Simple Life

Simple Life

Cadillac Joe

While some of his dogwoods are long gone, the legend lives on

By Jim Dodson

As spring broke this year, I had a startling realization.

I may be turning into Cadillac Joe.

His real name was Joe Franks. Mr. Franks and his delightful wife, Ginny, and their two boys, Joe Jr. and Chuck, lived across the street in the old neighborhood where I grew up. I was good friends with the Franks boys. My mom was one of Ginny Franks’ closest chums.

Big Joe was a highly respected lawyer in town, though that’s not what made him something of a local legend.

Every spring, the Franks family lawn burst spectacularly into bloom with luscious beds of mature azalea bushes Joe had planted and groomed. During the peak blooming stage, usually around Easter, a constant stream of cars cruised slowly past his house just to take in the impressive floral show — rather like people do at Christmastime to look at over-the-top lighting displays. And thanks to several hundred pink and white dogwood trees that bloomed along the street just as the Franks’ yard exploded in color, Dogwood Drive lived up to its name, including a magnificent Cherokee Brave (pink) and Cherokee Princess (white) that proudly stood for more than half a century.

Over the years, our street — and the Franks house in particular — found their way into numerous newspaper feature sections and a host of top gardening magazines, including a couple big spreads in Southern Living magazine.

What made the show bigger than life was that most Sunday mornings throughout spring and summer, Big Joe Franks lovingly washed or waxed his Cadillac in the Franks family driveway while playing the music of Frank Sinatra. His neighbors must have been fans of Ol’ Blue Eyes because nobody I know of ever complained. My mom even took to calling him Cadillac Joe. Looking back, I’m half convinced Cadillac Joe’s music is the reason I have a thing for Sinatra today.

“Dad sure loved that Cadillac and his azaleas,” Joe Jr. confirmed with a booming laugh when I tracked him down by phone. “And, of course, Sinatra. That was the music of his life. Waxing that Cadillac and growing those azaleas were his passions.”

Joe, the son, is something of a legend, too. He grew up to become a beloved athletic trainer and successful men’s football and women’s golf coach at Grimsley High School. The playing field at Jamieson Stadium is named for “Little Joe Franks,” as my mom called him. Today, Little Joe is semi-retired and lives in Danville, Virginia, where his wife, Dr. Tiffany McKillip Franks, is in her 14th year as president of Averett University.

“So how are your azalea bushes doing?” I asked him.

“The college has plenty of them. I don’t have my dad’s thing for growing them, but I do have a Cadillac Escalade just like Dad. And I recently picked up a second one, an ATS two-door coup. Really nice.”

I wondered if Joe had any idea how many azalea bushes his dad, who passed away in 2001, planted and groomed to perfection.

“At least 250,” Joe said, explaining how Big Joe’s favorites were red, white and pink azaleas. “If you recall,” he added, “there was a huge peach-colored one by the front porch. It was probably seven or eight feet tall.”

I remembered this bush and almost hated to inform him that the bright young college professor who owns the Franks house today is growing artichokes where Cadillac Joe worked his magic each spring.

“Yeah, by the time my mom was ready to give up the house,” Coach Joe told me, “the plants were showing their age and had probably seen their better days. I guess they just dug them up.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, pleased to inform him. “I think I might be channeling Cadillac Joe these days.”

Six years ago, my wife, Wendy, and I moved back to Dogwood Drive, purchasing an old house that sits two doors from the one where I grew up. As she got to work restoring the house’s interior, I got to work outside. To date, I’ve planted more than 30 trees in my yard, including five dogwoods, a trio of southern redbuds and several cherry trees that outrageously bloom every spring. I’ve also planted 24 azaleas and 17 hydrangeas.

A garden-loving psychologist wouldn’t be wrong in suggesting that I’m rebuilding the blooming street of my boyhood. I hail from an old Carolina clan of farmers, gardeners, preachers and storytellers, after all, and grew up hearing legends of the dogwood tree’s origin, one of which holds that long ago the dogwood was a mighty tree — like the oak — that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Because of its role in the death of Christ, the legend goes, God both cursed and blessed the little tree. It would never again grow large enough to be used as a cross for a crucifixion. Yet it would also produce beautiful flowers in the spring, just in time for Easter, with petals shaped like a cross, clustered berries resembling a crown of thorns and specks of red that symbolized drops of blood. 

