By Bryan Mims
The young woman tending bar wears a blue T-shirt that puts her small town on the map. Over an outline of North Carolina and its 100 counties, it poses the question: “Where in the hell is Warrenton?” It’s a great icebreaker for out-of-towners sidling up for a Mai Tai or a cold beer.
The T-shirts are sold here, at Robinson Ferry Restaurant & Spirits, the go-to gathering place in this town of fewer than 900 people. Warrenton, to answer the question, is a dozen miles south of the Virginia state line where it crosses Kerr Lake, Lake Gaston and Interstate 85, about 55 miles north of Raleigh.
Warrenton might be too small for a Bojangles’ or a Food Lion, but it’s just right for Robinson Ferry. “I’ve been in here when you couldn’t move,” says Karen Wilkerson, a local real-estate agent. After ordering eight bones of pork ribs and a draft beer, she offers an appetizing, if bold, prediction: “I would say give it 10 years. If the economy keeps on going, this could be like a second New Bern,” referring to the historic coastal city where tourist dollars flow as wide as its rivers.
Warrenton, like New Bern, is awash in history and saturated with courtly homes and churches from the 19th century. Its historic district encompasses more than half the town and contains more than 50 buildings. Between 1840 and 1860, Warrenton was one of the wealthiest towns in North Carolina, serving as a trading center for local tobacco and cotton plantations.
These days, however, Warren County, with a population of about 20,000, is among the poorest in the state. Roughly a quarter of residents live in poverty. Between 1990 and 2016, state employment records show, the number of manufacturing jobs plunged from more than 1,500 to about 500. It’s a familiar tale in rural counties across North Carolina as textile mills and other factories shut down. Still, Warrenton has fired the imagination of entrepreneurs who see urbane possibilities in the small-town environs.
On this particular weeknight at Robinson Ferry, the elbow room is ample, the conversations low-key and the vibe laid-back. The restaurant opened in 2012, only to close a couple of years later. It reopened in September 2015, thanks in part to co-owner Michael Ring, who works in the kitchen overseeing food preparation. “I’ve got a lot of connections with the local farmers. I’m big on that,” Ring says. Menu items include salmon with cranberry relish, catfish with Cajun remoulade, and shrimp and grits with scallions.
Ring figured he would eventually return to Asheville, where he went to culinary school, but Warrenton satisfied a craving. “I was tired of living in the cities,” he says. “I really like living out here in the country. We have the opportunity here not to create culture, but it’s a place for culture to happen.”
Warrenton’s revitalization effort “continues to blossom,” says Mayor Walter Gardner Jr., an insurance agent who is also the town fire chief. Town hall is undergoing a $2 million renovation and is expected to reopen this month. The town is pumping $6 million into water and sewer improvements, Gardner says.
On Main Street, the sidewalk is lined with orderly brick facades of businesses selling flowers, soul food, pasta, pizza, paninis, frozen yogurt, hardware, software, insurance, bank accounts and antiques. “All of our storefronts are filled,” Gardner says. “For a small town, that’s unusual these days. We feel enthusiastic about what’s happening downtown. We have no boarded-up buildings.”
One project worth crowing about is the Bragging Rooster, a brewery that will concoct not only beer but mead. Considered the “drink of the gods” by the ancient Greeks, mead is a kind of wine made by fermenting honey with water. It’s regarded as the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Partners Kristen Baughman, Zayne Taber and R.J. “Fixer” Cassle are fixing up an old building along South Main Street and expect their bubbly, buzz-inducing nectar to be flowing early this summer.
Baughman and Taber, who were married in April, had lived in the Raleigh area but sought wider spaces and fresher air. They bought a farm a few miles south of town and planted Warren Estate, a venue for rustic barn weddings and other special events. They were so charmed by the Mayberry mood of Main Street that they decided to sweeten the scene with honey and hops.
Baughman is the founder of Tabletop Media Group, an agency providing website development and other media services for the food, beverage, lifestyle and agriculture industries. “Having a brewery was on their bucket list of things to do,” says R.J. Cassle, Bragging Rooster’s chief brewer. The couple is installing beehives on the farm to make the honey that will make the mead – that will no doubt draw the curious to get a taste of Warrenton.
Bragging Rooster doesn’t plan to serve food, but restaurants are just a few footsteps away — or a rickshaw run. Cassle says he and his partners are exploring the possibility of hiring a rickshaw driver to deliver food to brewery patrons from nearby restaurants.
“This is a delicate balance,” he says. “It’s a small town, and we don’t want to take business away from anybody else. We want to enhance other people’s businesses.”
Milano’s Italian restaurant is moving into what had been a crumbling downtown building, investing $1 million in renovations. In 2017, Ebony Talley-Brame and her husband, Alvin Brame, opened WISE 3-in-1: three businesses in one location on Main Street. It includes Shanell’s Boutique, a medical-transportation service and a soul-food restaurant serving fried chicken, pork chops, cabbage, turnip greens, corn pudding and banana pudding.
Talley-Brame, who’s in her early 40s, grew up on a farm in Warren County. After living for several years in Los Angeles, she decided to return to her roots and start a business. WISE stands for “Wisdom Inspiring and Serving Everyone.”
Even with the new eateries and watering holes, Mayor Gardner says a main priority is luring grocery stores and perhaps a few franchise restaurants. Last summer, Warrenton lost JustSave Foods, leaving only two Food Lion stores in the county, each several miles from Warrenton. The mayor says the town is also working to bring apartments to downtown and establish free Wi-Fi.
Manufacturing still has a presence in the area: Glen Raven Inc., the Alamance County-based custom fabrics maker, has a plant in Norlina, employing about 200 people. But it’s the mom-and-pops that are rearing a revival in Warrenton. Kim Young, a 39-year-old mom of school-age daughters, and partner Melissa Lynch just opened a hair salon called Forever Young. Young left Raleigh in 2009 to get away from city life.
“I love it,” she says. “I thought I would move by the time I had children and they were of age to go to school, but now, no. I have a lot of family from Raleigh that can’t imagine living here, but I can’t imagine going back.”
Warrenton may just be a dot on the state map, but it’s making its mark among the bearded mead maker, the young hair stylist, the millennial chef at Robinson Ferry, and the media-savvy newlyweds. If you’re still wondering where-in-the-H-E-double-hockey-sticks this town is, command the directions on your GPS. Maybe, like others wooed by Warrenton, you’ll find yourself as having truly arrived.
Estimated population (2017)
Year the town was incorporated, It was named for Joseph Warren, a doctor and soldier who was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill during the revolutionary war.
Builder Jacob Holt
was responsible for the construction of more than 20 structures — dozens more are attributed to his shop — in and around Warrenton in the mid-1800s, including many churches and homes mixing Greek Revival with Italianate styles
The NASCAR team owner and founder of Hendrick Automotive Group was born in Warrenton in 1949.