Down Home Hertford

FEATURES September 2010

Down-home Hertford

Drive just a few miles over the North Carolina border and find many small town surprises in the land of beautiful women.

Bookmark and Share byPhyllis Speidell


In the Land of Beautiful Women, there are no strangers. Rivers and creeks run deep into fertile farmland and boats and golf carts number with pickup trucks. Life runs slower here, casual enough to savor a cool tea, linger at a shop window or marvel at a sunset over the water.

An exotic island? A semi-tropical paradise? Nope, we’re closer to home—right on the Inner Banks of North Carolina. “The Land of Beautiful Women” translates from the native Yeopim Indian word Perquimans and encompasses Perquimans County and its towns set along the Perquimans River and the Albemarle Sound.

Photographer John Sheally and I have learned and loved Hertford, Belvidere and the rest of the county from more than a decade of covering stories here. Tempted as we are to keep the quiet charm of the county to ourselves, the day trip/weekend getaway potential is too good not to share.

Hertford, the heart and county seat of Perquimans County since 1758, lies just over the Carolina/Virginia border, an easy ride from Hampton Roads via U.S. 17 or routes 32 and 37 from Western Hampton Roads. It’s a down-home town with more than a few surprises.

You can enjoy fried herring in season (September to April) at Larry’s Drive-In or relax over an afternoon high tea, served on a triple tier silver platter at the Carriage House in the historic district.

You can shop along North Church Street, pick up local produce and flowers at the outdoor farmers market on Wednesday afternoons (who bought all the mango Italian water ice before we got there?!) or drive through the Old Neck district of the county dotted with stately antebellum plantation houses.

You can kayak miles of the Perquimans and its tributaries, play one of the country’s finest golf courses or just kick back on a bench near the courthouse to people watch in the heart of Hertford’s historic district. But be prepared to smile—everyone passing by will likely give you a “Good Morning,” “Hey!” or even a “Whassup?”

The most scenic route into town winds along Creek Drive off U.S. 17 and over the S bridge, a 1928 drawbridge unique in North Carolina and said to be one of only two in the country. Years ago a full moon rising over the Perquimans River inspired songwriter Benny Davis, who was traveling along the same causeway to the bridge, to write the lyrics of the song “Carolina Moon, ” a number one hit that kept shining on the charts for much of 1928.

On your way to Hertford, just before the bridge, watch the water near the shore for two or three turtles perched on a log jutting out of the river, basking in the sun as they have for so long that the town adopted them as part of its logo. In Hertford you’ll see an occasional large snapper plodding across a lawn, turtle silhouettes painted on the sidewalk and souvenir Tarheel turtles on T-shirts, pottery and jewelry.

A century ago Hertford was a thriving lumber and mill town and river traffic was heavy. The original bridge was a floating structure—unhooked on one bank to float aside when a boat came through. Then the S bridge was installed and so beloved that it became part of the town’s identity. But now, after $1 million in repairs and another $2 million spent on the adjoining road in the last five years, the state is proposing a modern replacement.

Townspeople are aghast—a new bridge in a different location will bypass traffic and kill off the small businesses remaining in the central business district.

Bridgekeeper Obed Lee, at 83 only a year older than the bridge, spends his 16-hour shifts, seven days a week, in a cottage on the edge of the span. He opens the draw once or half a dozen times a day, depending on the season.

“They’re looking at 10 different proposals for the bridge,” says Lee, a private contractor with the state. “But we just signed a three-year contract so I guess the bridge is not going anywhere for a while.”

Cross the bridge, drive through a few blocks of vintage homes and you can’t miss the town’ s signature mural standing two stories tall on the side of the Hertford Hardware store. Created by a local art teacher with a summer class of budding artists of all ages and backgrounds using whatever paint they could scrounge, the mural depicts a plantation house, the river and its turtle log, a Yankee ball cap, a Quaker couple, a Yeopim Indian, a Confederate soldier and a large flag of stars and bars.

The flag doesn’t seem to raise controversy here perhaps because just a few blocks away, as Hertford Mayor Sid Eley points out, you find a monument to the African American Union soldiers of the Civil War. Erected in 1910 by the widows of those local soldiers, the monument is thought to be the oldest of just five such memorials across the country.

The ball cap on the mural salutes one of the area’s favorite sons—Hertford native Jim “Catfish” Hunter, right-handed pitcher and baseball hall of famer. But here he’s known as “Jim” or “Jimmy,” never “Catfish,” according to Eley, who was a year behind Hunter in school. The nickname came, the story goes, from either Charles O. Finley, owner of the Kansas City A’s or George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees.

Hunter was 53 in 1999 when ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) took his life. He’s honored with a monument on the courthouse lawn where you’ll also see a Civil War memorial and a new monument honoring all the armed services.

Park in the vicinity of Grubb and North Church streets, near the mural, and walk—it’s the best way to experience the town, including Hertfordshire Antiques, one of several antique stores in town.

