Sep 272015

We love exploring America’s back roads and small towns and finding overlooked gems that the tourist brochures never cover. In a series of weekly blog posts we will be sharing some of America’s lesser-known small town museums, historic sites, and oddball attractions, on a state-by-state basis. We don’t have room to cover each and every attraction in every state, but hope to give you some ideas for places to see in your travels.

Asheboro: The North Carolina Aviation Museum houses some of the world’s most famous warbirds, a collection of authentically restored, airworthy aircraft dating from World War II through the Vietnam era. The museum also displays a large collection of military uniforms, medals, memorabilia, and historic artifacts.


Asheville: The Colburn Earth Science Museum works to foster an appreciation for the Earth, its resources and environments, through exhibits that include a mineral collection of 4,500 specimens from North Carolina and around the world, a gem collection of over 1,000 cut gemstones from North Carolina and around the world, along with fossils and crystals.

Asheville: The lavish Biltmore Estate includes America’s largest home, covering four acres under one roof, with 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, an indoor pool, bowling alley, priceless art, and antiques.


Asheville: Considered by many to be a giant of 20th century American literature, Thomas Wolfe immortalized his childhood home in his autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel, his colorful portrayal of his family and his hometown of Asheville. The author’s Victorian boyhood home, located at 52 North Market Street, is now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

Asheville: The Folk Art Center displays traditional Appalachian crafts, some pieces dating back over 100 years. The Center also includes the oldest craft shop in the United States.

Atlantic Beach: Fort Macon State Park includes the historic Civil War fort, with restored quarters that offer a look into the lives of officers and soldiers, powder magazines, cannon emplacements, and a wide moat that could be flooded to protect the fort during a siege.

Fort Macon cannon 2

Beaufort: The North Carolina Maritime Museum preserves the maritime history of coastal North Carolina with a model boat exhibit, a collection of over 5,000 seashells, and artifacts related to the state’s seafaring past.


Brevard: Spanning over 100 years of forest conservation history, the Cradle of Forestry in America offers a snapshot of life at America’s first school of forestry. At the Forest Discovery Center, visitors can view a video and explore hands-on exhibits, see displays of forest history, and learn how forests are managed. Mannequins of forest workers show the integration of scientific disciplines in forestry today.

Charlotte: The Levine Museum of the New South is an interactive museum housing the nation’s most comprehensive interpretation of post-Civil War Southern history.

Cherokee: This was the ancestral home of the Cherokee Indians, and Oconaluftee Indian Village is an authentic replica of an 18th century Cherokee community. Cherokee guides take visitors on a tour of the village and explain the history, culture, and lifestyle of their ancestors. Indian craftsmen demonstrate traditional skills such as making arrowheads, baskets, pottery, and wood carvings. The village also includes a replica of a 7-sided Council House and typical homes that the Cherokee lived in 250 years ago.

Cherryville: The C. Grier Beam Truck Museum displays a collection of antique commercial trucks ranging from a 1926 Chevrolet to a 1947 Mack.

Beam 2

Concord: At the Backing Up Classics Museum you will see a collection of antique cars, motorcycles, muscle cars, and race cars.

Durham: Historic Stagville, once a thriving plantation before the Civil War, is now a center for African American studies, where visitors can learn about the lives and struggles of slaves.


Durham: Duke Homestead State Historic Site includes the 1852 home of pioneer tobacco farmer Washington Duke and reconstructions of a tobacco curing barn and Duke’s first tobacco factory. The museum displays cigarette packing machines, classic cigarette advertisements, and smoking accessories.

Elizabeth City: The Museum of the Albemarle tells the story of the people who have dwelled in the Albemarle region, from Native Americans to the first English-speaking colonists, to adventurers, farmers, and fishermen.

Fayetteville: The U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg tells the story of American Special Forces and clandestine warfare. Exhibits include specialized weapons and displays on historic Special Forces units, including the Army’s Rangers and Green Berets.

Fayetteville: The Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex interprets the cultural history of southern North Carolina from prehistory to the present. Exhibits include historic photographs, pioneer artifacts, and military history displays.

Flat Rock: The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site preserves the famed author’s legacy at the family home. Sandburg wrote more than one-third of his works during his 22 years here.


Franklin: The Scottish Tartans Museum is a stroll through the history and culture of Scotland. The museum displays Scottish Tartans and covers various aspects of the Scottish experience – culture, history, dress, migration, and military service. Visitors are invited to view their family tartan, connect with their clan, and learn about the history of Highland Dress.


