It really wasn’t the worst of times. I’ve just always thought that would make a good way to start a story. However, being a glass-half-empty sort of guy, I was already beginning to fret about the fact that I only had about three days to enjoy my visit.
While I only lived in Boones Mill from about ages 5 to 10, I’ve always considered the small town of about 250 folks to be my hometown.
Back in those days, there wasn’t much to the town. Besides a general store and a barber shop/snack bar, there was the “shopping center,” which consisted of the post office, Wood’s Pharmacy and Mable’s Glamour Nook. Right next door was my father’s office. He was the town doctor. To do any real shopping or take in an occasional picture show, we had to drive into Rocky Mount — the county seat, located about 11 miles south on Route 220. Rocky Mount is the second in this tale of two towns.
Times have changed. Franklin County has grown, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Smith Mountain Lake, which sits in both Franklin and Bedford counties. I had been invited to come re-discover the county by David Rotenizer, director of tourism. Although not a native, David may be Franklin County’s biggest cheerleader. He and I spent three days traversing the area and taking pictures of virtually every flower, hill, mountain and valley in the county.
As I entered the Boones Mill corporate limits, my reflexive instinct was to hit the brakes. For years, this tiny town was infamously known as a speed trap. Of course, I had to slow down, anyway. I was approaching my first stop, Franklin County Distilleries (25156 Virgil H. Goode Hwy.). While a legal distillery is a newcomer in town, who knows how much of the less than legal stuff has been produced through the years in Franklin County, the unofficial “Moonshine Capital of the World”?
Katarina Utermark, the tasting room manager at FCD tells me that the distillery has been producing corn and rye whiskey (good ol’ moonshine) for about three years. Their tasting room did not open, however, until this year, shortly after a referendum was passed, allowing liquor by the drink in Boones Mill. We did have liquor by the swig when I was a boy, not that I ever had any, of course. The distillery offers tasters a variety of options of both straight pours and mini-cocktails. I especially enjoyed their El Fuego del Maize (The Fire of the Corn), made with jalapeno, habanero, cilantro, lime juice, house-made syrup and corn whiskey.
After lunch at Holly Jo’s Creekside Grill, I was very anxious to head over to the Hammer & Forge Brewing Company at 70 Main Street. The brewery is located in what once was Wood’s Pharmacy. I used to hang out at the soda fountain there. Today, lots of folks from near and far are hanging out and enjoying owner/brewer Caleb Williamson’s variety of craft beers. Williamson, a native of Alaska, is one of the most interesting people you’d want to meet. When I was growing up, Boones Mill was filled with a cast of colorful characters. Williamson fits right in. Much of his life has been spent working in the oil fields. In fact, when he first moved to the area four years ago, he and his family were living in Roanoke and he was commuting to work in Russia. About two years ago, he decided to pursue a long-time passion for home brewing and opened Hammer and Forge, which is named as a nod to those who work with their hands in any industry. “I was going to name the place Hephaestus, the god of metalworking,” Williamson tells me. “But I decided that was hard enough to say even if you hadn’t been drinking.” He says he tries to offer something for everyone among the 16 taps in the brewery.
We made one more stop in Boones Mill before heading to Rocky Mount — the old railroad depot. Mike Smith, a member of the town council and a lifelong resident joined us at the brewery and took us on a tour of the depot, which was built by Norfolk Southern Railway in the mid-1890s. Thanks to concerted efforts by members of the community, enough money was raised to save the depot from the wrecking ball. It has been moved to a new spot just across the tracks from its original location.
“We want to keep the depot strictly original, just like it was the day it closed (in the 60s),” Smith says. “That means no modern lights, no heat, no air conditioning…no bathrooms.” He tells me the plan is to turn the depot and nearby farmers’ market into a community center. “My hope is that we can have it like back in the day when folks could come and play music, and the residents could just sit and listen.”
Before I knew it, the day was done, and we were off to Rocky Mount. My accommodations were at the Early Inn at the Grove. Although it’s right in the heart of town (50 Floyd Ave.), this beautiful 1854 Greek Revival boutique hotel is virtually hidden in the pines on its 10-acre site. If you seek an idyllic getaway, any one of the six spacious bedrooms, offering all the modern amenities, would be perfect. It also makes for an ideal wedding venue, and they offer a variety of packages to please any bride.
If you want a little adventure with your getaway, the folks at the Inn offer a variety of regularly scheduled events, such as their Murder Mystery weekends. During my visit, the Inn was sponsoring a moonshine experience with Chris Prillaman. He’s the owner of Twin Creeks Distillery in Henry, a small community about 12 miles southeast of Rocky Mount. Prillaman is as good an ol’ country boy as you’re ever gonna meet round these parts. And when he takes you out to his distillery and tasting room and shows you how he does his magic with a little corn, you get the feeling that he didn’t learn to make moonshine by reading books on the subject. Prillaman began distilling legal liquor in 2015. My moonshine experience began with a van full of guests at the Inn. We were whisked out of town and down to Prillaman’s distillery. In the tasting room, we enjoyed a catered dinner, and then we got down to our real reason for being there…tasting a little moonshine.
