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Southern small town wonders

Photo Courtesy Virginia Tourism Corp.

If your group wants to visit the town museum or the Revolutionary War-era church in Cheraw, S.C., just stop by the visitors center and pick up a key.

“We’ll let you check out a key and take your time and stroll through our one-room museum, the Lyceum, and Old St. David’s Church,” said Phil Powell, director of the Cheraw Visitors Center. “We are too small to staff them, but we want to share them with others.”

It’s not the same as Mayberry’s sheriff Andy Taylor’s leaving the jail-cell keys where locals could let themselves in and out, but the Cheraw setup does evoke the same small-town charm that made television’s The Andy Griffith Show popular.

The South is filled with similar small towns that exude the same laid-back hospitality and sense of community pride and a nostalgic return to simpler times.

“For years and years, we’ve sometimes wanted to be something we are not,” said Sandy Bynum, manager of communications for the Mississippi Division of Tourism. “Disney World is what everyone wanted to be. Now, what we always were is really cool.”

Small towns are also where trust in people is justified. “We still have the two original keys we started with,” said Powell.

Cheraw, S.C.

Groups can also arrange for a step-on guide to take them around Cheraw, a charming Colonial-era town in northeastern South Carolina that escaped largely unscathed from both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

Courtesy Cheraw Visitors Center

“There are no house museums here; everybody still lives in them,” said Sarah Spruill, the retired director of the visitors center, who still leads tours. “We have more antebellum homes than anywhere in this part of the state.”

Spruill can arrange for groups to visit a private house on her tours, which also include Old St. David’s Church, the Lyceum Museum, and the town green and historic district.

Old St. David’s Church, which dates from the 1770s, was used by both British and Americans during the Revolution and by Union and Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.

The town green includes four buildings — the Lyceum, which has artifacts about the town’s history in a small 1820 brick building; the 1837 Market Hall; the 1858 Town Hall; and the antebellum office of a local lawyer, who has an interesting display of artifacts collected from the Great Pee Dee River that includes Civil War ordnance and items from the steamboat era, when Cheraw was a major commercial center.

On weekdays, enter through Miller Ingram’s law office door and tell the secretary you would like to see his museum room. Don’t worry about a key.

In the 20th century, Cheraw was the hometown of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie.
“He usually opened his act with ‘I’m Dizzy Gillespie from Cheraw, South Carolina,’” said Spruill. “Dizzy wrote in his autobiography that he made money, music and mayhem in Cheraw, not necessarily in that order.”

There is a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Gillespie playing his trademark bent horn on the town green.

“We have a quaint downtown where you can stroll wide sidewalks and go into small shops along the way,” said Powell. “It is an opportunity to get out and stretch your legs and experience two to three centuries.”
(843) 537-8425

Paris, Ark.
There are not many places in the United States that can claim their very own butterfly. Paris, a small town of 3,700 at the base of Mount Magazine, the tallest mountain in Arkansas, can.

Courtesy Paris Chamber of Commerce

“We have the Diana Fritillary butterfly, which is indigenous to Mount Magazine,” said Linda Hixson, executive director of the Paris Area Chamber of Commerce. “You can find them in very few other places in the United States.”

Arkansas’ official state butterfly, the Diana Fritillary was the genesis of the Mount Magazine International Butterfly Festival, held each June.

“[The festival] encompasses activities at the state park — 19 miles up — and in the city square, where we have arts and crafts, food, a quilt show and a photo contest,” said Hixson.

Paris bills itself as the Gateway to Mount Magazine, where the 3-year-old, $33 million lodge is the newest in the Arkansas state park system. “All rooms have views that face south with views of the Petit Jean River Valley area, Blue Mountain Lake and Blue Mountain,” said Hixson. “It is in the clouds, and there are times I have been there when you look out over a solid sea of white with Blue Mountain sticking up out of the middle.”

Hixson said the downtown is built in a “typical Southern square, with the courthouse in the center. It is an old, Romanesque style with huge columns.” There are several antique stores, boutiques and locally owned restaurants located in historic buildings around the square.
The former county jail is now the Logan County Museum. Located in Arkansas’ wine country, Paris has a wine museum and a local winery that has been in the same family for nearly 50 years.

(800) 980-8660

Abingdon, Va.
Although a historic theater that presents a wide range of fictional drama helps Abingdon be recognized around the country, the charm of the southwestern Virginia town evolves from its genuineness, said the town’s tourism director.

“Here it’s real,” said Myra Cook. “When you see people walking down the street, they are locals as well as visitors going to get an ice cream soda or going into antique stores to shop or going to the Barter Theater. We live here and work here. Our buildings are real; they are not built to look old.”

And in a town that is more than 230 years old, there are plenty of opportunities for historic structures. One of those is the Tavern, Abingdon’s oldest building, which was built in 1779 as a tavern and overnight inn for stagecoach travelers. Today, it is a restaurant that features made-from-scratch meals leisurely served in an informal atmosphere.

Nearby, the Barter Theatre presents plays on two stages, one in a 179-year-old former church and city hall and the other in a 170-year-old former church. The Tony Award-winning theater was started in the 1930s during the Great Depression by actors who accepted food as payment for performing.

