A Town for All Seasons

Encounter much more energy than you might expect during a trip to Murfeesboro, N.C.

Murfreesboro, North Carolina

John H. Sheally II

A town for all seasons— and a day trip for many reasons— that’ is Murfreesboro, North Carolina. From the aroma of down home cooking to the slurp of a fresh watermelon slice on a hot July afternoon, from the boom of a Civil War cannon to the tinkling melody of a vintage music box, there’s a reason to drive to Murfreesboro any time of year.

In spite of its archetypal Main Street and a population of only 2,400, Murfreesboro is no sleepy little town. The energy here brings a whole new vibe to the small town image.

Just outside of downtown Murfreesboro, 37 acres of former corn fields now sprout 20,000 solar panels that convert sunlight into enough electrical power to supply 700 homes. The new solar farm, as locals call it, is a project of Duke Energy Renewables and one of the recent steps in North Carolina’s drive to renewable energy.

But the energy in Murfreesboro is as personal as it is solar, like the energy that fuels the volunteers and entrepreneurs who keep the town humming. The folks in Murfreesboro like to party. They round out the calendar with a series of festivals and special events including the annual Roanoke-Chowan Pork Festival in May, the Watermelon Festival in July, a Civil War Reenactment in October, a spectacular Christmas Candlelight walk and progressive dinner in December and organized trail rides several times a year.

Back in the late 16th century John White of the Roanoke Island settlement visited the Murfreesboro area, and a few years later an expedition from Jamestown explored the territory on the banks of the Meherrin River. The area still draws visitors who can easily find reasons to come back.The Duke Energy's Renewables Project

Just below the Virginia border, about 60 miles from Norfolk, Murfreesboro is home to Chowan University —and more eclectic history than even history buffs might expect. The Gatling Gun, an aircraft that predated the Wright brothers, and Dr. Walter Reed (the army physician who helped eradicate Yellow Fever) all have connections here.

Some of the town’s renewed energy comes from Chowan University. According to the school’s president, Dr. Christopher White, Chowan has doubled its enrollment in the last five years. Now 1,300 students enjoy the modern campus that grew from the Chowan Female Institute founded in 1848 by Baptist families and named Chowan (people of the South) in honor of the Algonquin Chowanook tribe.

The scenic, 300-acre campus is open for tours that include its modern facilities as well as the ante-bellum McDowell Columns building. Constructed in 1851 to provide all the collegiate amenities of the day—a residence hall, cafeteria and library, —the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has, we are told, a resident ghost.

A decade after the Columns building opened, Dr. Richard Gatling, who grew up in the early 1800s with six siblings on a large plantation just outside of Murfreesboro, patented the Gatling Gun, a six-barrel, hand-cranked weapon capable of firing a then formidable 200 rounds per minute. Gatling believed, local historians tell us, that the gun, the predecessor of modern machine guns, would save lives by bringing a swifter end to the Civil War.

Gatling also patented numerous agricultural machines including, in 1900, the motor driven plow. He and his older brother, James Henry Gatling, are early examples of the town’s characteristic energy and drive.

James Henry Gatling, also an inventor and fascinated by flight, built what might be America’s first airplane, the “Turkey Buzzard,” 30 years prior to the Wright brothers. The plane was 18 feet long with a 14-foot wingspread and built almost entirely of wood with oak basket weave wings. Gatling had a lot of the flight basics right, but he failed to realize that air should blow over, not under, the wings in order to fly.

Volunteers from the Murfreesboro Historic Association and Roanoke- Chowan College constructed a replica of the Turkey Buzzard in 2002 for the centennial of flight celebrations. Now the plane and an early Gatling gun are on display in Murfreesboro’s unique historic district—a series of restored late 18th-, early 19th-century buildings housing collections of local artifacts. The historic district is home base for many of the town’s events and festivals and an easy stroll to the Main Street shops and restaurants.

The Gatling GunVolunteer energy also played a large role in establishing the Brady C. Jefcoat Museum of Americana—one of the most unique museums that photographer John Sheally and I have ever visited. Located in the c. 1922 Murfreesboro High School that closed 20 years ago, the museum is a dizzying array of 10,000 items arranged by collection and spanning 150 years of domestic history. Three floors of irons and butter churns, rifles and stuffed deer heads, fine furniture and washing machines, music boxes, radios and Victrolas are almost overwhelming, but each collection is fascinating in its own way. And of course, there are baskets from the local Riverside Manufacturing Company that, from 1927 to 1995, was the largest manufacturer of fruit and vegetable baskets in the world and the major employer in the area.