Over the half a century since I’d lived on our street, most of the dogwoods disappeared from yards. In fairness, dogwoods generally only live anywhere from 40–70 years, and the beauties I remember were probably at least already middle-aged. Even so, we count no more than 15 dogwood trees on the entire street.

For that matter, azaleas are also dramatically thin on the ground these days. Maybe they are just too finicky for casual gardeners and the new generation of busy young families that inhabit the neighborhood to keep up with, requiring annual trimming, fertilizing and mulching in order to flourish.

In truth, I was never terribly keen on planting dogwood trees and azaleas bushes until we moved back to Dogwood Drive, at which point a mysterious desire overtook me. Perhaps I am becoming Cadillac Joe 2.0?

Little Joe Franks was pleased when I mentioned this botanical phenomenon.

“That’s great,” he said. “Now all you need is an old Cadillac and the music of Sinatra!”

He may be right. For the moment at least, an aging Subaru and Mary Chapin Carpenter will have to suffice.

Maybe someday I will be remembered as the legend of Outback Jimmy.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(April 20 – May 20)

Shakespeare was a Taurus. And while most born under this sensual earth sign tend to be loquacious, few have a gift for reading the room. If you think you’re an exception, perhaps you’re right (but you’ll never know). Regardless, when benevolent Jupiter enters your sign on May 16, consider it a green light to ask for what you really want. Good things are coming. And when they do: “To thine own self be true.”

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

The answer hasn’t changed.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Water what you plant.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Make a U-turn.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

You’re overmixing again.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Keep your chin up.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

There’s more than one way.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

It’s time to cull your “friends” list.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Say it in a letter.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Get ready to flex some new muscles.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Deep listening requires deep stillness.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Go back three spaces.   OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla. 

Love’s Labor Lost?

Love’s Labor Lost?

J. Spencer Love’s storied Irving Park mansion faces a new era

By Ross Howell Jr.     Photographs by Amy Freeman 

Feature image: Photograph © Greensboro History Museum Collection


In 1936, when J. Spencer Love sat down in his company’s Greensboro headquarters to review local architect William C. Holleyman Jr.’s drawings for a new house, he saw a Georgian Revival masterpiece, a mansion that reflected the majesty of Westover, the plantation residence of William Byrd II of Virginia. Built in 1730, Westover is considered to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in America.

Greensboro had never seen such a house and probably never will again. Its history can’t be repeated. Its craftsmanship can’t be replicated.

When writer Meredith Barkley asked current owner Bonnie McElveen-Hunter back in 1997 why she bought the Love house, she responded, “I cannot tell.”

She reflected a moment, then continued.

“There’s no rational reason why you would buy a house like this. It’s totally emotional, irrational,” McElveen-Hunter said.

One chilly morning this spring, Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, along with Katie Redhead and Gail Casper, took me on a grand tour of Love and Holleyman’s showpiece.

Briggs and I are standing on the stately brick walkway lined with oak trees and boxwood plantings that leads to the front entrance of the Love house.

Briggs tells me back in the day, guests would have probably been let off at Country Club Drive, so they would sense the expanse and balance of the house as they made their way up the walk — as we’re doing now.

He explains the language of Georgian architecture, its symmetry and balance, points out the wide, Palladian floor-to-ceiling windows of the first floor, the use of quoins at the corners of the house, the modillions — ornate brackets at the eaves supporting the roof.

The brick work, Briggs tells me, is “Flemish bond,” where the bricks alternate between end (header) and length (stretcher), short and long — like Morse code.

The entrance itself is classic Georgian.

“The frontispiece around the door is called a broken pediment,” Briggs says. He points to shapes above the door that look almost like scrolls.


“That’s called a swan neck,” he continues. “The pineapple at the center is a symbol of welcome.”

