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(CIRCA Magazine – A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
Winter travel is nicest when it involves a warm car ride. That’s why this particular Driveable Destination takes you over rolling hills and through picturesque farmland. And it boasts a pair of charming endpoints that can each be toured in an hour or less. This route lets you experience two special towns—in two different states—in one afternoon. That it’s a favorite of Wake Forest Historical Museum Executive Director Ed Morris, a former State Historic Sites Administrator, means it’s more than just a pleasant drive—it’s also a credible history lesson.
The first of these towns is Oxford in Granville County. Originally inhabited by the Tuscarora Indians and settled by Virginians in the early 1700s, the region once encompassed almost the entire northern half of North Carolina and was named for its owner, the Earl of Granville. The present day county was whittled out of this vast property, and Oxford is its county seat. Throughout the 19th century it was a wealthy, thriving community. This is where Bright Leaf Tobacco was discovered, a sandy soil variety that’s flue-dried and highly profitable and financed the construction of some spectacular homes. Drive the historic downtown or delightful College Street and you’ll pass a stunning collection of Federal, Victorian, Greek and Neoclassical architecture. Oxford’s finest blocks are on the National Register of Historic Places and it’s truly one of the prettiest towns you’ll ever see. It’s also home to the Granville County History Museum. Contained in the old jail, the museum is a small space with big stories about Native Americans, farming, tobacco, and moonshine. Like many regional museums it has limited operating hours, so remember to check the website at http://www.granvillemuseumnc.org before you go.
One of Oxford’s most compelling peculiarities is that it’s long been home to two historic North Carolina orphanages, both of which still exist. The Oxford Orphan Asylum opened in February 1873 “for the protection, training and education of indigent orphan children.” In 1883 a similar facility was opened for African-American children. Historically known as the Grant Colored Asylum, it’s now the Central Children’s Home of North Carolina. The Oxford Orphanage has become the Masonic Home for Children. Both continue to assist children and families in need, they have great websites updated with current wish lists, and the post-holiday season is a good time to make a donation. If you arrange to drop off items before you hit the road, your visit to Oxford will make a difference for some very special kids, and it’s such a simple drive. Oxford is a straight shot from the Wake Forest area. Just take U.S. 1 north, turn left on Highway 96, continue for 30 minutes, and you’re there.
But don’t turn around and go home—because the second stop is even better! This time you drive half an hour north on Highway 15 to Mecklenburg County, Virginia. It’s an interesting route because, mixed into the usual blend of forests, hills, and tobacco barns, you’ll also notice the abandoned tracks of the Oxford and Clarksville Railroad clearly visible through the trees. Train aficionados might want to note the original rail line was chartered in 1884 and completed in 1888. Abandoned more than 20 years ago, it’s now owned by Norfolk Southern, which reportedly has no plans to revive it. When the tracks run out, you’re in the town of Clarksville. Billing itself as Virginia’s only lakeside town, Clarksville’s astonishing downtown appears to slip away into the beautiful blue waters of Kerr Lake—which it actually does. This is not an illusion. The situation was created by the damming of the Roanoke River in the 1950s, a pet project of North Carolina Congressman John H. Kerr, who worked from 1947 to 1952 to provide the area with hydroelectric power and improved flood control. Kerr Lake is a 50,000 acre expanse and its gorgeous proximity to the town’s main drag is just one reason to visit.
Clarksville was once a booming agricultural town with a 19th century tobacco market and legendary tobacco manufacturing capabilities. By 1860, its local factory was producing more processed tobacco than any other facility in North Carolina or Virginia. To this day, Clarksville prides itself on having the oldest continuous tobacco market in the world. If you have time, the town is equipped with small museums and visitor centers touching on the histories of tobacco farming, Native American life, and railroad development. Depending on the weather, the Chamber of Commerce also has maps for a walking tour of the 62 notable homes, churches, and businesses listed on the historical register. Or if you simply want to wander, Clarksville’s striking downtown is filled with shops and restaurants as it slopes down to the water. (By the way, if you’re speaking to a Virginian, that body of water is known as Buggs Island Lake, named for a location along the river instead of John H. Kerr.) Because Clarksville draws plenty of tourists, fishermen, and watersport enthusiasts, you’ll find a number of good restaurants and shops, and at least three highly rated bed and breakfasts. In addition, the scenic Occoneechee State Park is right across the way, offering areas for hiking and a waterfront marina with boat and kayak rentals open year-round.
Of course, if the weather’s blustery you’re more likely to just call it a day, turn around, and drive home. This whole trip can be experienced in approximately three hours. But whether it’s a long adventure or short, rest assured this will be time well spent thanks to Oxford and Clarksville, two very special places that harken back to an era when these types of small southern towns weren’t quite so hard to find.