News Column

Summer Day Trips: Edenton, N.C., offers plenty of historic charm on the water

August 30, 2014

By Felicia L. Mason, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

Aug. 30--EDENTON N C -- "One of America's prettiest towns" is the designation Edenton, N.C., earned from Forbes.com.

From shops selling funky and eclectic art and a scenic waterfront that includes a restored 1886 lighthouse to historic homes and delicious food, Edenton more than exceeds that prettiest town designation.

With a population of just under 5,000 people, this little town on North Carolina's Inner Banks, is the perfect summertime -- or anytime -- day trip. Many people are familiar with the coastal Outer Banks, but the locations inside the Albermarle Sound should not be ignored.

As the county seat for Chowan County, Edenton offers visitors Southern hospitality steeped in history dating to the Revolutionary War and charm that is welcomingly infectious.

Getting there

My day trip began with a 13/4 -hour drive from the Peninsula headed south via the James River Bridge to Routes 58 and 32. Country and one-lane roads through Suffolk marked the journey. The comeback, which I expected to be faster via Route 17 and Interstate 664 and the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, actually took a longer 21/4 hours because of construction delays and a bridge opening in Chesapeake.

There are no tolls and an audio book accompanied me on the drive.

First impressions

My first stop was to the Historic Edenton State Historic Site on North Broad Street. And yes, the word historic is in there twice. It's a hint about just how deep the town's roots run in American history and how a town with a population of 4,993 people has capitalized on that rich history.

The visitor center is also a great place to begin a day trip to Edenton. In addition to displays about the town and county and a friendly staff on hand to answer questions, there's a free 15-minute video that provides an overview of Edenton. From its origins with the Algonquin Indian tribe and its founding in 1722 --named for Gov. Charles Eden, one of the first governors of North Carolina -- to what the town means to local residents today, the video packs a lot of information into a short amount of time.

Its industries included fisheries and cotton and tobacco plantations.

And although I was two hours away from home, the Virginia Peninsula was recognized in that video. Apparently town residents thought Lord Charles Cornwallis was headed to Edenton and prepared to defend themselves during the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis, as we know, headed toward Yorktown, thus sparing the town that was a busy seaport until the Dismal Swamp canal diverted business to Norfolk and Elizabeth City.

I had to chuckle at myself when I pulled into a parking space further down on Broad Street. I looked up to discover I was right in front of the office of the Chowan Herald. Leave it to the newspaper lady to unconsciously hone in on that spot. Of course, I purchased a copy, but I resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to go inside. I did, after all, come to see the town, not to talk shop with the local journalists.

My independent walk was of the meandering sort, in and out of shops like the Edenton Bay Trading Co., an eclectic place featuring wines, art, a beer tasting room, and rooms dedicated to the colorful delights of children.

In the Edenton Office Supply -- yes, I went into an office supply store, but I was lured there not by the need to buy sticky notes on a day trip, but by the art in the front windows.

In The Garden of Readin', a used book shop and tearoom, I had the iced tea of the day, African Peach ("South African honeybush and real peach, naturally caffeine-free"), which was served with a Biscoff cookie. And I couldn't resist purchasing a box of Edenton Harbour Tea, the shop's house tea blended exclusively for the Edenton Women's Club, to share with my tea-loving co-workers. It's a fusion of Earl Grey and jasmine. And if this were a scratch and sniff article, you'd know why a special trip back to Edenton for more of this tea is in order.

A make it yourself gallery, Side Street Studio, was across the street from the book/tea shop but was closed by the time I got there. It offers classes with projects that can be completed in a day.

A theme began to emerge: art is important here. From original works to prints, art is found and for sale in many of the businesses, restaurants and, of course, at the Chowan Arts Council Gallery where local and regional artists' work is on display and for purchase. (Think Hampton's Blue Skies Gallery, but much larger.)

It was there I overheard a couple bemoaning the fact that they should have booked another night so they could stay another day in Edenton. I was beginning to get the same feeling.

But I needed to pick up the pace a bit so I wouldn't miss the last trolley tour.

Around the town

One of the best ways to get to know a place is to take a tour. So I did just that via the Edenton trolley. For $10, you get a 50-minute ride in an air-conditioned trolley. Our guide for the ride was Sharon Keeter who sits at the front with a microphone telling the stories of Edenton and pointing out one interesting factoid after another about the town's people, history, buildings and current merchants like the Polka Dot Palm, a women's shop of accessories, coastal decor and art.

"All ladies love the Polka Dot Palm," Keeter said before launching back into historical information.