The pilasters on either side of the door are topped with Ionic capitals — again, typically Georgian.

But Briggs notes anomalies in the elliptical design of the metal railings of the walkways and grills protecting the windows.

“Otto Zenke,” he says.

Zenke was a legendary interior designer who came to Greens-boro in 1937, when Love was building his house.

Born in Brooklyn in 1909, Zenke was employed at B. Altman & Co. in New York before accepting a position as chief decorator for Morrison-Neese Furniture Company in Greensboro. In time he would establish his own design studio, with offices here and in London and Palm Beach.

(Handmade, miniature-scale rooms crafted by Zenke that reflect his passion for late 18th-century English interiors are part of the permanent collection of the Greensboro History Museum.) Zenke was the designer of choice for numerous homes and buildings during his career.

Stepping through the front door, Briggs and I are met with a grand foyer, its marble floor set with alternating black-and-white tiles. At the far end of the foyer is a sweeping, elegantly curved staircase with Chippendale railings.

“More Zenke,” Briggs says. “There’s ceremony as you enter and drama at the stairs, where the lady of the house would make her entrance for a party.”

“Bonnie really opened this house up to people,” Redhead tells us. She recalls Christmas celebrations when McElveen-Hunter would invite carolers to come in and all would sing carols together in the foyer.

“She held an evening charity event for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro,” Casper says. “She raised $1 million in one night. Can you imagine?”

In addition to entertaining neighbors, friends and business associates, and accommodating fundraising events for a panoply of nonprofit and charitable organizations, McElveen-Hunter provided lodgings for a number of national political leaders.

“Vice President Dan Quayle, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President George W. Bush, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Secretary of State Colin Powell . . . ,” Redhead recollects.

“And a number of governors and candidates,” she adds.

We walk to the elegant stairway to take a closer look. The skill of the handwork in the curved Chippendale railings is humbling.


“Lord help the carpenters who installed this,” Briggs says. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”

The rest of my tour is like this. We visit the stately, light-filled living room; the Cone room — where former owner Anne Cone especially enjoyed entertaining her friends. We admire the handsome, mahogany-paneled library with its curved wooden doors; and the latticed breakfast room.

Then we journey outside to see three other buildings that were renovated or added by various owners over the years. A pool house — redolent with Palm Beach charm and an elegantly landscaped pool; the carriage house — a three-bay garage renovated into living quarters; and just beyond the tennis courts, a two-story cottage with the ambiance of a European hunting lodge — formerly the greasy garage where fourth owner Rusty Taylor kept his RV parked.

And there are the more than three acres of gardens and grounds, private and woodsy, right in the heart of Irving Park.

Spencer Love built his house at a time when many Americans were struggling just to make ends meet. After the 1929 stock market crash, America had plummeted into the Great Depression. Unemployment and despair worsened in 1934, when drought forced struggling Midwestern farm families from their homesteads into nomadic Dust Bowl work camps.

Meanwhile, “Greensboro’s textile industry emerged essentially unscathed from the Depression,” writes architectural historian Marvin A. Brown. And that is a fact woven intricately into the fabric of our city’s history.

So why shouldn’t the wealthy president of Burlington Mills be planning a grand house to be built on a knoll overlooking the Greensboro Country Club golf course?

Word about construction of Love’s house appeared in an April 1936 article in the Greensboro Daily News under the headline, “New Home for President of Burlington Mills Company to Be One of Finest in City.”

Work on the foundations had already commenced. The reporter proclaimed that the “new residence will be of the colonial type, constructed of red brick. It will be a 10-room, two-story structure, modern in every respect.” It’s said that the house featured the first central air-conditioning in North Carolina — a system of forced air flowing over coils that circulated water.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was professor of mathematics at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, Love studied at Harvard Business School before enlisting with the U.S. Army during World War I.

In 1919, Love returned to Boston, looking for work. Deciding better opportunities might lie elsewhere, he moved to Gastonia, where his paternal grandfather had been a pioneer in the textile industry.

With borrowed money, Love purchased the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company. Eventually he sold the company’s building and land, and — after receiving financial assistance from the local chamber of commerce — moved his manufacturing equipment to Burlington.

