By Leah Hughes • Photographs by Sam Froelich
On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, people bundle up as they walk along downtown Lexington’s sidewalks. They duck into Conrad & Hinkle and emerge with brown paper sacks of pimiento cheese and beef tenderloin for tonight’s supper. They climb the steps to The Candy Factory, pull open the heavy door and disappear. They reappear holding red and white striped bags of Red Bird candy, sucking in their cheeks as they enjoy a soft peppermint puff. They window shop, admiring the Carhartt jackets and toboggans that line the front of the Army Navy Store. Inside, Frankie Nance calls them by name. He asks how they’ve been and if there’s anything he can help them find among the racks of overalls and jackets and gloves.
Robin Bivens watches the busyness from her window on the corner of West Center and North Main streets. As the executive director of the Lexington Tourism Authority & Visitor Center, Bivens’ job is to encourage tourists to visit the city where she was born and raised.
Like many other Piedmont municipalities, Lexington depended heavily on furniture and textiles several decades ago. But textiles began to decline in the ’70s and furniture in the ’80s, and by the end of the 20th century, Lexington couldn’t rely on its industries of the past to carry it into the new millennium.
“There was a time in the ’70s when every family was directly connected to furniture,” Bivens says. “But it’s hard to find a family with a member working in furniture today.” Lexington needed to redefine itself. But it didn’t have to look far.
In 1916, local farmer Sid Weaver began coming downtown on “court days,” setting up tents and pit-cooking pork shoulders. When court recessed for lunch, Weaver sold his barbecue. In the late 1930s, the first brick-and-mortar barbecue pits were constructed across Center Street from the old courthouse.
In 2015, when City Hall underwent renovations, workers discovered the original pits behind a closet. Today the preserved pits serve as a mini-museum of Lexington-style barbecue. Fifteen barbecue restaurants now operate in Davidson County, and six are located within the city of Lexington. That barbecue heritage has become a talking point for Bivens and other town leaders. “Let’s face it; people love to eat,” Bivens says. “The more we put the story out there, the more people came to eat, so we started telling our other stories, too.”
They told about the sisters who run The Candy Factory and how the Piedmont Candy Company makes that signature Red Bird candy right down the street. They told about Lee Hinkle, a third-generation shop owner who boosts sales at his small grocery store by promoting his grandmother’s pimiento cheese. They told about Lanier Hardware, which began in 1940 and takes up nearly an entire block of Main Street. They proudly laid claim to famous native sons Bob Timberlake and Richard Childress. And gradually all those people who came to eat barbecue lingered in Lexington a little longer, to visit its wineries and galleries, to shop in its stores and stay in its hotels. In 2015, visitors spent $155 million in Davidson County, of which Lexington is the county seat, a 3.5 percent increase since 2014.
“Where we’re excelling is telling our story, and it’s authentic,” says Mayor Newell Clark. “We’ve been really fortunate to have a history to leverage.”
Clark’s family is part of that history. His grandfather Ardell Lanier founded Lanier Hardware. When Lanier died in 2014, the family held a viewing inside the hardware store, and 1,000 people filed through. (See the 2016 Fall/Winter issue of Seasons.) Clark — a sporty, stylish spark plug of a city offi cial — graduated from UNC Wilmington and then spent 15 years on the West Coast. He liked California, but he didn’t feel the same connection he has here. He came home 10 years ago and is now in his third term as mayor. “Lexington’s a good size,” he says. “We’re a city, but we can still get our arms around it.”
A large part of that authentic story that Bivens and Clark promote lies on a pieshaped piece of property where Interstate 85 Business and U.S. Highway 64 split. Lexington Barbecue sits atop a small hill, flagging down passersby with the aroma of wood-tinged pork from its smokers. Its parking spaces are some of the most sought-after property in town. At 3 p.m. on a Thursday, the lot is twothirds full. Rick Monk is midway through his 11th hour on the job, and he’s as genuinely happy as someone sitting on a sun-soaked beach.
“I woke up one day, and I realized that I’ve got it made,” Monk says. “I have everything in the world. I look forward to coming to work every day.” Monk and his staff cook 6,000–7,000 pounds of meat a week to feed as many as 7,000 customers. The line often stretches from the dining room, runs along the lunch counter, makes a U-turn at the cash register, snakes through the double glass doors and extends out into the parking lot. People drive miles and miles for chopped pork with bits of crispy brown skin, bottomless baskets of hot hushpuppies, and sweet tea poured over soft-cubed ice. They also drive to see Rick Monk, standing behind the counter, overseeing a legacy his father started in 1962.
“I still preach the Gospel of Wayne Monk,” Rick Monk says. “My way to get through to people is through food.” Also behind the counter, you’ll meet a third-generation barbecue man: Nathan Monk, Rick’s son. A younger generation of Lexington citizens is emerging not only to tell the story of Lexington’s past, but also to write its next chapter. On the corner of South Main and East Center streets, diagonally across from the Visitors Center, Chris Phelps runs a music venue called High Rock Outfitters. It draws patrons from Greensboro and Winston-Salem for live music and craft beer four to five nights a week. Phelps also directs Davidson County’s Tourism-Recreation Investment Partnership, a nonprofit with a mission to increase public access to the county’s natural resources through parks and trails and other public spaces.
Down in the up-and-coming Depot District, inside an old furniture plant, two North Davidson High School alumni and their business partners established the production facility for Bull City Ciderworks. They moved their largeformat production from Durham to Lexington last year, due in part to their personal connections but also because of the city’s proximity to Interstate 85 and U.S. Highways 64 and 52. The connectivity makes it simpler to ship their six-pack bottles of hard cider to more markets.
“We’ve had a great reception from the community,” says John Clowney, one of Bull City’s Davidson County natives. “We’ve tried to get involved and not just be an idle observer of the community, but to be an involved business.”
The new generation of Lexington entrepreneurs seems to have taken notes from the ones who came before them. They listened to the story that Lexington natives, such as Bivens and Clark and Monk, have been telling. And they’re writing their own narrative, fueled by creativity and innovation and a tray or two of chopped pork.
Leah Hughes writes from her family farm in Jackson Creek, a rural community in Randolph County. She makes frequent trips to nearby Lexington for chocolate, pimiento cheese and barbecue.
Want to know (and see) more about Lexington? Consider dropping by the circa 1858, handsome Greek Revival Old Davidson County Courthouse right on the downtown square. It’s been converted into the Davidson County Historical Museum, which tells the county’s and city’s story via artifacts and photographs. And don’t miss the courtroom upstairs, where the area’s finest artist, Chip Holton, has brought back to life a famous murder trial with a series of dramatic courtroom cutouts of the judge, the jury, attorneys and a defendant. Info: www.co.davidson.nc.us or (336) 242-2035.