Halifax County and the Roanoke Valley

The spirit of independence
By Michael E.C. Gery
Halifax County and the Roanoke Valley

Historic Halifax

They say "the spirit of independence" was born in Halifax County. When you visit here, you soon find out that you are free to do just about anything. The Roanoke Valley region has carefully preserved its heritage and natural wonders while welcoming any free spirit to have a good time. Your first stop should be Halifax County Visitors Center, 260 Premier Blvd., Roanoke Rapids, 27870 (800-522-4282 or www.visithalifax.com).

About 300 years ago, people from Virginia came into this area because the Roanoke River made it a promising place to farm, fish and grow industries. Siouan-speaking Saponi came down the river from western Virginia while white European colonists and black people, both free and enslaved, came from eastern Virginia. Today they all are still here farming, fishing and growing industries.

The Haliwa-Saponi mainly in the Hollister area number about 4,000, white people about 19,000, black people about 30,000. And the month of April is important to each community. The annual Haliwa-Saponi Pow-Wow, largest in the state, is the third weekend in April at the tribe's school grounds (39021 Hwy. 561, Hollister, 27844, 252-586-4017, www.haliwa-saponi.com). April 12 is Halifax Day in Historic Halifax, where in April 1776 planters and shakers here hosted the North Carolina 4th Provincial Congress that produced the first legislation declaring American independence from Britain. And it was in April 1986 when Concerned Citizens of Tillery began commemorating the contributions African Americans have made to the region (Tillery History House, Monday–Friday, 321 Community Rd., Tillery, 27887, 252-826-3017, www.cct78.org).

The Heritage

Although locals around 1759 held "riots" for independence in nearby Enfield, Historic Halifax today is a State Historic Site that recalls the 1770s–1830s when Halifax as the 18th century county seat (it still is) was the liveliest place along the river. Handsome, restored buildings show off the architecture and furnishings of the times when proud people conducted business, visited, entertained, attended court and frequented taverns. Some 14 buildings and sites are open to the public, and guides in period costumes make them interesting and fun. It's free and open Tuesday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (252) 583-7191 or www.halifax.nchistoricsites.org.

Since 1976, the locally produced outdoor drama "First for Freedom" in late June and early July re-enacts the Halifax Resolves era at the impressive Halifax 4-H Rural Life Center, 13763 Highway 903, Halifax, 27839. Call 800-522-4282 or visit www.firstforfreedom.com

Roanoke Rapids always has been the industrial hub of the Roanoke Valley. It's here that the Roanoke River, from its source in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, tumbled on a geologic fall line of granite and dropped some 100 feet in just a few miles. The falls formed an obstacle to anyone transporting themselves and their goods. Like in other regions at the time, entrepreneurs and engineers figured out how to build a canal along the river to get around the falls. The 7.5-mile canal, built between 1819 and 1823, was the crowning achievement in opening the entire Roanoke River. The railroad era that began in the 1840s made river transportation less important, but the river itself powered mills and later electricity generators.

The Roanoke Canal Museum and Trail today explains all this and invites locals and visitors alike to meander a 7.8-mile trail from Roanoke Rapids Dam through Weldon. Along the way you see remnants of the canal structures, a corridor of quiet in this bustling city, parking places, interpretive signs, picnic areas and boating access on each end. The impressive museum, housed in a 1900 brick generator house, displays not only the Roanoke Rapids canal and industrial history, but also conveys the importance of rockfish on the river (they come up from the coast every spring to spawn), as well as significant events in the city's history. The museum is open Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and costs $4. The trail is open daily from dawn to dusk. (252) 537-2769 or www.roanokecanal.com

Nature and Recreation

Medoc Mtn State Park

Medoc Mountain State Park

Medoc Mountain State Park is 2,300 acres on the same granite fall line that made the Roanoke River rapids. It's more of a slope than a mountain. When the Weller family operated a big vineyard and winery here in the 1800s, they named it after a French wine-making region. After a logging period, local people proposed a state park in 1970, and Medoc Mountain opened soon after. You can hike in peace and see lots of birds, flowers and trees. Horses are welcome on 10 miles of trails. Little Fishing Creek is good for fishing and paddling, as well as for the Carolina mudpuppy salamander who exists only in this river basin. A large open space and its picnic shelter invites group outings. Ask the rangers about programs and the campground. The park is at 1541 Medoc State Park Rd, Hollister, 27844, (252) 586-6588 or www.ncparks.gov.

Opened in Scotland Neck in 2006, the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park has more waterfowl in one place than you'll see anywhere in the world. The programs are great for kids, too. Sylvan Heights also is known internationally for its work in preserving rare bird species. Visit here year-round Tuesday–Sunday. The admission price ranges from $9 to $5. It's at 220 Lees Meadow Rd., Scotland Neck, 27874, (252) 826-3186 or www.shwpark.com.

Lake-Gaston-Wakeboarding

Lake Gaston

Soon after Virginia Electric in 1963 built a dam here creating a 20,000-acre reservoir, Lake Gaston became a popular recreation and vacation home site. Like its predecessor on Roanoke Rapids Lake downstream, the dam provides Dominion Power with electricity for this part of the state. Dominion maintains day-use areas at both lakes (Wednesday–Saturday), and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission maintains boating access sites (919-707-0220 or www.ncwildlife.org). The area has guides and marinas to help you navigate (http://lakegastonchamber.com). Besides fishing and boating, Lake Gaston is home to wakeboarding (water skiing with a special surfboard) thanks to world champion wakeboarder Adam Fields. Visit www.AFWAKE.com or www.WakeSurfNC.com.

A major project of The Nature Conservancy in recent years has been to place some 94,500 acres of wildlands along the Roanoke River in managed conservation. Various agencies are involved now so that the entire river from Roanoke Rapids to the Albemarle Sound is ideal for paddling, fishing, camping, birding, cultural pursuits and general inspiration. Get information from www.nature.org/northcarolina or www.roanokeriverpartners.org. The wildly painted 6-foot rockfish statues seen throughout this area, co-sponsored by North Carolina's Touchstone Energy cooperatives, celebrate the importance of striped bass to the Roanoke Valley. These big fish come upriver in spring to spawn, and anglers from far and wide come with them. With a license, you can catch and release the fish in May and June, or keep them within limits in March and April. Find out more at (919) 707-0220 or www.ncwildlife.org.

Shopping, Eating and Staying

All the communities in the Roanoke Valley have local restaurants with eastern North Carolina specialties. (The chains are on Hwy. 158.) You can stay in major hotels off I-95 or local inns and motels. The main streets have good stores, but the well-known sites are Aunt Ruby's Peanuts in Enfield and Riverside Mill in Weldon. Riverside Mill is a nicely converted cotton mill housing a spacious display of art, crafts, gifts, clothing, antiques and furniture (252-536-3100 or www.riversidemill.net).

About the Author

Michael E.C. Gery is the editor of Carolina Country.

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