In 1923, Love chartered a new company, aptly named Burlington Mills.

Built in the middle of a cornfield, the facility employed 200 people and manufactured all-cotton textiles, including flag cloth, bunting, scrims, curtain and dress fabrics, as well as cloth for diapers.

Then Love decided to experiment with a new synthetic fiber called rayon and began to manufacture bedspreads.

By 1936, Love had moved his company’s headquarters from Burlington to downtown Greensboro.

By then, Burlington Mills, the business he’d chartered in 1923, comprised 22 manufacturing facilities located in nine different communities. Annual sales had reached $25 million. Lawyers and accountants were preparing documents for the company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.


Some said that as a native New Englander, Love saw himself as an “outsider.”

Briggs believes Love was building his house to make a statement.

“He’s building a grand house overlooking the golf course in the midst of the Depression,” says Briggs. “He was staking a claim.”

For his architect, Love had chosen an individual who was somewhat of an outsider, too.

“Holleyman was not the obvious choice to be the architect for such a house,” Briggs says. “By contrast, someone like Charles Hartmann was well-known to the community,” Briggs adds. Architect Hartmann had been recruited from New York by financier Julian Price to design the Jefferson Standard Building and had designed many imposing structures and residences in Greensboro, including Price’s landmark home.

In contrast, when Holleyman arrived in Greensboro in 1922, he was still in his 20s and relatively inexperienced. A native of Atlanta, he had studied at the Georgia Institute of Technology before moving to New York, where he worked as an architect for two years.

Young Holleyman was winning contracts in Greensboro, designing not only homes here and in Pinehurst, but also larger structures for Woman’s College (UNC-Greensboro) and A. and T. (North Carolina A&T State University).

And it was Holleyman whom Love had chosen to design his new Burlington Mills headquarters in Greensboro.

Sadly, Holleyman’s enjoyment of his professional triumph was cut short.

In 1939, the Greensboro Daily News announced funeral services “for William Crumley Holleyman Jr., 45, prominent Greensboro architect who died shortly before noon yesterday of a heart attack.”

Also short-lived was Spencer Love’s enjoyment of his magnificent new home.

He was forced to give up the house in his 1940 divorce settlement with his first wife, Sarah Elizabeth, who remained there for a short while before moving to Connecticut.

The house was then purchased by Love’s friend, Benjamin Cone.

The son of Ceasar Cone — co-founder of the Proximity Manufacturing Company, Revolution Mills and White Oak Mills, among other textile holdings — Benjamin Cone was a friend of Love’s and one of the few people in Greensboro with enough money to buy his palatial estate.

Benjamin Jr., Cone’s son, said his father enjoyed teasing his pal, Love, about purchasing the house from his ex-wife, calling it “Love’s Labor Lost,” a cheeky allusion to William Shakespeare’s comedic play.

Born in New York, Benjamin Cone attended grade school and high school in Greensboro and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a classmate of writer Thomas Wolfe.

Following his service in the U.S. Navy in World War II, Cone resumed responsibilities in the family business as well as following a life of public and charitable service. He was elected to the Greensboro city council and later served as mayor. Over the years, he also provided leadership to various charitable organizations and Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.

Cone and his wife, Anne, lived in the Love house from 1941 until 1977.

Their big house was often aglow with activity.

During World War II, the Cones sometimes entertained troops who were stationed at Greensboro’s Overseas Replacement Depot. There were frequent parties for business and community leaders, political figures, and neighbors.

According to News & Record writer Meredith Barkley, Benjamin Jr. remembers as many as seven servants “keeping the house going.”

English stage, television and screen actor Sir Michael Redgrave visited the Cones many times. Redgrave met the couple during the war years in Virginia Beach, when Redgrave’s ship was being retrofitted at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Nominated for an Academy Award in 1947 and knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1959, Redgrave was famously the father of sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, acclaimed stage and film stars themselves. Vanessa reportedly spent a Christmas at the Love house.

