Sunday, June 23, 2024

Mocksville tastes wine county success

By Bryan Mims

Photo courtesy of Raylen Vineyards

On the edge of the Yadkin Valley, ground zero of a $2 billion and growing wine industry and 25 miles southwest of Winston-Salem, Mocksville sits astride Interstate 40, a straight-shot commute for professionals who prefer their after hours in Small Town, U.S.A., and business hours in a place with parking decks. Strike up a conversation, and locals might tell you about a neighbor who works at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center or someone a few doors down with a job at Novant Health.

Tami Langdon spent 18 years doing volunteer work for the town and is now the community development coordinator. She was born in North Carolina but moved to the Midwest as a child, only for these Piedmont hills to fetch her back in the early 1980s. Langdon settled on Mocksville to raise her daughter, having endured big-city living in St. Louis long enough. “People who come here and see the potential, we just go crazy,” she says. “We just go crazy because it’s got so much potential.”

Mocksville is the county seat of mostly rural Davie County, 264 square miles of wheat, corn and hay fields, poultry houses, tobacco barns and rows of grapevines. Vineyards are in vogue across N.C. farm country, and Davie County is home to five, all having opened in the last 20 years, replacing farms that long grew traditional crops. Mocksville is part of the Yadkin Valley American Viticulture Area, the state’s first federally designated wine-growing region. Since 2013, production at North Carolina wineries has jumped 96% to 1.1 million 9-liter cases for an economic impact of nearly $2 billion last year.

Mocksville’s Main Street has reasons to pop the cork these days with its resurgence of business — iced lattes at noon, cold beer at 5 and martinis at midnight. One hangout that’s fueling the with-it atmosphere of downtown is The Factory Coffeehouse, which opened last year. Twenty-something barista Katy Sidden concocts swirls of dark roast and froth for the designer-jeans set who have debit cards at the ready. “I was born here and lived here off and on,” she says. “My parents traveled a lot.”

She came back to Mocksville because, well, small towns are kinda cool. Plenty of places to park on Main Street, no one invading your personal space, few rude people — and there’s still free Wi-Fi. “At first, it was really hard to get used to because it’s so small,” Sidden says, “but I enjoy it now that I’m here.”

She looks out the window at a couple of restaurants across the street that would blend in in midtown Raleigh or downtown Charlotte. There’s Restaurant 101, specializing in “new Southern cuisine” such as a fried oyster spinach salad and serving local craft beer. Next door is O’Callahan’s Publick House, an Irish pub that opened in 2014 when Dan Reynolds, a New Jersey transplant, bought a vacant store so he could dish out shepherd’s pie and clink glasses of Guinness. Just down the street is 4 Oaks Tavern, a nightspot and event center named for the four old willow oak trees on the town square that were recently cut down because of disease and age. Take heart: They have been replaced with sapling willow oaks, thus ensuring the soul of downtown Mocksville won’t be lost.

“I just need a little brewpub or distillery,” Langdon says. “I need some things to keep this place a-shakin’, you know?”

Lettie and Jack Pennington like familiar haunts just fine. The couple in their late 80s are here to do lunch with a man nicknamed after a dinosaur. “We like his poison,” Lettie says, referring to the barbecue that’s smoke-infused over red-hot hickory. She and Jack wear their hometown pride on the front bumper of their Chevy van: A license plate displays the town seal of Mocksville, “Incorporated 1839.”

“He’s a newcomer,” Lettie says of her husband. “He’s only been here 77 years.” She’ll tell you about her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, all of whom called Mocksville home. She’ll tell you about her 105-pound Siberian Husky, named Jesse Clement for her great-grandpa who founded the First United Methodist Church less than a block away. “So I had no choice,” she says. “It was the family tradition to stay in Mocksville.”

After bumping into an old acquaintance in the parking lot — this sort of thing happens a lot in a town of about 5,300 whose motto is “Time Well Spent” — the Penningtons make their way inside one of Mocksville’s most beloved eateries, Deano’s Barbecue. Deano is 71-year-old Larry Dean Allen, who fired up his restaurant in 1975, taking over a place called Buck’s that had the Sinclair Oil dinosaur on the side of the building, once one of the most recognizable mascots in America. Kids started calling the future restaurateur “Deano,” and the name followed him like pit smoke.

Such is the way of small towns, but Mocksville has some big-name employers: Ingersoll Rand, the Ireland-based manufacturer of air compressors and power tools, started production in Mocksville in 1965 and employs about 440 people. VF puts roughly 550 people to work shipping out orders of Lee, Wrangler and other denim wear to stores across the country. Israel-based Avgol Nonwoven Industries has nearly 300 people on the payroll at its local plant, which makes diapers and other hygiene products.

The Hollingsworth Cos. broke ground this year on an 80-acre expansion of the SouthPoint Business Park, providing more space for industrial tenants. This spring, Morrisofa Global, a China-based importer and distributor of upholstered furniture, leased a 92,000-square-foot building on the site, the eighth company to move in.

Mocksville is a comfy spot for Morrisofa, because even though so many furniture jobs have packed up and moved out of North Carolina, they’re still a centerpiece of Davie County’s economy. A few miles east of Mocksville, in unincorporated Advance, Ashley Furniture opened a 2.8 million-square-foot manufacturing and distribution center in 2013 and now has a payroll of about 1,100 people.

Clearly, Mocksville has both big-business bona fides and Main Street mojo. The Main Street Park is adding a plaza with a fountain, a clock, an arbor trellis and a shelter. It wasn’t long ago that buildings along Main Street sat idle; now, downtown has an energy of espresso proportions. When you have a coffee shop next to a cozy, independent bookstore — both of them across the street from an Irish pub and an ice cream parlor, and all of them a few sidewalk benches down from boutiques and a day spa named the Wicked Salon — you have a place worthy of showing off one’s hometown pride on the front bumper.

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