Thomas Banks, a former publicist for Columbia Pictures, spent 50 years amassing a collection of Ava Gardner memorabilia. After his death in 1989, his wife, Lorraine, donated it to the town of Smithfield. Photo provided by Johnston County Visitors Bureau.
By Bryan Mims
A goddess of Hollywood’s Golden Age sets her gaze on New Yorkers bound for Boca Raton, Floridians bound for Philly, and the tens of thousands of other seatbelt-strapped travelers who pass this billboard beauty every day. She’s a touch of silver-screen class among the visual clutter lining Interstate 95 leading into Smithfield.
This town of more than 12,000 people sits at one of those interstate super stops, the kind with familiar fast-food chains, truck stops and busy pay-at-the-pumps. Sprawling between exits 95 and 97 are the Carolina Premium Outlets, peddling everything from J.Crew sweaters to gourmet popcorn. Across the interstate is JR Discount Outlet, with billboards for miles in either direction boasting everything from “brassieres to chandeliers.”
But it’s that larger-than-life starlet, dead now for nearly 30 years, who lures curiosity-seekers off the interstate and across Brightleaf Boulevard, past the renowned hot dogs of Cricket’s Grill, to a free two-hour parking spot by the Ava Gardner Museum.
“We bring them in and then we direct them around Smithfield,” says museum director Lynell Seabold. Last year, as many as 6,000 people visited the museum dedicated to Smithfield’s hometown star, Hollywood’s go-to girl in the 1940s and ’50s who acted alongside heartthrobs such as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. Gardner grew up down the road in a community called Grabtown before a chance photo shoot skyrocketed her to stardom. “We must get requests at least every day of a place to eat, a place to shop,” Seabold says.
An out-of-state couple is doing that now, asking about SoDoSoPa, a barbecue restaurant that opened in August 2016 at South Third and Johnston streets. (The name is a reference to the animated TV show South Park.) SoDoSoPa serves up traditional dishes with a Southern flair, such as barbecue nachos and shrimp-and-grits topped with cracklins. It’s one of several downtown restaurants and shops that have opened in the last four years, bringing a gentle urban touch to this town 30 miles southeast of the state’s capital city.
Smithfield, like other communities in the coastal plain, once was a vibrant tobacco market. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, so many warehouses lined U.S. 301 that it became known as Brightleaf Boulevard. The tobacco trade inspired the name for Carolina Packers, a company founded in Smithfield in 1941 whose reddish hot dogs are sold across the state.
Tobacco long ago faded as an economic force in Smithfield, but given its proximity to Raleigh and some recent business expansions, the town’s prospects could be as bright as the floppy leaves that once littered U.S. 301. OPW, which makes equipment for gas stations and car-wash systems, has grown from 80 employees to more than 200 over the last decade at its local plant. A unit of Illinois-based Dover, the company plans to invest $7.8 million and add another 80 jobs over the next two years. Penn Compression Moulding Inc., a plastics manufacturer based near Pittsburgh, said in January it is adding 40 jobs.
“It’s up and coming,” is how 58-year-old Patrick Yauch describes Smithfield. Yauch and his wife, Teresa, opened Grapes & Grounds, a wine and coffee shop, in April 2016. “It’s kind of one of those last holdouts in this area, I think. Clayton has come a long way, Goldsboro is moving along. Smithfield is catching up, which is kind of awesome.”
Smithfield traces its beginnings to about 1740, when John Smith and his family, transplants from Virginia, acquired extensive tracts of land along the upper Neuse River. A town began to form at the site where the Smiths ran a river ferry, and in 1777 it was incorporated as Smithfield.
As the seat of Johnston County, Smithfield’s courthouse is a downtown focal point, supplying a steady clientele of lawyers and judges for nearby lunch spots, coffeehouses and bars.
The town has its longtime and much-loved hangouts. The Little Brown Jug, a gas station-turned-bar perched next to the Neuse River on Market Street, is a tiny but legendary watering hole where grizzled patrons drink $2 beers in the afternoon and younger crowds make it standing-room-only on Friday nights.
A more modern establishment – one with ample elbow room and a polished 30-foot bar – opened up the street last May. At Simple Twist Bottle and Tap Room, owners Nathan and Colleen Roby are trying to tap into the craft-beer obsession that’s bubbling all over the state. Smithfield has no shortage of places to grab a cold one, but Simple Twist is the first specializing in craft beer and wine.
“There’s really not anywhere in Smithfield that has a big craft-beer selection,” Nathan says. “There’s so much of the stuff out there, we thought we’d broaden people’s horizons and introduce them to some new stuff.”
Other downtown businesses that started ringing up sales in the last year include The Black Bell Gallery and Lounge, a wine bar and art gallery, and Oak City Collection, a gift shop chock full of T-shirts, mugs, hats, baby onesies and other keepsakes with a North Carolina motif. Owners Jud Patterson and Suzanne Taylor opened the shop in July, selling works from 24 local artists. They design the T-shirts themselves. On one is the shape of the state filled with a pig, a pine tree, a cardinal, an oak leaf, a Carolina Hurricanes logo — you get the picture.
Taylor points to growth in nearby Clayton, 12 miles to the northwest and a popular bedroom community for Raleigh. In northwestern Johnston County, Clayton has benefited in recent years from the state’s booming life-sciences industry: Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk is investing $1.8 billion in a 700-job expansion, and Spain’s Grifols Therapeutics, which employs about 1,600 locally, in 2016 announced a $210 million expansion and recently acquired an additional 467-acre site in Clayton. Now large residential developments have cropped up around Clayton. “I think it’ll spread out here eventually,” Taylor says.
Patterson agrees that Smithfield is poised for progress. “This is on the edge of all the big growth that’s happening, and economically it makes sense.” Events such as Rhythm and Brews, an outdoor concert series that rocks Third Street on the occasional Friday night, adds to the appeal. Guests sip beer and wine from local restaurants and enjoy free carriage rides.
Smithfield is a long way from Hollywood and Southern California, where its native daughter gained fame, fabulous wardrobes, and marriages fit for tabloid fodder. But in death she came home and now rests beneath a simple marker and magnolia tree at Sunset Memorial Park. The director of the museum that bears her name is a California girl — Seabold is from San Diego — but Smithfield is that small town of her dreams, its central business district as idyllic, in her eyes, as a movie set.
“All my life, I kind of wanted that, and I talked about it all the time, how I wanted to get out of the big city,” she says. “I found myself here, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Smithfield’s star is rising, beckoning not only those admiring Ava fans on the interstate but entrepreneurs who see it ripe for a wine bar, an art gallery, a coffee shop, a hip restaurant. A place to have fun in, and to come home to.