Franklin: The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum tells the story of gem mining in North Carolina.

Franklin: For a fee, visitors to the Sheffield Mine can search for their own rubies and sapphires, and keep what they find.

Gastonia: The Schiele Museum of Natural History has an amazing collection of flora, fauna, minerals, and fossils, along with mounted wildlife and exhibits on the local Native Americans.

Greensboro: The Greensboro Historical Museum’s permanent collection includes decorative arts, military artifacts, costumes, textiles, glassware, Confederate weapons, Jugtown Pottery, and toys. Thousands of objects reflect local history and material culture.

Greensboro: The largest, most hotly-contested battle of the Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaign was fought at the small North Carolina hamlet of Guilford Courthouse. The battle proved to be the high water mark of British military operations in the Revolutionary War. Schiele Museum of Natural History preserves part of the old battleground, and the Visitor Center provides videos and displays on the battle and its impact on the outcome of the war.


Greensboro: The International Civil Rights Center & Museum, housed in the old Woolworth’s building where four Black college students sat at the “White Only” lunch counter in February 1, 1960, tells the story of the early days of the American Civil Rights movement.


Harkers Island: The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum highlights the skill of wooden duck carvers with displays of the art and demonstrations by area carvers.

Decoy 2

Hatteras: The waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks have claimed thousands of vessels and countless mariners who lost a desperate struggle against the forces of war, piracy and nature. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum tells the stories of those lost at sea here.

High Point: One of the South’s largest doll and miniature museums, the Doll And Miniature Museum features more than 2,500 dolls, miniature displays, dollhouses, costumes, and unusual artifacts, which includes the lifelong collection of one woman. Also on display is a special exhibit of over 115 Shirley Temple dolls, 17 African-American personality dolls, and other rotating doll and miniature exhibits.


High Point: All-a-Flutter Butterfly Farm presents demonstrations of all stages of development of a butterfly from the caterpillar stage, to the chrysalis, to the emergence of the brilliantly colored adult butterfly.


High Point: The High Point Museum & Historical Park helps visitors explore the history of High Point, the Home Furnishings Capital of the World and an important center for textiles and transportation. Changing exhibits provide a look at lifestyles through the years. Step back in time with costumed guides to tour the Blacksmith Shop and the1786 Haley House.

High Point: The Museum of Old Domestic Life is a Quaker museum housed in the 1858 Springfield Meeting House, displaying artifacts from typical colonial Quaker homesteads.

Kure Beach: Called the Gibraltar of the South, for most of the Civil War, Fort Fisher kept North Carolina’s most important port open to blockade runners supplying necessary goods to Confederate armies inland. Today visitors can tour the remains of the fort’s land face, which features an impressive reconstruction of a 32-pounder seacoast gun at Shepherd’s Battery.

Kenly: At the Tobacco Farm Life Museum you can tour a restored tobacco farmer’s house, smokehouse, and log tobacco barn while learning about the era when tobacco was the major crop for this region of the country.

Tobacco farm

Kitty Hawk: Pioneer aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first airplane here on December 17, 1903. Today Wright Brothers National Memorial preserves the site, and the Wright Brothers Visitor Center tells the Wright brothers’ story through exhibits, including full-scale reproductions of their 1902 glider and 1903 flying machine. Additional exhibits, movies, and educational programs are available in the Centennial Pavilion. Visitors can climb Big Kill Devil Hill for a breathtaking view of the area from the sound to sea. A 60 foot pylon stands at the top of the hill Wilbur and Orville used for their glider experiments. A large granite boulder marks the spot where the first plane left the ground.


Maggie Valley: Wheels Through Time is a transportation museum displaying a collection of over 250 rare antique motorcycles, along with vintage automobiles and thousands of items of memorabilia.

1937 Harley

Manteo: Fort Raleigh National Historic Site protects and preserves known portions of England’s first New World settlements (from 1584 to 1590), as well as the cultural heritage of the Native Americans, European Americans, and African Americans who have lived on Roanoke Island.

Manteo: Roanoke Island Festival Park celebrates the first temporary English settlements in the New World, sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh during the years 1584 to 1587, with displays that include the Elizabeth II, a representative 16th century sailing ship where sailors dressed in period garments and speaking Elizabethan dialect tell the story of their voyages; and Settlement Site, where visitors will see soldiers bravely facing the challenges of the New World and learn how the 1584 arrival of the English changed the life of the native Roanoke Island population, called the Algonquians.