Our favorite items, perhaps, are the giant sculpted Nipper, RCA Victor’s canine trademark; the plush, red Victorian loveseat from the Gone with the Wind movie set; the dog powered tread mill washing machine; and the coal bucket inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Brady Jefcoat, a retired plumbing contractor from Raleigh, spent his life collecting—anything. Colon Ballance, museum curator and one of the volunteers who set up the museum, tells us that several museums around the country wanted parts of the collection, but Murfreesboro won Jefcoat over with a promise to keep the entire collection together.

Staggered by the number of items on display we ask Ballance, “Do you dust?” He answers with a laugh, “I try—a room at a time!”

Whitley's BarbequeYou can revive your own energy at one of the local eateries but we warn you—just watching Dan Howe in action at Whitley’s Barbecue can be tiring. Howe is the proprietor—and dynamic impresario—of the restaurant that’s been a Murfreesboro favorite since 1964. After years in the B&B and hospitality business in Franklin, Howe came on the scene in 2008. He bought the restaurant, vowed to honor its venerable barbecue recipe and added his own touch to the buffet menu and the hospitality. He’s in constant motion—greeting guests, checking the buffet or inviting diners to take home a few extra fresh tomatoes or peaches from the kitchen. John and I munch on the restaurant’s signature corn sticks— delicate cornbread with a light crunchy crust— and sample the barbecue, then a delightful bread pudding-like berry cobbler and some of the best Seafood Newburg we’ve ever had. Get your dessert first— the cobbler disappears as fast as a small town secret.

The menu is more exotic at John’s Seafood on Main Street—also a locals’ favorite—where you can enjoy a handcut steak, wild caught seafood or alligator bites with John’s Sweet Tea, Murfreesboro’s answer to Long Island Iced Tea. Owner John Taylor, formerly of Dockside Restaurant on the Nottoway River in Franklin, brought his culinary talents across the border to his hometown in 2005.

Further along Main Street, Kylelyn Phelps, a Portsmouth native, waits tables at Tavern 125. Opened in September 2010, the tavern adds a new dimension to the heart of Murfreesboro with al fresco summer dining on a terrace lined with ferns and flowers and acoustic music on Wednesday and Friday nights. The tavern’s olive and mango color scheme and creative menu are more uptown than small town, but the welcome is down home.

"People here actually smile and ask how you are even if they don’t know you,” Phelps tells us.

Keith Bradshaw, a local resident, owns and operates the tavern, just a block away from Southern Interiors, his wife’s home design shop. “I thought about doing something like this for five years and knew with the college growing it was time for Murfreesboro to be a little more upscale,” he says. “And the tavern’s been very well received.”

The English Inn Bed And BreakfastIn the fall the couple opened a new bed and breakfast and event venue, The English Inn. Built in 1930, the 6,900-squarefoot, English countrystyle manor offers British elegance with a decidedly unstuffy ambiance or as Geri Bradshaw describes it, a resort feeling.”

At The Commons on Main Street, innkeeper and chef Jennifer Hodge offers a family friendly, very private, 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom suite in a two-story c. 1808 house with a wrap around, rocking chair perfect porch. The house was built by a merchant/ship owner so, in her first floor bistro, Hodge names all the appetizers for ships that were built in or sailed into Murfreesboro at the height of the 19th-century river trade. Our tip here is that evenings are never dull at the wine bar, thanks to Hodge’s entertaining manner and her habit of chatting with diners —or crowning a birthday celebrant with her famed birthday tiara.

Your visit to Murfreesboro should include a ride around the rural countryside to get a sense of place. Visit the Roanoke-Chowan Farm and Garden Market just outside of town, or see the oldest continuingly operating cotton gin in North Carolina.

And what trip would be complete without a bit of shopping? Try Joan Hunter’s Blue Front Store, a former pharmacy now packed with collectibles, semi-antiques and a surprise treasure or two. Hunter’s open to conversation and might tell you about her great nephew— American Idol winner Scotty McCleary. “I hit redial 500 times to vote for him on American Idol,” she tells us. “He was the all-time vote getter and just as nice a boy as he seems to be on TV.”

If you have a final burst of energy, head for the local Ace Hardware and be surprised by the diversity of offerings in the gift boutique fronting the shelves of hardware, pet supplies and tools. We found high-end flip flops, embroidered North Carolina and Virginia pillows, a pink camo John Deere comforter and pottery.

For more information about Murfreesboro, visit www.murfreesboronc.org or www.townofmurfreesboro.com.

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