Four for Wilson: Antiques, barbeque, flowers, and whirligigs

Barbara Miller Beem

You’re cruising along I-95, making decent time, when you need a break. You turn off at Exit 121 and, lo and behold, there is Wilson, once renowned for its cotton and, not so long ago, recognized as the largest tobacco market in the world. The possibilities in this North Carolina town might just be the perfect rest stop.

A few minutes at the Wilson Visitors Center yield three options: A three-hour tour, a daylong visit, or something much longer. But, you’re looking at your watch and reminding yourself that you need to get back behind the wheel.

Vollis Simpson’s restored whirligigs decorate downtown Wilson and are filling a local park.
Vollis Simpson’s restored whirligigs decorate downtown Wilson and are filling a local park.

For nature lovers, the Wilson Botanical Gardens is a destination in itself, and its Children’s Secret Garden would no doubt entertain those along for the ride in the backseat. The Wilson Rose Garden boasts more than 1,100 rose plants ranging from historic old garden roses to modern hybrids. And then there are the redwood trees, soaring overhead here on the East Coast. Scattered about town and also in a special park are the late Vollis Simpson’s must-see giant whirligigs, North Carolina’s official state folk art.


Amazing antiquing

Maybe the best reason for stopping in Wilson — aside from sampling Parker’s legendary pork barbecue meals, washed down with sweet tea — is to go antiquing.

Since the early 1930s, Wilson has been the place to go for all things English. Local resident Robert Boykin said that early antiques dealers in Wilson “picked up on a trend” just as Colonial Williamsburg (about a three hours’ drive to the north) was undergoing its dramatic restoration. As past president of the International Society of Appraisers of Antiquities, Boykin pointed out local dealers carry a full line of American antiques as well, offering items that range from postcards and “smalls” to corner cabinets and decorative fine arts. But the accent is decidedly British.

“We’re strong in 18th-century English,” said Tom Boone. As proprietors of Boone’s Antiques, Tom and his brother Doug are carrying on the 61-year-old family tradition in seven buildings on 4 acres. “You could spend all day here.”

In addition to English furniture and porcelain, Boone’s offers Chinese and American furniture, and Oriental rugs, as well as “brass and glass, the usual stuff.” Be it a $2 glass purchase or an impressive piece of furniture for $50,000 (yes, they ship worldwide), Boone’s, like other establishments in the town, focuses on “investment-grade, real high-end quality” wares, not collectibles. “We do a lot of rentals to movie sets as well,” he added.

Stop by Langston’s Auction Gallery and, with proper timing, attend one of Bobby Langson’s regular estate sales or holiday auctions. Or, explore any of the other dozen or so antiques and antiques-related businesses, primarily clustered along U.S. Route 301.

Whatever the case, Sandra Homes, Wilson’s tourism director, hopes to entice visitors to stay longer than planned. “We’re going to blow you away with our quaint Southern charm,” she said. Maybe it’s a good thing there are 24 hotels in Wilson.


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