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Colin Campbell: Help NC rural towns by visiting them

By Colin Campbell

For those of us who don’t often get outside the cities — or very far beyond our own towns — North Carolina geography can be confusing.

Franklinton is in Franklin County, but the town of Franklin sits 300 miles west, in Macon County. Meanwhile the town of Macon is in Warren County, not all that far from Franklin County.

We’re a state where place names get recycled and there’s a good chance your GPS will send you astray. North Carolina is home to Warsaw — not because of Polish immigrants but because a train conductor passing through in the 1800s happened to be reading a novel called “Thaddeus of Warsaw,” according to The North Carolina Gazetteer. We also have our own Bolivia, Milwaukee and Scranton.

But we’re a state with some of the quirkiest place names you can find on a map anywhere. In Randolph County, the Whynot community reportedly got its name when residents couldn’t agree on a name for the new post office. “Why not name it after this person?” people suggested, until someone got fed up and asked “why not name it ‘why not.’”

In Johnston County, Shoeheel got its name from an incident where a misbehaving stranger was hit with the heel of a woman’s shoe — or at least that’s the legend. Other fun place names include Toast (Surry County), Bat Cave (Henderson County), Seven Devils (Avery County), Tick Bite (Lenoir County), Boogertown (Gaston County) and Eureka (Wayne County).

Seeing these names on a map is enough to make you crave a road trip. In a state where we’re frequently lamenting the urban-rural divide, the easiest way to help bridge that divide is by hopping in the car.

Drive a couple hours from your home and visit a place you’ve never been. You’ll probably encounter downtowns with some vacant storefronts, but you’ll also find some great restaurants. Some of the best home cooking and barbecue can be found in the state’s smallest towns, and you hardly ever need a reservation to get in the door.

I did this recently and got a few blank stares from friends who wondered why I’d want to spend a couple days in out-of-the-way places.

In Ellerbe, I found an eclectic collection of taxidermy and American Indian artifacts at the Rankin Museum of American Heritage, which hosts the collection of an eccentric local doctor.

At nearby Rockingham’s Kool Kakes Bakery, I tasted a massive, hot cinnamon bun. I stepped back in time to the golden age of rail travel at Hamlet’s restored 1900 train station. And I spent the night in a historic mansion in Laurinburg for only $50.

Spending time on the ground in rural North Carolina, it’s clear that the narrative of shrinking, dying small towns is inaccurate. Most of them won’t again have the booming populations they once had, but they’re still home to thriving small businesses and people who are working hard to make their hometowns succeed.

Many towns are bouncing back from the loss of major employers. The state has lured new manufacturing facilities, and some towns have found a new niche to entice travelers and tourists. That’s where the city folks can lend a hand. Instead of planning a weekend in Raleigh, Charlotte or Wilmington, why not visit somewhere new like Edenton, Sylva or Whiteville? You might be surprised at how much they have to offer tourists, and at a much cheaper price.

You’ll do your small part to boost North Carolina’s rural economy. You’ll help bridge the rural-urban divide by gaining a better understanding of smaller communities. While you’re at it, you’ll probably run across some signs with fun place names, and you might even master our state’s wacky geography.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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