A Visit to Caldwell County
Nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains between the hustle and bustle of Hickory and the ski slopes of Boone, Caldwell County gives art-hungry travelers a reason to veer off the beaten path. The picturesque area, including county seat Lenoir, offers pastoral views, rushing waters and an artistic spirit, including more than 80 outdoor sculptures.
“I would describe Caldwell County as a community of craftsmen and adventurers,” says Abigail Taylor, manager of tourism development with the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce. “It is the home of historic downtowns, acres upon acres of rugged wilderness, traditional music and folk art, plus a large collection of public sculptures displayed across each town.”
This isn’t your father’s Lenoir. The county seat of Caldwell County and the surrounding cities and towns – including the exquisitely named Granite Falls and Happy Valley, among others – have enjoyed a delightful revolution in the last quarter century. Today, Caldwell County is a mix of old and new grounded in both tradition and innovation. Visitors can revel in modern-day sensibilities, including farm-to-table dining, a brew shop, free Wi-Fi in downtown Lenoir, plenty of festivals, plus outdoor art to coincide with those timeless views.
“The people of Caldwell County are committed to celebrating tradition and sharing it with young people – like folk artist Charlie Frye, owner of Folk Keeper Gallery & Antiques, and many local traditional musicians,” Taylor says. “But the people of Caldwell County are also committed to innovation – like the folks at our Google Data Center, and the local group of innovators that meets every week at a coffee shop called Nerd Coffee.”
Caldwell’s sculpture collection traces its roots to 1985, when the Caldwell Arts Council hosted the first Sculpture Celebration. In 2006, the county earned recognition by N.C. Secretary of Cultural Resources Libba Evans for being a community with more public sculpture per capita than any its size in the United States. Today, the permanent collection numbers 83 sculptures, and grows every year.
One stunning piece of the permanent collection, West Wind Sentinel, welcomes travelers along Highway 321. The gleaming, 15-foot-tall, rotating sculpture was created by Mike Roig, who commends the area for its devotion to art on the Caldwell Arts Council website.
“In Lenoir, God bless you, public art is a well-established presence,” Roig says. “Here you are beginning to demonstrate that this commitment to public art, far from being senseless, instead creates an interest within a community that can bring people together in a lively interaction, one that fosters tolerance for new ideas, and a broadening of the identity of one’s place in the world. It can create a calling card to be included in the global community of ideas and culture.”
In downtown Lenoir, visit a series of four sculptures known as Four Trumpets, created by Adam Bradshaw. And don’t miss perhaps the collection’s most famous holding, Across the Grain, a concrete and earth sculpture formed to resemble a circular hole saw, by world-renowned artist Thomas Sayre. Stroll along the streets of downtown Lenoir and enjoy the buildings’ charming historical facades.
Discover the county’s sampling of antique stores, art galleries and eateries, including Sims Country BBQ in Granite Falls, where visitors can experience traditional Western North Carolina barbecue, music and clogging. Or plan a visit to J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, which showcases everything from local bluegrass to nationally acclaimed performances.
Outdoor lovers might choose to spend time under the Carolina blue sky exploring 23.3-mile Wilson Creek, which beckons visitors year round. Nicknamed “a wild and scenic river,” much of Wilson Creek lies within the Pisgah National Forest, offering kayaking, camping, waterfall hikes and trout fishing galore.
Jerry Starnes, originally from Rock Hill, S.C., is an avid fisherman who ties his own flies and has fished Wilson Creek numerous times. “It is one of the most visually appealing trout streams in the Southeast,” he says. “The boulders are humongous! I never had much luck on it, but I didn’t care, because it was always worth being out there just for the views.”
Caldwell To-Do List
• Caldwell Arts Council
• Caldwell Heritage Museum
• Chix With Stix
• Downtown Lenoir
• Folk Keeper Gallery & Antiques
• Fort Defiance
• Historic Happy Valley
• J.E. Broyhill Civic Center
• Sims Country BBQ
• Wilson Creek
History buffs will find plenty to keep them entertained, starting with a short drive along NC 268. Start off with a 30-mile scenic drive through a historic part of Caldwell County, which meanders along the Brushy Mountains and Yadkin River into an area known as Happy Valley.
Lastly, festival lovers have plenty of reasons to visit Caldwell County year round, whether they are interested in blackberries, barbeque, fiddling or tattoos. One of the area’s most popular festivals is the North Carolina Blackberry Festival each July, which started in 2000 with only a handful of vendors and now annually brings in 26,000 visitors.
“Our younger festivals bring in lots of people as well throughout the year and have gained national attention, like the Smoking in the Foothills BBQ Competition & Festival and the Carolina Tattoo Festival,” Taylor says.
Regardless of when you visit Caldwell County or what diversion you seek to indulge, be sure to bring your adventuresome spirit and a mind open to both tradition and innovation.
– Karsen Price