“Hillsborough has art, it has nature, and history,” said Gail Cooley, board member and volunteer at the Hillsborough Arts Council. “There’s something for everybody here in Hillsborough.”
Not to mention live music and great dining, beverage, and shopping options. Minutes from Durham and Chapel Hill, and only an hour from Warrenton, this vibrant seat of Orange County has plenty to offer while maintaining its small town charm.
Originally home to the Occaneechi, Eno, and Haw native tribes, the area now known as Hillsborough was populated for thousands of years prior to colonization by European settlers. This was where the Eno River met the Great Trading Path, a Native American trail that was the major throughway for travel and commerce in the Piedmont during the 17th century, used by natives and European settlers alike.
The colonial town was established in 1754, although it went through several name changes and was not known by the name of Hillsborough until 1766. The North Carolina Provincial Congress met here in the summer of 1775. The town was also home to William Hooper, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, whose grave is located in Hillsborough’s historic Old Town Cemetery, one of the oldest public burial grounds in North Carolina.
In 1865, General Joseph E. Johnston set up temporary headquarters near town at the Alexander Dickson House, a 1790’s era Quaker farmhouse. It was from here that he rode out to meet Union General Sherman to surrender nearly 90,000 troops. This was the largest of the Confederate surrenders, effectively ending the war in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. The house was later moved downtown and now serves as the Visitors Center. Although currently closed due to COVID-19, a selection of brochures and maps featuring area attractions is available for pick up on the front porch.
The downtown historic district, with more than 100 structures from the 18th and 19th centuries, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can follow the silver historic markers dotting Churton Street, the main drag, for a self-guided walking tour.
Arts & Literature
In a 2017 Our State article, Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, called Hillsborough “a town where creativity thrives.” Mayes is just one of the many writers and artists who call Hillsborough home.
“This is a very literary community,” said Sharon Wheeler, proprietor of Purple Crow Books, a Hillsborough bookstore that dedicates a wall to local authors. “It was named the most literary small town in America by the New York Times, and lots of people read.”
Wheeler, a retired teacher, moved to Hillsborough to open her bookstore over ten years ago.
“We have great authors,” she told me, “famous authors who live here. Alan Gurganis, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Michael Malone.”
I ran into one of these authors on my visit. Eryk Pruitt, owner of Yonder: Southern Cocktails & Brew, located across King Street from Purple Crow, offered to give me an impromptu tour of some downtown points of interest. Pruitt writes what he calls “dirty crime” novels. His most recent novel, What We Reckon, was nominated for an Anthony Award, given annually to writers in the mystery genre. During non-pandemic times, Yonder hosts “Noir at the Bar” nights, where crime writers tell thrilling stories to captive audiences.
Yonder is also one of the stops on the Last Fridays Art Walk, a monthly event promoting the visual arts in Hillsborough. The event has been suspended during the pandemic, but many businesses are still participating virtually.
The Last Fridays Art Walk is just one of the many programs run by the Hillsborough Arts Council, a volunteer-driven organization that aims to enhance the community through arts.
“The arts council had a tradition that if you have a good idea for a program and you want to run that program, bring us a proposal and we’ll help you get it started,” said Cooley. “The town is totally supportive of the arts.”
The HAC’s latest program will feature interviews with local writers, to be posted on their website. The HAC also has a gallery and gift shop located on Churton Street.
Several other galleries line Churton Street and its offshoots. One of these is Hillsborough Gallery of Arts, owned by 21 local artists who cooperate to run the business. The gallery exclusively features works by the owners. Pringle Teeter, a glass blower and one of the artist-owners, showed me around.
“Being that [this gallery] is artist owned…if you can imagine 21 people working together and agreeing how to run a business,” Teeter told me. “We don’t always agree on everything but that’s life.”
Teetor says that each of the artist-owners has his or her own job, from bookkeeping to marketing to running the gallery’s art shows. The shows are currently online only, although the gallery is open to visitors. They have an annual show featuring artists from around North Carolina, and you have to apply to be featured.
According to Teeter, patrons like the gallery because “You can come in and buy something original without having to spend thousands of dollars. People always say they just love to come in and look around because it’s so relaxed.”
When asked about her own work, Teeter replied, “Color means a lot to me. I used to travel a lot in a former career and I used to get a lot of inspiration from that. Most glass blowers will think about form and where they want to go with that and I’m a little backwards…I think about color and think about how I want to put it together.”
The gallery’s artist-owners have a variety of specialties, including photography, pottery, jewelry, painting, and sculpting. Lynn Wartski creates delightful wool art sculptures. Her works on display include an incognito Emu hiding behind glasses and a scarf, an octopus wielding a teapot, and a fashionista giraffe.
With half a dozen galleries within walking distance of one another in the downtown area, along with bars and restaurants that feature rotating art exhibits, Hillsborough is a prime destination for exposure to the arts.
Stayed tuned for the second half of this two-part article for more information on Hillsborough sites and points of interest.