Our most recent visit to Jane McMahon’s eclectic shop turned up a pair of old mantel candelabra—three-foot-tall, flat-backed mercury fire gilt copper and resplendent in sculpted flowers, leaves, grapes and candle cups—reportedly from a New Orleans bordello and priced at $400 for the pair. They may sit awhile among the wicker chairs, crystal chandeliers and vintage furniture, but eventually the right buyer will come along according to McMahon, who’s originally from Massachusetts and opened the shop 10 years ago.

“On my first trip over the S bridge I knew this is where I should be—it felt like home,” she says. “I love the pace of the town and with the lack of noise, racket, pollution and stress the heart of everything and everyone is much more apparent.”

A few steps down the street the Perquimans Arts League Gallery offers fine pottery, paintings, jewelry and photography by local artists. Stop by Woodard’s Pharmacy and enjoy a 65-cent hand-dipped ice cream cone or splurge on a $1.80 triple scoop. A turn down W. Market Street takes you to the visitor’s center, the Jim “Catfish” Hunter museum display, and the Carolina Moon book store, specializing in books for readers and collectors, first editions, signed copies and new books of local interest.

Ready for lunch? The Carriage House, a few blocks away on Dobbs Street, serves brunch and lunch as well as afternoon tea and Friday night dinner. Our recommendation here—the tuna and apricot salad, the chicken salad and the scones.
Get some post-lunch exercise by touring the 1730 Newbold-White house, a colonial Quaker homestead and the oldest brick house in the state. Set on 143 acres a few miles outside of downtown, the historic site is also home to the Periauger, a 30-foot split dug-out boat that replicates the boats that plied shallow colonial Carolina waters, the pickup trucks of their day. Carefully researched and hand built over four years, the Periauger was launched in Beaufort in 2004. Volunteers took three weeks to sail the boat to Herford, stopping to visit many of the historic river ports along the way.

From Hertford, rural Belvidere is a 15-minute ride and worth every mile when you walk into the 1883 Layden’s Country Store. Not much has changed there since the 1950s. Look here for home smoked hams, sidemeat, hoop cheese and Hot and Dry Sausage—made with lots of sage and red pepper and air dried for five to 10 days. Kids will love choosing from canisters of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mary Janes, caramel creams and jaw breakers.

The surprise here? Beautifully done up gift baskets of sausage, cheeses and other goodies artfully packaged in wooden cheese hoops or Coca-Cola six packs.
Hugh Copeland, artistic director of the Hurrah Players in Norfolk, was born in Belvidere and says his first drama lessons came from watching his grandmother rehearse her Quaker meeting lessons. He was in elementary school when he converted an old garage into his first theater.

“I grew up right across the road from Wolfman Jack,” Copeland says.
Wolfman Jack, whose howling “oooOOOWWWW” punctuated rock and roll radio across the country, launched his broadcasting career in Newport News. Those of us who grew up with his gravelly voice imploring “Have mercy!” and “One more time!” can smile that the Wolfman, AKA Robert Weston Smith, a New York native who died in 1995, rests in peace at his Belvidere home. The plantation house dates to 1785, built by Thomas Newby, a prominent Quaker merchant and one of the first North Carolinians to publicly advocate for slave emancipation.

“Have you been to Nicholson House?” Copeland asks.

Another of our favorite stops. The restored 1892 Queen Anne, next door to the country store, serves country fresh breakfast, lunches, dinners and an afternoon tea. Try the Sweet Veggie Sampler—fried corn nuggets, sweet potato sticks and apple crescents—dessert on the appetizer menu.

Copeland also recommends Captain Bob’s on U. S. 17. “Everyone goes there to get barbeque and see everyone else and it’s the brightest lit restaurant you’ll ever see,” he says.

Not in the mood for Carolina barbeque? Then find Albemarle Plantation, a gated residential golf and marina community, and try the marina’s Dockside Café’s wood oven-fired pizza loaded with local sausage and roasted red peppers.

The Plantation, just five miles from Hertford’s historic district, is a series of manicured neighborhoods (one even has a covered bridge) that has drawn newcomers from all over the country. The surprise here is the semi-private golf course, Sound Golf Links, which offers 18 holes and a cart for $54 plus website specials for visitors.

There’s much more, beyond our highlights, to explore in the county. There are several B & B’s in the county, including the Springfield Bed and Breakfast, a Quaker homestead. In the same family since 1896, the inn has wide rocking chair porches and three guest rooms, all with private baths.

The surprise here? The farm animals are all rescues except the Aracanas chickens, the talented hens that lay naturally colored eggs—greens, soft peach and yellow.
Ten years ago Don Hurst moved from Marietta, Ohio to Hertford and still marvels that “Here you get four people at a traffic light and you think you’ve got a traffic jam.”
“Hertford is the best of both worlds,” he continues. “A little bit of paradise.”

We agree—and that’s no surprise.



For more articles like this one, see the September 2010 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine