Daniel Boone Trail, the Tobacco Baseball League, murals.
I found the visitor center if there was one. And if it was open. A well-stocked visitor center with enthusiastic workers was a real plus. The best were Morganton and Sanford.
Historic homes and buildings that were uniformly labeled with construction date and name of original owner showed a coordinated effort to highlight the town’s history. Warrenton, Hertford, Edenton and Beaufort were the best at this. I asked in stores of all kinds and of people on the sidewalk about what to see. Bakeries surprisingly pointed me in the right direction.
I chose a top 10 of all county seats based on my own rating of history, presentation, walkability, friendliness, amenities, storefronts in use, kiosks and signs for directions. In no particular order, here they are.
• Sanford — activity everywhere as it pushes to be a destination point. Amazing visitor center.
• Warrenton — like stepping back to 1850. Ninety percent of the town on the historic register.
• Wilmington — the riverfront and plenty to see that would fill a weekend or more.
• Washington — loaded with history at every turn and a beautiful waterfront.
• Edenton — the most spectacular waterfront, and plenty of history.
• Murphy — the farthest western town that is small but very busy, including every Thursday festivals.
• Wilson — the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, the best attraction in N.C., and super friendly.
• Beaufort — a walk down any street is memorable. Best waterfront area homes.
• Oxford — a real effort to make visitors happy, like offering free bikes to ride around the town at the Strong Arm Bakery.
• Goldsboro — sidewalk and downtown streets redone to make the town more attractive. A massive effort to use all available storefronts.
Honorable mention — Newton, Bryson City, Hertford, Fayetteville, Shelby, Gastonia, Wilkesboro, Statesville, Salisbury, Gastonia, Bakersville.
With this challenge complete, I want to say that I became addicted to the fun of finding out more. As one reader said, “You have inspired us to take day trips!” Go see North Carolina and the county seats are a great place to start.
Thanks again for joining me.