Tyrone Power, the star of swash-buckling films such as The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan, was a WWII U.S. Marine Corps pilot and a frequent guest of the Cones.

When the Cones decided to sell the house in 1977, the buyer was the late Richard Love, one of Spencer’s sons.

Richard — a successful builder in the region for nearly 50 years — undertook a major exterior project at the house his father had built.

“He added brick walks in front and put up a brick wall along Country Club Drive, giving the home a more formal look,” writes Barkley.

For his improvements, Love went back to the company his father had originally used — Old Virginia Brick Co. of Salem, Va. He ordered twice as many bricks as he thought he would need, culling out those he didn’t feel matched precisely, which were repurposed in other building projects.

In 1983 Love sold the property to the late John Russell “Rusty” Taylor Jr., a native of Battle Creek, Mich., who grew up in Greensboro. He was president of the first senior class to graduate from Walter Hines Page High School in 1961, attended Harvard University and received his law degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. He trained as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot during the Vietnam war and later joined his father’s real estate firm in Greensboro.

Taylor concentrated on updating the house’s electrical and mechanical systems, modernizing the telephone and security systems, repairing the leaky roof, and adding a workout facility and sauna in the basement. Taylor passed away suddenly in 1995.

And that brings us to the current owner.

Bonnie McElveen-Hunter and her husband, the late Bynum Merritt Hunter, moved into the Love house in 1997 with their son, Bynum Jr.

Bynum Hunter grew up in Fisher Park, attended Woodberry Forest School and served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during WWII. After military service, he was a star track athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill and received his law degree there. An admired courtroom attorney, he rose to become a senior partner with the firm of Smith Moore Smith Schell & Hunter in Greensboro and served as attorney for the Atlantic Coast Conference for more than 25 years.

Bonnie McElveen-Hunter was married to Hunter for 38 years. A businesswoman, philanthropist and diplomat, she was born in Columbia, S.C., the daughter of a U.S. Air Force P-51 pilot in WWII and a school teacher.

As a military kid, McElveen-Hunter moved with her parents as a toddler to Germany and later to Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California and Nebraska.

She graduated from high school in Nebraska and attended Stephens College in Missouri.
After graduation, she moved to Charlotte to work for Bank of America and later as an advertising executive for Charlotte Magazine.

In 1972 McElveen-Hunter moved to Greensboro to work for Congressman Walter E. Johnston III and started Pace Magazine, the inflight publication of Piedmont Airlines. Adding magazines for United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, U.S. Airways, Southwestern Airlines and others, CEO McEveen-Hunter built her company into Pace Communications, a firm providing publishing services for travel, automotive, luxury, finance and technology clients. Pace Communications is now the largest independently owned custom content agency in the country.

In 2001, McElveen-Hunter was appointed as ambassador to Finland by President George W. Bush and served until 2004, when she became the first female chairperson of the American Red Cross.

Surveying the extensive renovations undertaken by McIveen-Hunter in 1997, News & Record writer Barkley noted the dust, debris, exposed steel beams and general mayhem. She noted the soon-to-be master bedroom suite upstairs “looked like a bomb hit it.” Upstairs walls were moved for comfortable new bedrooms, walk-in closets, dressing areas and elegantly appointed his-and-her bathrooms.

Downstairs the kitchen was completely gutted and a fireplace, wet bar, handcrafted library shelves and custom cabinets, and hand-milled crown molding were installed in the Cone room. That carpentry work was done by Ren Putnam, a master woodworker and furniture maker in Reidsville with a degree from Duke Divinity School.

“What people don’t realize is that the Love house was built to industrial standards,” Putnam says, noting the use of masonry and concrete throughout.

“I think Spencer Love wanted to build a place that was nearly fireproof,” Putnam adds.

Masonry increased the difficulty of installing the custom wood cabinets. Even more difficult was the installation of the intricate, handmade crown molding throughout the Cone room, where the wall and windows overlooking the swimming pool are built on the curve.

“We had to use a jack to bend the molding into the curve,” says Putnam. “Then getting it fixed to that masonry wall? Now that was something.”

