ROCKY MOUNT, Va. — I’m getting a free facial as Carolyn Rogers, in a precise dance with her mother, Joan, moves a glass creation in and out of the oven.
“It’s a terrarium,” says the Dale Chihuly disciple.
Each day they give a free glass-making demonstration at the Grainery, home to three floors of paintings, sculptures, jewelry, handcrafted decor, studios and classrooms a-jumble with looms, pottery wheels, easels — and a ceiling-high horse armature.
After the demo, I wander the forest of impressive works, amazed they’re priced so low. Spotting a basket of $2 “wishing stones” — gorgeous palm-size discards mined from Carolyn’s studio, each unique as a Blue Ridge Mountain cloud — I pick pieces for relatives, friends and myself, then a $6 handcrafted necklace.
“We have more artists per pound,” says a smiling Leslie Santapaul, painting upstairs. With its new attractions, she expects Rocky Mount, in the Virginia mountains, will be discovered by distant art and music lovers. She’s brushing kitchen tools on synthetic paper. “It’s talking to me, saying the next painting will be a whole lot better.”
Rocky Mount folks fling wisecracks, share stories, treat visitors like new neighbors. After barely an hour in town, I want to extend my stay.
It’s the Moonshine Capital of the World, a powerhouse on Virginia’s Crooked Road music heritage trail and surrounded by rivers to paddle and mountains to hike. Culture-wise, Rocky Mount’s now punching way above its weight class, making it a terrific travel value.
Last year, the 500-seat Harvester Performance Center opened in a 1946 building that previously sold tractors. The mostly volunteer-run hall showcases regional talent and international legends who appreciate its stellar acoustics and intimate feel.
Across the street, Early Inn at the Grove has revived an 1854 tree-shaded Greek Revival manor. Stunning interior design, comfy antiques and fab vintage finds — people pay to tour such places. For $105 a night, you can snooze and lounge there, enjoying gourmet breakfasts with cheerful guests — among them musicians such as Keb’ Mo’, who gravitated to the piano for a few songs.
New farm-to-table, brewery-to-bar joints are popping up. In a restored 1929 Coca-Cola bottling plant, Bootleggers Cafe serves heaping $11 platters and $6.29 dinner-size baskets of sweet potato fries so good I skipped the rum sauce. Uptown, Daily Grind’s mountain-metropolitan favorites include spicy dirty chai and a zingy $1.50 kale-edamame-cranberry salad.
Locals holler “stop hurrying!” as I dart between pleasures. The Dairy Queen hosts free Thursday morning bluegrass jams. J&J Fashions, ablaze with bargain-price designer classics and baubles, surely looks much as it did 48 years ago. Old’s Cool displays vintage oddities on $5 and $10 tables. Artisan Center’s wares include Dwight Hayes’ $35 framed museum-quality photos of subjects from mountains to sheep.
At the Franklin County Historical Society, docent Doris spills secrets about artifacts, from the church organ to Coca-Cola miniatures to moonshine equipment. For $15, I can take home a Shine Glass — a canning jar atop a stem encasing a tiny copper still.
Robin Soslow is a freelance writer in Florida.