Why make the small town of Wilson, in eastern North Carolina, my first vacation trip after COVID?
In short, whirlpools.
But I had other reasons. Wilson is home to several dining venues that were slated to feature in a new edition of my “North Carolina Roadside Eateries,” a book that was ready to print when the COVID pandemic forced its postponement until fall 2020.
Parkers Barbecue, not far from I-95, is still going strong, serving up the barbecue and the fried chicken that has captured the attention of national magazines. Wilson’s other barbecue icon, Bill’s Barbecue and Chicken Restaurant, suddenly closed in early 2019 after being in business for 56 years. For the people of Wilson, it was like a death in the family. All is not lost. After Bill’s death, his son Lawrence, who grew up learning the trade from his father, opened his own restaurant and named it after his late brother, Marty. With over 30 years of experience working with his father, he turned his new restaurant into a vibrant business.
The Wilson people are divided into Parker and Marty fans. The best thing for a visitor to do is taste both.
Wilson also has another Southern staple: cookies.
Flo’s Kitchen Cat Head Cookies will make you happy if you follow two rules: bring cash and arrive before noon. Don’t be surprised if there are a lot of people inside and out.
On my recent visit, I discovered and enjoyed Dick’s hot dog stand at the corner of Nash and Pearson streets. It all started in 1921 when a Greek immigrant, Socrates “Dick” Gliarmis, sold his first hot dog. A century later, Dick’s family is still there in a comfortable building with walls full of North Carolina memorabilia. You can bet Dick’s will be featured in any revised Radside Eateries.
Eating well is important, but we came to see the whirlpools.
A friend, Susan Hudson, arranged for us to be guided by Henry Walston, who, as president of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum, helped bring the whirligigs to downtown Wilson.
The late Vollis Simpson, farmer, welder, mover and handyman turned out to be an important American artist who could turn piles of junk into gigantic, playful sculptures.
Simpson assembled his artwork on his farm, which has become a popular local attraction.
Walston was a leader in a community effort to collect, repair, and display Simpson’s work in downtown Wilson.
In 2017, he explained to Frank Stasio of WUNC: “When we adopted this project, we had in mind the creation of creative places. Creating creative spaces involves taking an artistic / cultural project and using it as a vehicle to stimulate economic development in the region where the project is located.
Wilson’s loss of its tobacco markets and bank headquarters had stunned the city.
The whirlpools came to the rescue. They are on display from 5 a.m. to midnight. It’s the best kind of art museum – no tickets, no queues, no guards – just an open park filled with quirky and colorful Simpson structures moving differently with each breath of the wind.
The whirlpools helped attract other artists and businesses to downtown Wilson. Artist Sebastian Correa, originally from Chile, teamed up with George Newsome and Reggie Harrison to form Artisan Leaf, where they use epoxies and tobacco leaves to make beautiful, sturdy tables and smaller items they sell. at a reasonable price.
Former Chapel Hillian Barb White has moved her art gallery to a building in downtown Wilson called Edge. In her completely renovated space, she exhibits and sells her work and that of others.
Other artists animate the city.
Thanks in large part to tourbillons, Wilson is on the move.
It was a perfect post-COVID trip.
DG Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.