Roanoak Island

Midland: Gold was first discovered in America here in 1799. Exhibits at Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site show how gold is mined, and visitors can try their luck panning for the shiny stuff.

Mooresville: The North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame celebrates the great race car drivers from this state.

Mooresville: The Memory Lane Motorsports Museum has a collection of over 125 race cars on display, along with NASCAR memorabilia.

Memory Lane

Mount Airy: Television star Andy Griffith came from Mount Airy, and the small town was the inspiration for the television town of Mayberry. The Andy Griffith Museum displays exhibits on the actor’s life and career.

Andy Opie statue

Murphy: At Fields Of The Wood Bible Park you can climb Ten Commandments Mountain, see a giant 30 foot tall Bible, go inside a replica of Christ’s tomb, and see a replica Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified.

New Bern: At the New Bern Firemen’s Museum, displays include horse drawn steam engines from the 1800s and other antique firefighting equipment.

Old Fort: The Mountain Gateway Museum features exhibits documenting pioneer life. Displays include weaving and spinning natural fibers, herbal remedies, local pottery, and 200-year old log cabins.

Mountain gateway

Old Fort: The Old Fort Railroad Museum, housed in the circa 1890 depot, traces the growth of the railroad and its dramatic impact on the town with displays that include original hand tools, signal lights, furniture, signs, and an authentic caboose.

Pineville: The James K. Polk State Historic Site preserves 21 acres of the farm where the nation’s 11th president was born.

Pittsboro: At Carolina Tiger Rescue tour guides will introduce you to tigers, leopards, and other exotic species of carnivores from as close as five feet.


Raleigh: The North Carolina Museum of History displays more than 150,000 artifacts representing six centuries that help interpret the state’s rich history.

Randleman: The Richard Petty Museum traces the career of one of the greatest race car drivers of all time.


Roanoke Island: Fort Raleigh National Historic Site includes a reconstructed earthen fort and displays that attempt to explain the disappearance of more than a hundred members of the Lost Colony, who vanished without a trace in the late 1500s.

Spencer: The North Carolina Transportation Museum is located on the site of what was once the Southern Railway Company’s largest steam locomotive repair facility. The museum includes an authentic train depot, antique automobiles, and a 37-stall roundhouse that includes 25 locomotives.

Welcome: The Richard Childress Racing Museum displays a collection of race cars and racing memorabilia.

Wilmington: The Cape Fear Museum displays objects relating to the history, science, and cultures of the Lower Cape Fear region.

Wilmington: The battleship USS North Carolina on display here took part in every major World War II naval battle in the Pacific. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the old warship.

Winston Salem: At Old Salem, one of the most authentic and inviting living history restorations in the United States, costumed interpreters carry on the work of white and black Moravians in the backcountry congregation town and trading center of Salem, North Carolina. A tour will help you learn the ways in which these backcountry North Carolina pioneers worked, taught, played and worshipped, and how their lives changed as the community and the country grew.

Today is your last chance to enter our Free Drawing for an audiobook of Castle Cay, the first book in my friend Lee Hanson’s excellent Julie O’Hara mystery series. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn this evening.

Castle Cay

Thought For The Day – 4 out of 3 people struggle with math.

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Nick Russell

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  2 Responses to “Overlooked America – North Carolina”

  1. Dear Mr. Russell: Many years ago I was assigned to PIO at the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the colorful and picturesque state. Your superb article features many of the same sites, scenes and venues that we found so utterly fascinating. Thank you, Mr., Russell, for your delightful travelogue; it brought forth many pleasant memories of the Tar Heel State (or “Old North State”). Gratefully, [signed] Keith Trantow [Tucson, Arizona]

  2. Loved your review of NC…we lived there a decade, but never got to near all those places…but it would have been nice…but 2 of our kin live there and we go back every so often…so this gives me ideas for maybe some fun places to go with the grandkids…the only one I would add is the little town of Carthage…which is south of Sanford. It has an awesome, one of a kind family restaurant called Pete’s. The owners are Greek so that is somewhat influenced in their cooking but it is mostly southern cooking and BIG portions. Pete or his son often come out to talk to the customers…and you really ought to try his potato salad and the desserts are awesome too!! As well as many other things. He has a specials board that varies every day too…often things no on the menu which is huge.

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