For example, in 1774, 51 women refused to purchase high-priced goods, Keeter said. That rebellion became the Edenton Tea Party, "the earliest instances of political activity by women in the colonies," she said.

That tea reference would hold strong for 240 years. Teapots grace the Edenton town logo. And in October, the town celebrates that rebellion with events throughout the month including tablescapes to view at the Barker House, a Tea Trot featuring tastings at different restaurants and businesses, and Teapots on Parade, a collection on display at the arts council gallery which the local paper said "is drawing a strong response" from residents who are loaning antique and other tea pots and tea sets for the exhibition which will include the stories about the antique teapots.

It was hard to miss the blue ribbons tied to street posts, on houses and businesses throughout the town. Inquiring minds wondered and found out the why.

The day before my visit, Katy Ebersole, a co-owner of the Waterman's Grill restaurant, had returned home to Edenton following brain surgery. In addition to a big "So glad you're home" sign on Water Street, the townspeople welcomed her back after the successful surgery with the blue ribbons all over. Keeter offered the trolley riders several options for where to get lunch, dinner or a quick bite, but after she told me this, I knew where I'd be having a meal later in the day.

And that's where I found yet another Hampton Roads connection. Ebersole moved to Edenton from Virginia Beach where she'd worked at the Surf Rider Restaurant on 17th Street. Waterman's Grill with its nautical decor and multiple dining levels, opened in 1996, in a century old building that had been at various times through the years a shoe repair shop, a fish market and other restaurants.

My meal, cashew crusted fried tilapia topped with beurre blanc sauce, was a wonderful choice. The tilapia was succulent and the sides I chose, spinach and green beans, were well seasoned. The meal came with hush puppies that I wanted to order more of.

Historic charm

Edenton's historic area is ideal for walking, and there were two different guided walking tours available the day I visited. A 11/2-hour tour for $6 and an hour-long tour for $4. The Patriots Tour (start times 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.) includes the James Iredell House, home of an associate justice on the first U.S. Supreme Court and attorney general during the American Revolution; St. Paul's Church; and the 1867 Chowan County Courthouse, which is considered the most intact colonial courthouse in the South. The National Landmarks Tour begins at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and includes the Cupola House and the Courthouse.

African-American history is also on display and incorporated into the tours, including the life of Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who became an abolitionist and later a writer publishing her memoir "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" in 1861. Available upon request at the visitor center is a separate walking tour that further explores her life in Edenton. And featured on the trolley tour are the many houses and properties built by Hannibal Badham Sr. and his family.

During the trolley tour, Keeter said Wessington House was built in 1850 for $10,000, and sold a few years ago for $1.6 million to a buyer from Charlottesville.

Renovations have been underway since the purchase and on Dec. 12-13, Wessington will be featured during the Edenton Christmas Candlelight Tour, I found out later from the director of the town's historical committee.

Across the street from Wessington is Pembroke Hall, a national historic landmark, circa 1850, which was saved from foreclosure by a group of Edenton residents who pooled their money to rescue the property. After being renovated, it's now on the market, but is being used as an events venue.

The town's historic homes "show 200 years of prosperity and change," I heard in the introductory video. Water Street homes offer a glimpse at the still existing prosperity.

In addition to historic markers all around the town, signs denoting the name and construction date of the historic properties are hard to miss as you walk, drive or ride the trolley around Edenton. The first one I noted was at the Visitor Center which is housed in the Louis F. Ziegler house, circa 1892.

I asked about those signs while at the Barker House. Gregg Nathan, executive director of the Edenton Historical Commission, explained that property owners purchase them from the same maker, thus the uniformity throughout the town.

"Edenton still has small town charm, the friendliest people," Nathan said. "As a city boy, people don't understand why I'm here. Historic homes, a vibrant downtown, the people," those are the reasons he moved to Edenton and has stayed.

1886 lighthouse

My day trip to Edenton on Thursday, Aug. 14 was the day before the grand reopening of the 1886 Historic Roanoke River Lighthouse. But I was lucky enough to be visiting the nearby Penelope Barker House while Sally Francis Kehayes of the Edenton Historical Commission was putting the finishing touches on an exhibit about the lighthouse.

"The historical committee made it possible to buy the lighthouse and give it to the state," Kehayes told me. The state of North Carolina provided the restoration funding, she said, and it took two years to complete the project.

Lighthouses were an important part of maritime history and the one in Edenton has a special distinction. It's believed to be the last remaining original square screw-pile lighthouse.

Kehayes explained that the method means the lighthouse stands on piles that were screwed into the river bottom rather than secured in rock. The exhibit will be up through Oct. 1, she said.