Later, in 2008, McElveen-Hunter decided to install a geothermal heating and cooling system at the Love house. She asked Putnam to supervise the project.

Installing a modern geothermal system in an old house built like a fortress was quite a challenge.

“The men dug 16 dry wells 400 feet deep,” Putnam says.

The drilling left deep piles of stone dust all over the property. Geothermal tubing was installed in the dry wells and run to the carriage house, pool house, cottage and main house.

“Then Bonnie decided she wanted a well for irrigation,” Putnam says. “So we asked this country boy to come in with his divining rods.” In a short while, the man marked a place toward the back of the property and told them to drill.

“Sure enough,” Putnam says, “we hit water at about 300 feet.”

The entire geothermal project took months to complete.

“I don’t know of anything like it around here,” Putnam adds.

And that’s the point of it.

Greensboro has never seen anything quite like the Love house, where — over the years — owners have lavished additions and updates that boggle the mind.

After my tour, I feel as if I’ve just been inside something important. And now that the home is for sale again, its future is uncertain.

I’m feeling disquiet. Could this magnificent historical home one day be torn down?

“Sadly,” says Briggs, “we’ve seen such things happen.”

I think about McElveen-Hunter’s answer about why she purchased the Love house 26 years ago. So I reach out to her.

When she calls me from her home in Palm Beach, I ask her why anyone would want to buy the house now?

“This place is more than a home,” she responds. “It’s relationships. Experiences. Memories. It belongs to the community.”

“I’ll never leave this house,” McElveen-Hunter concludes. “I’m just passing it on. I hope someone else will love it just as much as I do.”

Greensboro’s unique Love’s labor. May it never be lost.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributing writer to O.Henry. He’s currently working on a novel about the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in Florida.

Minding Her Own Business

Minding Her Own Business

Three single moms push the envelope in entrepreneurialism

By Cassie Bustamante

Photographs by Bert VanderVeen

It’s often been said that motherhood is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. Its emotional, physical and mental requirements make for a job description no employer would put on paper: “We need you to take good care of this child. Feed it, teach it, nourish it, make sure it’s socialized and set it up for success in the world. Oh, and there are no days off.” On the other hand, entrepreneurship can be almost as demanding.

And yet, plenty of women undertake both jobs at the same time, running households while simultaneously building and running their own businesses. An audacious few are doing it as single parents.

We talked with three mothers who own their own companies — a retail store, a service business and an e-commerce shop —  while raising kids and doing so as single parents. These women are making their own way in the world, while showing their kids and other women what’s possible when you have a family, a dream and drive.

Lindsay Hirth

Owner of Scent Workshop

In the spring of 2017, Lindsay Hirth took a trip to Paris that would change the trajectory of her life. She’d already been toying with making soy candles at home, but during a visit to the City of Light, an idea ignited that would spark a candle and perfume making workshop in Friendly Center.

While soaking up la vie en Paree, Hirth attended a perfuming workshop and learned how to mix scents to create custom blends. She knew she could translate this new skill to candle-making. “I absolutely fell in love with it and I realized, number one, it’s not that hard to make a really great product if you have all these tools,” she says. “And number two, there was no place in the United States that had all these tools.” She called her new venture Scent Workshop.

Years ago, Hirth tried her hand at making soy candles when she noticed that commercial scented wall plugins were making her and her two children, now 14 and 10, feel ill. After researching, she discovered that many available products on the market are full of harmful chemicals. “So, I thought, well, how hard could it be to make my own soy candles?” She laughs, her blonde curls bouncing, and answers, “Turns out it’s really hard . . . There are a million things that can go wrong and I found all of them.”

That trip to Paris not only gave her the skills she needed to finally master candle-making. It also planted a seed. “This idea of starting a similar workshop in the United States but on a different scale, it became a whisper in my head and then it was a fire in my belly,” she recalls. “And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

A friend told her, “You have to do it.” But a conversation with her dad sealed the deal. He asked her, “What’s going to happen if you don’t do it?” Her gut response? “I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.”

