By Bryan Mims
Farm fields long ribboned with tobacco and soybeans now brim with two-car garages attached to vinyl-sided houses. Streets labeled lane, loop, way, court and place have plowed through the furrows.
But with all the cul-de-sacs and their spokes of driveways, Winterville still has a Main Street, a Church Street, a Railroad Street, a Depot Street — in short, it still has a core, even as suburbia is spreading its branches. The railroad runs through the center of town, flanked on one side by a strip of small businesses with a tapestry of facades. Along a single block, you can get your dog groomed at Pampered Pooches, order a bouquet at the flower shop, take dance lessons, buy a gun or sit down to a breakfast of fried bologna and a bagel at Mary and Vinny’s. That said, Debbie Avery would sure appreciate a place to buy a good pair of shoes.
“I would love to get everything I need without having to go across Fire Tower Road,” she says, referring to the boundary between Winterville and its much bigger neighbor to the north, Greenville. As executive director of the Winterville Chamber of Commerce, she’s witnessed the town blossom in the last decade.
In 2000, census data put the town’s population at 4,791; by 2010, that number nearly doubled to 9,261, the biggest 10-year population gain in Winterville’s history. Town officials now estimate there are about 10,000 residents. Proximity to Greenville, about 7 miles away, powers the growth. With 90,000 people, Greenville serves as the education and health care hub of North Carolina’s coastal plain. It’s home to East Carolina University, the third-largest campus — and one of the fastest-growing — in the UNC System, along with Vidant Medical Center, site of ECU’s medical school.
The vibrancy of a college town invariably casts its shine on surrounding communities, and Winterville is basking in the glow. Pitt Community College, with about 8,500 students, occupies the far northern prong of town. Education, not farming, rules the roost. Drive down Old N.C. 11, along Old Tar Road or east on Worthington Road, and you’ll still see row crops stretching toward the loblolly pines. But head north, and it’s hard to discern when you’ve left Winterville for Greenville, with the bustle from traffic and big-box stores.
How does Winterville reconcile college-town conveniences with rural roots? Though the town may now have a Sam’s Club, it also has Sam Jones.
In September 2015, the 36-year-old, fourth-generation barbecue master opened a scaled-up version of his family’s business on Fire Tower Road. It’s just 8 miles north of the legendary Skylight Inn, the no-frills, unpaved-parking-lot barbecue joint his granddad Pete Jones opened in 1947 in Ayden. At this new restaurant, Jones stays blessedly true to the family’s barbecue credo: All the ’cue is smoked with wood. Outside, with traffic whizzing by and a Walgreens in plain view, a bountiful pile of chopped oak is stacked against the brick wall of
Here’s what’s different: Sam Jones BBQ serves beer, fries, chicken salad, chicken clubs and chicken tenders. You can sip a North Carolina-brewed cold one while sitting at a marble-topped bar and watching the game on flat-screen TVs. “I wanted to be in the Greenville market,” Jones says, and the northern edge of Winterville put him squarely there. “People keep seeing this as a new restaurant; I see this as an extension of Skylight Inn.”
Winterville traces its origins to 1880 when Amos Graves Cox built a home and a store along a dirt road. The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad came through a decade later, and Cox had a contract to provide fuel for the wood-burning engines. His enterprise eventually became a train station and depot. Before long, the community had a post office, and in 1897 it incorporated as a town. For decades, it was a drowsy whistlestop of a town among the tobacco fields.
As Greenville grew, so did Winterville, but Avery says that wasn’t the only force behind the recent profusion of subdivisions. She points to the end of the quota and price support system that consolidated the tobacco-growing industry. The 10-year effort known as the “tobacco buyout” began in 2004, and many area farmers began selling their land. Now, young families gather at Winterville Park, opened in 2010, for the Pee Wee Baseball League, Lil’ Strikers Soccer and flag football and return to their homes in Cooper Point or Laurie Meadows. The town’s slogan — “A Slice of the Good Life” — appears on the water tower and on utility-pole banners. It’s an apt phrase, given Winterville’s reputation as a safe, clean-cut place to settle down. Tobacco leaves don’t litter the roads much anymore, just as tractors don’t much get in the way of traffic. But that’s what seasons do — they change. And Winterville is just as fertile as ever to reap a whole new crop of growth.