And she echoed Nathan's reasons for living in Edenton. "My husband grew up here," she said. "We were living in Montana and wanted to return to warm weather and warm water."

Making the decision to return to Edenton was easy, she said. "My friends thought I was nuts coming to a small town, but I love it."

Last thoughts

Edenton offers plenty to see and do in a day. I returned to the Peninsula about 9:30 p.m. with thoughts of how soon I could get back there.

The venues that weren't open on my weekday visit, like the Cotton Mill Museum and the lighthouse, as well as sites I'd like to explore even more and the harbor cruise I couldn't fit into my day beckon a return trip.

Not only did I discover just why Edenton is one of America's prettiest towns, I found out why its residents love the charm of this historic waterfront community.

Things to see/do

Penelope Barker House. Built in 1782. Barker was the thrice married leader of the Edenton Tea Party. Views from the second floor porch are spectacular. On display in the house is a centennial quilt by the North Carolina Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. There is a changing exhibit room and a gift shop. Edenton Trolley Tour tickets are purchased here. 505 S. Broad St. 252-482-7800. ehcnc.org.

The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse. South Broad Street at Water Street. 252-482-2637. edentonlighthouse.org.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The second oldest surviving church in North Carolina still has an active parish. Three colonial governors are buried in the church's cemetery. 101 West Gale St. 252-482-2637.

Edenton Cotton Mill Historic District. This district in Edenton houses the former cotton mill which has been converted into condos, a museum (only open on weekends from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.), and a neighborhood of single-family homes originally built for mill bosses, and duplex bungalows that were designed for single male mill workers. The village reminded me a lot of Hampton's historic Aberdeen Gardens. 420 Elliott St. 252-482-7455. millvillagemuseum.org.

Cupola House. Built in 1758. Its gardens were remade from a 1769 map of Edenton. 408 S. Broad St. 252-482-2637. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Edenton Bay Cruises/Liber-TEA Harbour Cruise. A narrated and scenic tour, weather permitting. Cruises are Thursday through Monday at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Tickets: $15, adults; children 13 and under, $10. Senior and military rates. Get $3 off your harbour cruise by showing your Edenton trolley receipt. Board on South Broad Street at Colonial Park. 860-367-5786.

Edenton Farmer's Market. Open every Saturday, 8 a.m.-noon from May through November. Corner of Virginia Road and Granville at the Agricultural Extension Center. 252-482-0826.

The Garden of Readin'. Unfortunately, since my visit, the owner posted that due to illness, he'll be closing the shop Oct. 15 unless a buyer is found. The Garden of Readin', 103 E. King St., 252-482-7323. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.facebook.com/edenton.usedbooks

Edenton Tree Walk. Edenton has been named a Tree City USA every year since 1978. See the town as well as its lovely trees in a one-hour self-guided walking tour that begins at the Historic Edenton State Historic Site. Pick up a brochure there.

Rocky Hock Playhouse. A Christian musical dinner theater. 252-482-4621. Performances and times vary. Tickets: $29.95, adults. Discounts for seniors, children and groups. rockyhockplayhouse.com.

Where to eat

Edenton offers several coffeehouses and fast food restaurants. If you'd like your day trip to include a picnic in one of the town parks, you can pick up eats at one of the local shops or at Food Lion.

For meals that provide the flavor and spirit of the town, try:

Waterman's Grill, Seafood, steaks, pasta, and sandwiches served on two levels. Bar included. 427 S. Broad St. 252-482-7733. watermansgrill.com.

Bayside Marina & Grill. Serves breakfast and lunch. 802 W. Queen St. 252-482-5343. visitedenton.com/bayside-marina-and-grill.

Nothin Fancy Cafe and Market. Home cooking and Southern meals. 701 N. Broad St. 252-482-1909

309 Bistro & Spirits, Classic American cuisine. 309 S. Broad St. 252-482-0997. Find them and daily specials on Facebook.

Kristy's Place. Italian cuisine. 321 S. Broad St. 252-482-7655.

Want to go

For more information about Edenton, N.C., go to visitedenton.com, edenton.net and townofedenton.com.

More online

See a photo gallery of images from Edenton at dailypress.com/features.

About the series

Summer Day Trips takes a look at five places to make a quick getaway for the day before the season ends. All within driving distance of the Peninsula, join us each Sunday in August for Summer Day Trips.

TODAY: Edenton, N.C.

Go to dailypress.com/features for photos and to read about our day trips to The Northern Neck, Carytown/Richmond, The Eastern Shore and Petersburg.

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(c)2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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