It crossed my mind recently as I commuted the short distance from a lakeside retreat in northeastern Person County back down to Durham, NC which has been my home since 1989, that it was horses and a good steak that caused me to first make the journey up there 26 years ago.
I wanted to see a pasture full of Percheron, a breed of draft horses. Back then these teams spent a good deal of time on the road, pulling an old 1900s farm wagon through small town parades on behalf of Southern States, a farmer’s coop.
By the time I was born, a fifth generation Idaho horse and beef cattle rancher, the bottom was falling out of the market for horses.
When my great grandparents had homesteaded and assembled that spread along the Henry’s Fork in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, there were more than 22 million horses in the United States.
By the time I came along four decades later the number had dropped from nearly 12 million at the end of World War II to just 7.6 million in the late 1940’s. By the time I turned 12 years old there were barely 3 million nationwide including our three working saddle horses.
My paternal grandfather who had bred and trained draft horses back when there was a market for them also had a reputation earned as a trainer for saddle horses.
He kept three teams of draft animals for nostalgia while I was coming up playing among them and my favorite had been a beautiful, black and gray speckled, purebred Percheron named Dolly.
By the time I arrived in Durham in mid-1989, recruited to establish my fifth community destination marketing startup (two from scratch) in my now long concluded career, the community was already well on its way to earning a national reputation for great restaurants.
In fact, most people where were here by then agree with Dr. Nathan Vandergrift, the head of Duke University’s Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Center, who once noted regarding that era”:
"…what's put Durham back on track is food…"
I hate to burst anyone’s bubble but Durham’s re-emergence including the resurrection of Downtown began in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
My subsequent arrival and the founding of DCVB to distill Durham’s personality and manage the community’s reputation as well as foster and leverage Durham’s sense of place, including its food scene, into demand-side economic development certainly played a role.
But revitalization was firmly underway more than two decades before the founding of Downtown Durham Inc. to champion the supply-side and three decades before tax incentives spawned newer developments often credited today.
I definitely wasn’t the second coming for Durham, nor was anyone who followed. That designation belongs to sense of place preservationists including the late 1970s DNA that spawned its reputation for great chefs.
So what was I doing at a steak place clear up in Person County so soon after my arrival? Northern Durham County and much of adjacent Person County remind me of my rural roots.
Anywhere I’ve lived, it is settings such as this that still ground me when I gravitate to them. It may be why I am also so intrigued by Person County’s Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm and the fact that as late as 1728, Buffalo still inhabited the bottoms of what is today’s Hyco Lake. across the from our retreat on Lake Mayo.
On the way back from seeing those Percheron back in 1990, we stopped at a restaurant in outer Timberlake that had been opened by the Cash’s three years earlier now called the Homestead Steakhouse and Country Store, one of two notable steakhouses in Person County.
By the time I arrived or soon after, the Cash’s had also opened a great breakfast diner I frequented in uptown Roxboro called Farmers Supply which, unfortunately, a subsequent owner took under by not remitting sales taxes.
Our lakeside retreat is in Holloway Township but it is within a nice drive through countryside to Roxboro, a town of between 8,000 and 9,000 or a fifth of Person County’s population.
Yanni, a chef-friend of ours in Durham recently put us onto a great new restaurant up in little ‘ole Roxboro named Brookland Eats.
It was recently founded by two Northern Durham High School classmates after returning to North Carolina, one with roots up there, who opened in a restaurant space in a restored 113-year-old building at the intersection of Old Durham and Allensville roads.
They lured a well-known chef with them back to his native Person County.
Technically, Brookland Eats is in Brooksdale, a township of Person County that is incorporated into the Roxboro town limits. The old building used to be a Fox & Co. general merchandise store back in the day.
The proprietor, G.M. Fox, married a Brooks, the family for whom the now neighborhood is named. The name Brookland Eats is a nod to Brooksdale I suspect and sense of place.
Good restaurants understand the monetary value of accenting authentic sense of place.
Designations, including postal and statutory, but not authentic sense of place.
More in the next post on the earlier DNA of Durham’s 1980s era culinary reputation that is so evident in its chef driven restaurants of today.