Behind every extraordinary travel experience is a dreamer who created it.
The Southeast is full of wonderful locally owned and family-owned businesses that cater to group travelers, from Hampton, Virginia’s first Black-owned brewery and a Black cowboy festival in South Carolina to a wildlife refuge focused on rescuing the planet’s largest felines. Groups traveling in the region can enjoy curated shopping experiences in north Georgia, take part in a quilting retreat in Quilt Town USA or tour the candy factory where Kentucky’s famous bourbon ball was first created, all while getting to know the hard-working innovators and entrepreneurs behind them.
Consider some of these mom-and-pop opportunities on your next group tour in the Southeast.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Situated on 459 acres in the Ozark Mountains, the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge got its start as a big-cat sanctuary 30 years ago. The foundation was started in 1992 by Don and Hilda Jackson, who already had experience caring for two lion cubs before they were asked if they could take care of 42 lions and tigers that needed a home. The couple had already been looking for a suitable property to house big cats when they found their current location in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Although they couldn’t help all of the 42 animals because of legal issues, they did rescue some of the cats. The refuge is now home to about 100 animals, including big cats, bears and one hyena named Rambo.
The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifetime refuge for abandoned, abused and neglected cats with an emphasis on tigers, lions, cougars and leopards.
“We don’t buy, sell, trade or breed any animals. There is no interaction,” said Cheryl King, promotions coordinator for the refuge. “When the animals are brought here, we let them live their lives as the apex predators they are. They don’t snuggle up with human beings. They don’t like us.”
Groups who visit can take a covered tram tour through the facility, stopping at each habitat to learn about the animals and their history and to hear any colorful anecdotes about them. The tram can hold up to 70 people at a time. The refuge has 10 different lodging units available, from glamping tents and lodge rooms to a family-friendly treehouse. Groups that want to stay on property can take one tram tour of the refuge daily as part of their stay.
Wander North Georgia
Josh and Alex Brown moved to north Georgia in 2015 after having visited the area for many years. They started a popular tourism blog called Wander North Georgia that details their exploration of the area they now call home. It includes cool restaurants, hikes, waterfalls, rafting trips and area towns. They also take pictures and post them on Instagram.
They gained a large social media following fairly quickly and began offering Wander North Georgia stickers and T-shirts online. They would organize meetups across the area, from barbecues and hikes to rafting trips down Class V whitewater.
The couple has since expanded into a physical outdoor store in Clayton, Georgia, that sells Wander North Georgia-branded merchandise as well as backpacks, hiking boots and locally made items such as candles and soaps.
“One of our biggest categories is books,” said Josh Brown. “We just moved into 10,000 square feet, and 3,000 of it is like a small bookstore, a store within a store.”
He pointed out that many people feel Main Street America is dying at the hands of big-box retailers, but his store is doing really well, with only 2% of sales coming from online purchases. When the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, the couple hopes to get back to organizing fun events every weekend. Groups wanting to find out what the Browns have to offer should visit their blog and travel guides about north Georgia.
North Georgia “is a really interesting place that goes underlooked for outdoor spaces,” Brown said, pointing out that the area has just as many interesting and scenic places as visitors would find in the West or Pacific Northwest. The couple also opened Admiral Axe, an axe-throwing business in April 2019.
Rebecca Ruth Candies
Rebecca Ruth Candies is a third-generation, family-owned business that has been making homemade chocolates and confections in Frankfort, Kentucky, for more than 100 years. Founded in 1919 by Rebecca Gooch and Ruth Hanly Booe, the company is known for using only the best ingredients.
And although many candy-makers have turned to cheaper ingredients or more automated processes to make their candy, Rebecca Ruth prefers to make the same high-quality product it has always made, said Charles Booe, Ruth’s grandson and current owner of the candy factory.
Most processes are done by hand, but the factory does use a few pieces of machinery that range in age from 50 to 100 years old.
Rebecca Ruth’s claim to fame is that it developed the first-ever bourbon ball, a chocolate-coated confection full of bourbon-infused cream with a pecan on top, back in 1938. Now many companies make similar chocolates, but Rebecca Ruth still makes its original bourbon ball, as well as many custom recipes for local Kentucky distilleries such as Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace.
Even making everything by hand, the company still produces about 5 million chocolates annually that are shipped across the country.
