Saturday, June 21, 2008

21. Moving North through the Carolinas

Bonnie took care of business at home, celebrated the high school graduations of two grandsons, and returned to Charleston on June 14. The next morning we pointed the RV north on US-17 toward Myrtle Beach. Friends and other folks we met along the way told us Myrtle Beach was a “don’t miss” destination, so we decided to spend a few days there. It’s very commercial and beach oriented with lots of traffic. The beaches were beautiful but, like many places we’ve been, were lined with condominiums and hotels and “public” access to the beach was very limited. We managed to find a place to park within walking distance and had a nice time on the beach.

The RV resort was in a very convenient location. It overlooked the intracoastal waterway, was a mile from the main beach and very convenient to everything we wanted or needed. It also had a very nice recreation building, large swimming pool and the best laundry and rest rooms that we’ve seen so far.

Next door to our RV park was Barefoot Landing, a very interesting specialty shopping center with an assortment of small shops and restaurants built partially on a boardwalk around the edge of a 17 acre lake. It was a great place to browse.
Our next stop was Wilson, North Carolina. It’s a charming medium sized community of 48,000 people, located along I-95 about 45 miles east of Raleigh. The North Carolina countryside is beautiful but the terrain is still very flat. Wilson is a couple hours inland from the ocean, but its elevation is only 147 ft.
The downtown Visitors Center hostess was overflowing with southern hospitality. She seemed thrilled that we came all the way from Seattle to spend a few days in Wilson. She gave us an official proclamation making us “Honorary Citizens for the Day.” The proclamation, when placed on the dash of the car, also gave us free unrestricted parking in all pay lots and parking meters. Pretty cool. She loaded us up with maps and knowledge about the city, then sent us on a self-guided walking tour of the historic district. We started at the County Library.

Many of Wilson’s homes and commercial buildings are 150 years old or older. It’s no Charleston or Savannah, but the town has a lot of pride in its heritage and we could see preservation activities going on everywhere, including the diamond in the rough in the photo below.

Another thing this area takes seriously is tobacco growing, which is still the state’s #1 agricultural crop. We’re not users of the product, but curiosity and our quest for knowledge led us to the Tobacco Farm Life Museum. It’s a small unique museum full of interesting information about the changing lives of the families who grew tobacco for a living over the past hundred years or more. Several old preserved buildings from local tobacco farms are part of the museum complex and help illustrate the very basic lifestyles of the families. The lives of tobacco families were quite a contrast to the opulent lifestyles and expensive mansions of the plantation owners of Savannah and Charleston.

Wilson is also the home of the minor league baseball Wilson Tobs, which is short for tobacconists. Their mascot “Slugger” is a tobacco worm, of course. Ron got a kick out of that. He wanted to go to the game on Saturday and see the Tobs “smoke” their opponents, but severe thunderstorms were coming our way so we passed.

Ron wanted to stop at the historic depot and watch the arrival of The Carolinian, a passenger train from Charlotte to New York. So, we sat and waited. The train was 20 minutes late, but worth the wait.

Raleigh was a short side trip away, so we spent a day poking around North Carolina’s capital city. We especially like to see state capitol buildings. This one was not as fancy or ornate as most, but it’s one of the finest examples of Greek Revival civic buildings in the Country, and is a National Historic Landmark. It was completed in 1940. The previous wooden State House burned to the ground in 1831 while careless roofers were trying to fireproof the building by installing a zinc roof. Taking no chances, the new capitol was built primarily of locally quarried granite with interior walls of stone and brick, and with very little wood. It’s very solid and has withstood nearly 170 years of storms and earthquakes with barely a scratch.

The House of Representatives chamber is where the house of commons debated whether or not to join the Confederacy. They decided to go for it, and the Secession Ordinance of 1861 was signed here.
The original Governor’s office in the capitol is still used primarily for ceremonial purposes. The State Library and State Geologist's Office have been restored to their 1856 appearances. Most government functions have moved to more modern quarters. The Governor still lives in the 1891 mansion (photo) that has been home to the last 27 governors. The impressive home occupies an entire block but was not open to the public. Apparently, the Governor was at home.

A block or two from the capitol are several big modern multi-story museums of history, art and natural sciences. All were “free”. We did a quick tour and each was so interesting and well designed that we could easily have stayed all day. We also wandered down Fayetteville Street, the main downtown business street, and looked around the old market district.

Raleigh has a terrific farmers market. It's two or three miles from downtown and open all day every day. It has lots of fresh fruit and veggies and Bonnie found some very good fresh corn, blueberries, white peaches, "safe tomatoes" and other goodies.
A short 30 miles from Raleigh is the city of Durham, home to Ron’s favorite college basketball team, the Duke Blue Devils. Being so close, we had to pay a visit to the Duke University campus. The college was created by James Buchanan Duke in the 1920s. Most of the buildings were constructed of local stone in the English Gothic style, which makes it appear much older than it is.

We stopped by the Cameron Indoor Stadium where the Blue Devils play their home games. The building was open, so we went inside and got to see the basketball court that Ron had seen on TV so many times over the years.

Mr. Duke wanted to create a central chapel that would dominate all other buildings on the campus and have a serious influence on the spiritual life of the students. The Duke Chapel is very impressive both inside and out. The interior is 63 ft. wide by 291 feet long. The gothic arched ceilings are 73 feet high. Stories from the Bible are illustrated in 77 stained glass windows. The chapel has three different types of pipe organs for different functions. The largest has 6,900 pipes. Free organ recitals are held every Sunday.

In addition to the organs, the Duke Chapel’s tower houses a 50-bell carillon. The largest of the bells weighs 11,200 lbs. The University Carillonneur performs a 15 minute bell recital every weekday at 5:00 pm. We stayed to hear the bells and it was an unforgettable experience.