A visit to Twin Creeks Distillery offers the opportunity to see an honest-to-goodness still and discover exactly how moonshine is made. The story told out at Twin Creeks Distillery is the Prillaman’s family’s story. It’s no Walt Disney simulation. These are the real folks making real corn liquor and playing genuine mountain music just like they’ve been doing for generations — sharing both of these passions with their friends.
If you’ve already done the murder and moonshine, you might want to book a night or two at the Early Inn for the music. The Harvester Performance Center (450 Franklin St.) sits right next door. You may be as blown away as was I the first time I laid eyes on this cool music venue. My first reaction was, however, could you really get name talent to perform in little ol’ Rocky Mount. Well, coming up in just the next couple of months are the likes of Lorrie Morgan (9/21), Karla Bonoff (9/22), Blue Oyster Cult (9/29), BJ Thomas (10/11), Lyle Lovett (10/14) and the Glen Miller Orchestra (10/16). Check their star-studded calendar at Harvester-Music.com.
There is just too little room to tell my tale of two towns thoroughly. Besides, there are so many delights just waiting for you to discover them, why should I spoil all the fun. However, I am including a little directory, which highlights some of the other spots I visited that I don’t want you to miss. When you go, tell ‘em Steve sent you. That won’t even get you a free cup of coffee, but I’d be much obliged.
The Blue Ridge Farm Museum (20 Museum Dr., Ferrum): Immerse your senses in 1800 rural Blue Ridge life at the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum’s Blue Ridge Farm Museum, a re-created Virginia-German farmstead. Join costumed interpreters in a host of household and farm chores, including preparing meals over the open hearth, driving oxen, blacksmithing, and tending heirloom gardens and historic breeds of animals.
Visit the galleries across the street in the BRI&M. One of the current exhibit’s, Crooked Road Royalty and Crooked Road Musical Styles, showcases Franklin County’s diverse musical heritage.
Booker T. Washington National Monument (12130 Booker T. Washington Hwy., Hardy): It’s well worth your time to visit this historic site, which preserves portions of the 207-acre tobacco farm on which educator and leader Booker T. Washington was born into slavery on April 5, 1856.
Philpott Lake: You know all about Smith Mountain Lake. But I bet most of you have never even heard of this much more secluded spot. The 3,000-acre lake features more than 100 miles of shoreline, surrounded by 20,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness, a marina and tournament fishing dock, nine boat launches, eight campgrounds, six beaches, birding and wildlife trails, and more.
Bowling’s Hot Dogs (5376 Franklin St., Rocky Mount): You gotta be looking for it or you’ll pass it by. That’s what I did three times before I found it. One stop and you’ll know why founder Otis Bowling was known as Franklin County’s Hot Dog King. Only things on the menu are the hot dogs, pinto beans and hoop cheese. Oh yeah, and the cold beer. One of the best hot dogs (with chili, mustard and onions) that I’ve sunk my teeth into. And cheap, too.
Buddy’s BBQ Restaurant (948 Tanyard Road, Rocky Mount): North Carolina style bbq with a Franklin County “moonshine twist.” That twist is in their sauces. This is really good, make that fantastic, barbecue.
Ippy’s Restaurant (1760 N. Main St., Rocky Mount): For almost 100 years, the same family has been delighting diners in the region with delicious food and great service. The ground work was laid when Uncle Tom and his wife, Mama Jo, opened Uncle Tom’s BBQ and Gun Shop in Roanoke in 1919.
Blue Ridge Folklife Festival (Ferrum College Campus; 20 Museum Dr., Ferrum): For 45 years on the fourth Saturday of October, the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival has brought together a host of musicians, moonshiners, craftspeople, cooks, motorheads, mule jumpers, horse pullers, coon dog racers, antique tractor buffs, and old-time gamers for a celebration of the rich heritage and traditions of the region.
Carter’s Fine Jewelers, Gifts and Gallery (400 Old Franklin Trnpk., Rocky Mount): Part of the White Lightning Artisan Trail, this 31 year plus jewelry store also offers a variety of locally handcrafted gifts.
Inkular Gallery (4247 Virgil Goode Hwy., Boones Mill): Artist and music lover David Rakes operates this unique gallery that specializes in local and regional arts and crafts.
Olds Cool (285 Franklin St., Rocky Mount) They bill themselves the “antique store for the next generation.” There’s only one real word for this unique shop – “COOL!”
Wood Grains Furniture & Gifts (455 Franklin St., Rocky Mount): Owner Dulcie Hankins has brought together local crafters, furniture makers and photographers to create a beautiful, eclectic shop where you can find quality handmade furniture plus unique gifts. In addition, the store carries a large variety of Ohio Amish furniture.