“I have met only two people over the last 20 years while promoting this area who had never heard of Abingdon and the Barter Theatre,” said Cook. “They were from western Canada.”
Across the street, the Martha Washington Hotel and Spa was built as a private home in 1832 and later used as a Civil War hospital and girls’ school before becoming a Mobile and AAA award-winning hotel.

Although the annual Highlands Festivals in the summer, when the town is filled with artisans, craftspeople and musicians, draws 120,000 people, Abingdon is able to maintain its small-town ambiance.

“It is spread out over two weeks. There are never too many people in town,” said Cook.
(276) 676-2282

Woodville, Miss.
Another small historic town that is proud of its authenticity is Woodville, located in the southwest corner of Mississippi, about 35 miles south of Natchez.

“The great thing about the town is it is authentic,” said Polly Rosenblatt, manager of the Woodville/Wilkinson County Main Street Association. “What attracts is we are real.”

An aggressive effort over the past 40 years has helped preserve more than 240 historic structures in the town of some 1,200 people, which was settled in the late 1700s. Many of the local businesses, such as a bakery to a florist, are located in the historic buildings, and 200-year-old live oak trees shade handmade brick sidewalks around the courthouse square.

“It gives the town a real quaint atmosphere and look,” said Rosenblatt. “You can park your car and have all your business done within a 10-minute walk.”

A good way for groups to take a step back in time is at the Pond Store, just west of town. The store, whose building dates from 1881, features hardwood floors, long rows of wooden shelves, display cases and a wooden bench on the front porch.

“It is still operated as a store, but it is practically a museum,” said Rosenblatt. “It’s as if nothing has changed in all those years.”

“It is only 300 yards from the Clark Creek Nature Trail,” said Sandy Bynum, manager of communications and marketing for the Mississippi Division of Tourism. “All these nature lovers planning to take a hike stop in the store to get a sack lunch. It’s almost like something out of National Geographic.”

The 700-acre Clark Creek Nature Trail is a state park on the steep Loess Bluffs with more than 50 waterfalls.

Also nearby, the Rosemont Plantation, the family home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is open for tours.

“There is a great antiques area downtown, and the plantation gives it a whole different kind of feel,” said Bynum. “I even stop at the cemetery.”
(601) 888-3998

Lewisburg, W.Va.

Attending a concert at Carnegie Hall doesn’t necessarily involve the bright lights and hustle and bustle of New York City. And you don’t have to practice to get there. Just head to Lewisburg, a surprising small-town center of culture in the heart of West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains.

Courtesy Greenbrier Valley CVB

“Even thought it is such a small town, it is pretty well known for Carnegie Hall, one of only four still in operation,” said Rachael Stebbins, director of marketing and communications for the Greenbrier Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Built in 1902, the Greek-revival structure, extensively renovated after a 1996 fire, offers a wide range of performances, from rhythm and blues to choral music. Performers over the past two decades have included such wide-ranging entertainers as Wynton Marsalis, Isaac Stern, Arlo Guthrie and the Glen Miller Orchestra.

Carnegie Hall also has three art galleries with rotating exhibits.

Also downtown is the Greenbrier Valley Theater, which began 44 years ago in a tent on the banks of the Greenbrier River. It is now located in a state-of-the-art former department store and is West Virginia’s Official Year-round Professional Theater.

“There are some really, really great galleries for art and pottery and hand-crafted items with local artisans. They showcase a lot of West Virginia,” said Stebbins.

Lewisburg has been named one of the Best Small Arts Towns in America by author John Villiani and one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.
(800) 833-2068

Alabama makes it official

Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Dept.

Alabama takes pride in its many small towns and is showcasing that pride in 2010 with a yearlong promotion and series of events in more than 200 towns around the state.

“2010 is the Year of Alabama Small Towns and Downtowns,” said Edith Parten, communications director for the Alabama Tourism Department. “Most of Alabama is made up of small towns. This is a time for them to shine where they otherwise don’t have the opportunity to tell people about themselves, their sense of community, pride and hospitality.”

Most of the participating towns are celebrating the year with new or expanded festivals or special events; others are using it as an impetus for downtown revitalization. All of the 215 towns also will receive a historic marker, paid for by the state.

The state’s Web site notes: “During the Year of Alabama Small Towns and Downtowns, residents and visitors alike are invited to sip lemonade on the porch of a historic mansion, participate in the statewide Big Read featuring Tom Sawyer, celebrate the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, step inside a local museum for a nostalgic look at Alabama’s Civil War and Civil Rights past, sample the flavor of locally owned restaurants and cafes, enjoy music in various venues, or go on a walking or driving tour to discover the history, beauty and culture of Sweet Home Alabama.

“Even if you are not from here or have no real connection to Alabama, we are inviting you to come,” said program coordinator Marilyn Stamps. “People will find a piece of their hometown in Alabama’s small towns. We hope the celebration doesn’t end with 2010. We will want to continue to encourage people to come back.”

(800) 252-2262