Hirth, who was and still is also working full-time, initially set up shop at Revolution Mill, using late nights after the kids were in bed to prepare for weekend workshops. Her goal? To create not only candles and perfumes, but a sense of community among participants.

“It was 21 strangers in a room and everybody is working on this thing, but they’re also connecting,” she recalls of those early days. “And I always loved that by the end of the workshop, it was so loud in there that I would have to shout because everybody’s talking.”

She adds, “And it’s not just connection to each other, but it was also seeing people connect to their inner selves.” In particular, she recalls a customer who, when told to close her eyes, (a practice Hirth uses to help customers evoke feelings) would not. She told Hirth later, “I am going through a really bad divorce and I knew that if I closed my eyes, I would just fall apart — I need something that’s going to make me feel strong.” Hirth reports that by the end of that workshop, “she looked three inches taller.”

While starting the business and mastering making the perfect candle were challenges of their own, Hirth didn’t know what hardships still laid ahead.

In 2020, something no business forecaster could have predicted happened: COVID. Hirth was sure that it meant the end for Scent Workshop, which was fully booked at the time. “I remember sobbing for days and then finally I just sat in front of my computer and pressed refund over and over and over,” she says.

Closing up shop in Revolution Mill but not ready to throw in the towel, she pivoted and boxed up at-home candle-making kits. The orders poured in, keeping her afloat.

And then, just a few months later, Brianne Van Hemert, one of Hirth’s best friends, decided to open a Scent Workshop in Galena, Illinois. Hirth suddenly became a franchise owner, setting up shop in Greensboro again. The Galena store opened in October 2020 and, one month later, Scent Workshop opened its doors at its current location for the first time.

With the help of her staff, Hirth took every precaution to keep the new space safe, mandating masks, sanitizing everything and limiting workshops to six attendees, which made it “hard to pay the bills.” But the community she’d cultivated within those very first Revolution Mill workshops showed up. “They’d say, ‘You didn’t give up, I am so glad you made it,’” recalls Hirth, blue eyes tearing up at the memory. “And those moments really motivated me to keep going because I knew I had this beautiful community of support that I didn’t deserve but was there.”

And then in 2021, Hirth faced another unforeseen challenge. She and her former husband decided to call it quits, impacting her business in the sense that there was no longer “anyone to share that risk with and that’s a little scary.”

Hirth says that starting the business in 2017 taught her well to prioritize and “to be really, really present in those segments of time” with her kids, a skill she’s carried over into her new family situation.

Now, the time she spends with her kids has become even more precious. “When the kids are there with me, I don’t get any work done because I don’t want to,” she says, adding, “And as soon as they go spend time with their dad, I am cranking out work.” Of course, she still has that fire in her belly which keeps her burning the midnight candle long after their heads hit the pillow.

While she hopes her kids learn from her example of time management, she also wants them to see what it looks like to chase your dream. “I want to show them that it’s OK to invest in yourself and grow something that you love,” she says. “And I think it’s important that they see there’s not just one path for a career and creating a life that you love.”

In fact, her daughter often indicates how proud she is of her mom’s business, her own little dream in sight. “She’ll say things like ‘When do I get to start working there?’ And I think,” Hirth muses, “‘well, I better make sure that this lasts long enough for her to be able to work here.’”

Of course, Hirth has hopes of her own to keep growing the business, with a goal of opening many more locations country-wide. She’s already garnered lots of interest from customers in Florida and Texas. And she’d love to eventually get to a point where she can comfortably quit her day job, making Scent Workshop her sole source of income.

No matter where the future takes Scent Workshop, Hirth says, “It’s nice to be able to look at something that I created that is still there even though so much has changed. And it’s more about looking at what the business has given me, too,” she pauses. “It’s given me all my best friends, it’s given me my village. And I don’t think I would have gotten through the last three years without them.”

For more information, visit

Soumya Iyer

President of Allwave Site Solutions

On December 6, 2011, 27-year old Soumya Iyer became a first-time mother, welcoming her baby boy into the world at Greensboro’s Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital. Just over three weeks later as the new year was ringing in, Iyer became a solo parent when her husband walked away. Ever since then, she’s been on her own, raising a son, running her own company while maintaining another career, and buying a house four doors down from her parents, who had emigrated from India before she was born. How has she done it all?

