Hurry Over To Hillsborough
Saying you should hurry over to Hillsborough feels almost like a PSA, as if visiting could be considered a mental health day. The town certainly possesses a sense of peacefulness and calm. Equal parts history, nature, and the arts, this “Driveable Destination,” found just about 35 miles northwest of Wake Forest, is the coolest locale this side of Asheville – a cultural superhero right in our own backyard.
Located in Orange County on the banks of the Eno River, Hills-borough serves as the county seat and started out more than two centuries ago as a hotbed of Revolutionary War politicking. During the Antebellum era, it was home to the famous Elizabeth Keckley, a mixed-race slave who found success as a dressmaker, bought her own freedom, became a close friend and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, and in 1868, published a memoir. Around the same time, Hillsborough produced Captain John Berry, the self-taught architect who helped establish Wake Forest by erecting the first brick struc-tures on campus: the College Building, the South Brick House, and the North Brick House. Now only the South Brick remains. It’s across from Wake Forest Baptist Church at the roundabout and has been featured in several of the town’s Christmas Historic Homes Tours.
Hillsborough, of course, has its own fabulous homes. The biggest is Ayr Mount, a brick mansion built in 1815 for wealthy merchant William Kirkland and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Acquired by a preservation group that has fastidiously recreated its heyday, Ayr Mount is open most days for guided tours that give visitors an up-close view of the property’s original cornices, heart pine floors, magnificent fireplaces, and 50 acres of gardens, woodlands, and walking trails.
Just a short distance from Ayr Mount, tucked into the natural landscape in a way that almost conceals its illustrious past, is the equally historic Occoneechee Speedway. The original half-mile horse track was reinvented as racing’s first-ever superspeedway after NASCAR founder Big Bill France spotted the land from an airplane, purchased the property, and transformed it to accommodate racecars. The track opened in 1948 in front of a crowd of 17,000 fans. Hills-borough native Gene Kennedy, who was seven-years-old at the time, later regaled his family with tales of how he spent his teen years making his way to Occoneechee Speedway to climb a tree overlooking the track and watch the races through billowing clouds of red dust. The locale was rural and quaint, and it’s not surprising to learn that artists at Pixar Animation Studios based their fictional Thomasville Speedway from the movie Cars 3 partly on Occoneechee.
The Speedway hosted two Sunday races annually for 20 years. Bill France finally shut it down to appease residents who kept complaining about the noise and hubbub on church days. The final race was held on September 15, 1968, was won by Richard Petty, and then everyone skedaddled. The property stood abandoned for nearly 40 years, growing more neglected and overgrown, until preservationists arrived on the scene in 2003 to begin the long, arduous process of transforming it into something different. Today, Occoneechee is a lightly trafficked walking loop with great conditions from April through September. In a flash of genius, the folks who restored it decided to leave the original speedway signs, a couple of wrecked cars, the grandstand, ticket office, and concrete bleachers. The result is a jumble of artifacts and nature. You can follow the loop, listen to the birds, scan the ground for bits of wreckage, and imagine the ghostly echoes of roaring engines – all at the same time.
This is the interesting thing about Hillsborough. It preserves the pieces that give off the brightest glow and repurposes them in surprising ways. For instance, the restaurant where we enjoyed a lovely seafood lunch is called James Pharmacy and occupies a former drugstore. Right up the street, the Orange County Historical Museum is housed in a pretty little stone structure that was once the town library and is now packed with exhibits that range from Civil War fashion to G.I. Joes. Our favorite local business was Volume Records & Beer, a retro-vinyl record lounge and beer bar in the hub of downtown. You can browse through bins of old albums for sale, then order an IPA and sip it languidly while listening to early Pink Floyd spun on a turntable the bartender keeps behind the counter. And if that particular vibe feels a little too mellow for you, it’s easy to trot around the corner to a bigger bar called Hot Tin Roof. This is the place for parties, events, and specialty drinks. Incidentally, both watering holes are steps from the boutiques, restaurants, and winding sidewalks that make downtown Hillsborough unfailingly charming and so very accessible to pedestrians.
Truly, the walkability is something special. Gorgeously lined with shade trees, you can keep cool-ish as you stroll past such notable properties as the Inn at Teardrops, the Burwell School Historic Site (where Elizabeth Keckley lived and worked while enslaved), and the Old Orange County Courthouse. You’ll also notice the Colonial Inn, an immense property built in 1838 and first used as a hotel. More recently, it fell into a state of disrepair. Now with new owners and a restoration plan to turn it into an event center and restaurant with a private dining area, bar, conference space, and more than 20 guest rooms, the Inn is destined for better days ahead.
I suspect that using old things in new ways is actually Hillsborough’s superpower. The town reminds me of those Etsy artists who take something vintage like a cast-away Bakelite Box camera, fit it with an Edison lightbulb, and upcycle it into an adorable working lamp. Hillsborough does the same thing on a much grander scale. So if you appreciate the glory of a superspeedway nature trail, or a record store beer bar, or a fish market pharmacy, hurry on over and see for yourself.
Assistant director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum.