From antiques to empanadas, this old railroad town is on track to become a tourist destination with an international flair
By Maria Johnson
Antiques aren’t limited to objects. They can be towns, too, and like Granny’s sideboard, they can cycle through heydays, dog days, and, if loved by the right people, days of revival.
That’s what I found on a trip to 146-year-old Gibsonville, a town of 7,000 souls who relish the peace of living in the relatively undeveloped swath between Greensboro and Burlington.
At times, the peace has felt like paralysis, especially after the textiles bust that deflated so many North Carolina towns in the 1980s.
But slowly, Gibsonville has found new vigor as a tourist destination, thanks to a farmers’ market, an antiques mall, a French restaurant, a chocolatier, a garden railroad, and an Argentine bakery with empanadas that people drive for miles to devour.
Like so many towns, Gibsonville was born by the tracks. Six years before the Civil War, in 1855, North Carolina Railroad laid steel through the crossroads between Burlington and Greensboro.
The stop was called Gibson Station in honor of a local farmer Joseph Gibson, whose slaves graded the path for the railroad. A launch pad for agriculture, the village “greens” were livestock pens, which might explain the greenness of the grass today.
After the Civil War, the village upgraded to the Town of Gibsonville. Businessman Littleberry “Berry” Davidson built two textile mills, Minneola Cotton Mill and Hiawatha Cotton Mill, and the community’s lifeblood was set for roughly the next 100 years.
The City of Roses, so named because of the roses that were planted along the tracks, kept its textile identity until the Minneola plant, then owned by Cone Mills, closed in 1988 (Only Dixie Belle, a small lingerie maker, survives.)
Local workers moved, started working from home, or drove to jobs elsewhere. Downtown Gibsonville took a Rip Van Winklian nap for 20 years.
Then, in 2005, the town appointed a revitalization committee, headed by Neil Bromilow, a former Navy civil engineer who moved to Gibsonville when he accepted a job at Elon College, now Elon University.
Slowly, Bromilow and others have recruited new businesses, helped existing ones and organized events to attract outsiders.
“It’s like watching paint dry,” says Bromilow. “It looks great in the end, but it’s a slow process.”
With an online printable, self-guided walking tour, written by Bromilow, I strike out from Greensboro on a Wednesday morning to see what I can see.
My first stop is actually a few miles outside Gibsonville at a place with important ties to the town.
For years, I’ve known about the Charlotte Hawkins Brown State Historic Site, the state’s first, honoring African Americans. However, I’d never visited the campus, formerly Palmer Memorial Institute, which peaked in the 1940s and ’50s and closed in 1971.
If you care about education — or want to be uplifted by the story of a determined individual — take time to wander through the site’s museum and learn about Brown, a Henderson native who created an influential preparatory school for young black men and women, most of whom went on to college and successful careers. Her local backers included Gibsonville department store owner J.W. Burke, who figures prominently later in this story.
Absorbing Brown’s accomplishments, I am reminded of a magnet on my refrigerator. I’m not sure where the magnet came from, but I love the message: “It Starts with One.”
More evidence of that truth is waiting in Gibsonville, where I stop to chat with Myra Burkhead, owner of Gibsonville Antiques & Collectibles, a sprawling antiques mall that opened in 2011 in the former Minneola Mill on South Railroad Street.
Myra, a Greensboro resident and retired teacher’s assistant, had long dabbled in antiques and dreamed of having her own store. The dream came true after her husband Jim spotted the mill space for lease.
Today, Myra’s store covers 18,000 square feet and includes stalls maintained by 70 vendors who sell an astounding array of goods: furniture, books, glassware, toys, tools, signs, and vinyl records, to name a few. A new Christmas shop covers the basement.
Customers can browse while sipping free coffee and nibbling pound cake (one slice per customer, please). Myra also sells Homeland Creamery ice cream, made in nearby Julian; the ciders, juices and jams of Ward Farms in neighboring Whitsett; and Miss Betty’s blueberry syrup, made from blueberries grown by the same Cone family that once owned the mill. In another room a “general store” is stocked with sodas, snacks and candies.
Check out the wall signed by hundreds of people.
“Ada Hiraldo, 4-17-13, from Puerto Rico”
“Jorg Post, Zwolle, Netherlands, Nov. 3, 2012”
“ ‘Pecka’ Yass, Australia, 6-15-2016”
Myra laughs at the memory of people who tried to warn her off this location, saying Gibsonville didn’t have enough traffic.
“I said, ‘But we have antiques, and people will travel to see antiques,’” she recalls before pointing me across the railroad tracks — trains still barrel through daily — where I continue my walking tour.
I stop at a retired Southern Railway caboose that serves as an unstaffed, 24/7 visitors center. Former freight conductor Bobby Summers, who owns a hobby shop in town, secured the caboose, which has been restored and is a popular backdrop for photographers.
From there, I mosey over to Main Street, a remarkably intact artery with 1920s buildings that house just about every service a small town could muster.
Does Gibsonville or Greensboro have more unique, locally-owned businesses? “Gotcha beat,” Bromilow says, noting locations such as The Hardwood Store of North Carolina; Once Upon a Chocolate; and Wade’s Jewelers, where a 3-D printer makes molds for custom pieces.
One thing’s for sure: nobody with two nickels to rub together will go hungry. Within walking distance are several restaurants, including longtime favorites Jack’s BBQ, Pete’s Grill and Kimbers Restaurant. Ethnic flavors abound at Happy Garden (Chinese), Reno’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant, La Casa Dorada (Mexican).
Ines Roets, from Argentina, owns Ines Bakery, home of delectable sweets such as alfajores, which are coconut and caramel-filled cookie sandwiches, and savory empanadas that Facebook fans drive an hour or more to buy.
For lunch, I duck into the decidedly downhome Six Scoops, a homemade ice cream and sandwich shop, and order a barbecue sandwich. Its hickory-smoked flavors tickle my taste buds. No wonder it’s so good: the owners also own Hursey’s Bar-B-Q in Burlington.
Stuffed for the moment, I saunter down the street and stick my head into The Bow Bettie’s, a children’s clothing boutique, that, yes, appears to stock more hair bows than there are little girls’ heads in North America.
Since opening the store in June, owners, Heather Cole of Whitsett and her mom Teresa Hodges of McLeansville, have harnessed walk-in customers, along with Etsy and Facebook-driven sales from as far away as New York and California.
I’m starting to get the picture of Gibsonville as a model for small-town survival in the post-Industrial Age. Here you have locally-owned, web-savvy retail, plus commuter jobs, plus home-based workers, plus a tourist hook or two.
High on the sightseer to-do list are trains, real and miniature. Last year, Bromilow bought the Gibsonville Garden Railroad and incorporated it as a nonprofit venture.
With 1,600 feet of track in 10 loops that mimic the mountains-to-sea character of the state, the Garden Railroad is open to the public on the first Saturday morning of every month from April to December (weather permitting).
Bromilow, now 70 and retired, ticks off more Saturday attractions. A farmers’ market operates from June to the beginning of October. The town sponsors an evening concert series, Groovin’ on the Green, on the first Saturdays of those fair-weather months.
A Saturday visit also enables stops at eight décor-related businesses that some jokingly call “G’ville Mart” after the home furnishings markets in High Point and Atlanta.
Husband-and-wife team Jim and Chris Smith of Burlington and their colleagues are responsible for half of those businesses: The Mill; D’Kays Warehouse; The Dive; and Faux Real Paint Co.
The group incubated in the old Liberty Hosiery mill (formerly the Hiawatha mill), which was in Jim Smith’s family. Earlier this year, the stores spread out to new spaces, but they stayed in Gibsonville to keep the synergy with each other and neighboring shops.
“We feed off each other. When I don’t have something, I send ’em down the road,” says Kay Burnette, who runs D’Kays, a rustic furniture and accessories business on Eugene Street.
The final stop on my tour is the most luxurious: Burke Manor Inn & Pavilion.
For owners, Lil and Lori Lacassagne, it’s a dream-come-true, like Myra Burkhead’s antiques mall. They had been running the top-rated Saint Jacques French Cuisine in Raleigh, one of the country’s best French restaurants, when they set out to realize their goal of owning an inn.
A Google search led them to Burke Manor Inn, which was built in 1906. A few years later, department store owner J.W. Burke bought the place. Yes, the same Burke from the Charlotte Hawkins Brown story.
Burke and his wife, Etta, an active businesswoman and early proponent of Parent Teacher Associations, were lavish entertainers. The home stayed in the family until 1999, when the Brady family bought it and ran it as a bed-and-breakfast for more than a decade.
Enter the Lacassagnes.
“We sat on the veranda, having a glass of wine and watching the trains go by, and said, ‘We have to have this,’” says Lori.
They renovated the inn, which opened in 2011 and has been a mainstay of the community ever since, a spot for weddings, private parties and corporate outings, not to mention overnight guests and gourmands who book dinner reservations at its eight-table French restaurant.
As devotees of locally-grown food, the Lacassagnes crow about eastern Guilford County and its bounty. They refer guests to beer tastings at nearby Red Oak Brewery; to wine tastings at Grove Winery; to fresh produce at the nearby Smith Farms stand; and to fall chestnut roasts at High Rock Farm.
They’re smitten with downtown Gibsonville.
“We have an international town here, on one street,” says Lil, in his charming accent. “Gibsonville is rocking and rolling.”
Learn more about Gibsonville by going to gibsonville.net. Maria Johnson is a regular contributor to Seasons.