The candy factory is located in a large house in the middle of a residential neighborhood about a half-mile from Frankfort’s Capitol neighborhood. Groups are invited to take a 30-minute tour of the factory that showcases all aspects of candy production, from the mixing of the fillings to the coating of the chocolate. The lobby has a gift shop that sells the company’s candies, including a fill-your-own-box area, and an area with historical pictures and a video that shows the history of the candy factory.
1865 Brewing Co.
Rodney Malone and William Comer started 1865 Brewing in 2020. They have partnered on a number of small businesses in Virginia, but this is their first brewery. Randy Jones, a local man with brewing experience, approached them with the idea of opening a brewery. Once Malone and Comer did their research, they realized that only 1% of breweries across the country are owned by minorities.
“We thought that was pretty intriguing,” said Malone. The trio worked for more than a year trying to bring their brewery to fruition, fighting supply chain issues and waiting for different licenses to come through from the state. They were finally able to open their business in July.
From the beginning of their planning, the friends had decided that 1865 should be more than just a brewer of craft beers, so they added a coffee shop with lattes, pastries and 10 to 12 assorted teas, seltzers and spritzers for people who don’t drink alcohol, as well as flatbread pizzas for those wanting good food to go along with their beverage of choice. The brewery is best known for its signature India pale ale, but it also offers stouts, brown ales, light beers and seasonal offerings like an Octoberfest brew.
The brewery is in a quaint Hampton neighborhood called Phoebus, which was home to Fort Monroe, a Union fort during the Civil War that became a safe haven for escaped slaves in the 1860s. It was in 1865 that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
Missouri Star Quilt Co.
Hamilton, Missouri, is known as Quilt Town USA thanks to the Missouri Star Quilt Co., which opened a quilt shop in town in 2008. Since then, the company has grown from a single brick building with a long-arm quilting machine to 12 themed quilt shops and a Sewing Center for retreats and events right downtown.
Jenny Doan started the company with the help of two of her children, Alan and Sarah. It all started when Jenny took some fabric to a local quilt shop to get it quilted and was told it would take a year to get the job done. Her children told her she should open a shop and offer that service since it seemed as if it was in high demand. To advertise the shop and its online presence, Jenny began filming quilting tutorials on YouTube.
The videos took off and made Jenny something of a “sewlebrity.” She now has more than half a million subscribers and is the most popular quilting channel on YouTube. Missouri Star began expanding its inventory as viewers began calling in to request the same fabrics and supplies Jenny used in her online tutorials. As the original building started running out of space, the family would buy another building on Main Street and add another fabric shop.
Each of the company’s 12 shops has a different theme. One sells only floral fabrics, another sells only licensed fabrics, and another sells more modern prints. Hamilton is now a bucket list destination for quilters and quilt guilds that travel to Hamilton from all around the world to shop, take quilting classes and work on quilting projects. Many want to meet Jenny, who has her sewing studio in town, or take part in a quilting retreat at the company’s Sewing Center, which features a huge sewing room and lodging for up to 37 guests. So far, the company has 63 retreats scheduled for 2022.
Black Cowboy Festival
Rembert, South Carolina
Mark Myers always wanted to be a cowboy. As a child growing up on a farm, he idolized Ben Cartwright from “Bonanza,” and he wondered why he never saw any African Americans portraying cowboys on television.
In 1981, he bought his first horse and 5 acres and began to learn horsemanship. He traveled all across the country to different rodeos and horse shows, but never saw anyone who looked like him.
“His thirst for finding a Black cowboy was great,” said his wife, Sandra. Eventually, he started meeting other African American horse enthusiasts and learning the history of the Black cowboy. The couple founded the Black Cowboy Festival as a way to tell the story of African American cowboys, horsemanship and agriculture. The festival is held on the couple’s 60-acre ranch, Greenfield Farms, and averages more than 2,000 attendees annually. The event will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2022. The four-day festival usually begins on a Thursday with a big fish fry. On Friday, all of the visiting cowboys go out on a trail ride together and then celebrate with a Western dinner dance that night.
On Saturday, the festival hosts various horse shows throughout the day, as well as a youth horse competition and a traditional rodeo with calf-roping and bucking broncos. There are artisan and food vendors on different parts of the farm and entertainment from blues and gospel to jazz. A Motown Jam show closes out the evening. On Sunday, visitors end the festival with church and brunch before going their separate ways.