“I don’t have a choice,” says Iyer (pronounced eye-er) as she sits on her living room sofa in a casual chambray dress, bare feet tucked under her. With a son who’s fully in her care, she’s had to keep moving forward, often at a breakneck pace, and has done so admirably and humbly. “I still don’t think I’ve had the time to really be comfortable with my stretch marks. I just haven’t had a moment to deal with it.”

Thankfully, being born and raised in Greensboro has provided Iyer with a network of family and friends. “My parents are my other half. We still have dinner there every day,” says Iyer, who works from her own home. “In the morning, if I’m on a call and don’t have time to make a pot [of coffee], I will actually walk over there on the call and then come back rather than make a pot.”

Childhood friends have also jumped in to offer help. Shortly after moving into her current home in 2021, Iyer renovated her large kitchen and wanted to follow a timeless Indian tradition. “In Indian culture, you want the blessings of the elders,” she says, “but I don’t cook — I don’t know how to cook.”

Swati Argade, who babysat Iyer as a child, pulled the blessing event together for her by organizing a group chat, selecting a menu and assigning tasks to other friends. “That is what has kept me afloat,” says Iyer of her community, despite “not having that perfect world I thought of as a family. I am making my own normal.”

Even with her “great village,” at the end of the day, Iyer must lean on herself. “Do I have people that are keeping me from working in a vacuum?” she asks. “Yes, but nobody’s helping me with my bills and nobody’s helping me with the decisions. And that is very, very hard.” She does it all not only because she has to in order to put food on the table, but also because she loves her son with an energy that radiates from her body.

She points to a wall of photos featuring her son at age 6, her mother and herself, dressed in glamorous and colorful saris with gold accents. For a long time, she says, “I wouldn’t take pictures of us because to me it was sealing the deal that it’s just the two of us.” But, after seeing a friend’s portraits taken by a fantasy photographer, she decided to creatively re-interpret how she viewed her circumstance.

“I am the queen now. I am the head of the family,” she says. “And I wanted to be proud. And this is it. This is my family and we’re gonna seal the deal and that’s that.”

What does she hope her child learns from her example? “I hope that he sees as he goes on that there is not just one way to skin the cat,” she says, and that anything he can dream is possible. “It’s a very clichéd saying, but anything you put your mind to, you can do.”

In 2011, Iyer moved back from Atlanta where she’d been living to have her baby. Although she originally planned to return to Atlanta, she remained in Greensboro. She was working as business manager of the engineering company nsoro LLC reporting to her boss and mentor, owner Darrell J. Mays. She began her career with him as a college sophomore at Clemson — an internship that led to a strong professional relationship.

When it was clear that she was not going to be able to return to Atlanta and needed to stay in Greensboro where her parents could provide childcare as needed, she approached Mays about her job. “His answer was, ‘Soumya, I don’t care where you live. Do what you have to do, but I still need you on that 8 a.m. call . . . If I need you to travel, I need you to do it,’” she recalls.

She knew it would be hard, but, as she says, “Life is not fair. The only fare is f-a-r-e, right?” It was challenging, but one thing her career has taught her is to take things “just a day at a time. Solve the problems that have to be solved today today.”

Nsoro LLC grew as Mays — a successful entrepreneur with a proven track record — sold and acquired various businesses. In February of 2016, Mays started a new venture, Pensare Technology Group, bringing Iyer with him. But, he told her, it would mean a huge cut in salary in exchange for shares. As a solo working parent, she decided to do some consulting on the side to generate extra income.

Soon after, an opportunity arose through consulting client Mark Key, founder of Allwave Site Solutions, a company that installs equipment on cell phone towers. Then, in September of 2016, Iyer made the move to partner with Key while maintaining her job at Pensare. But, by 2017, she had bought him out. Allwave Site Solutions became a certified WMBE — a women minority owned business — something Iyer is incredibly proud of.

Just a few years later, Iyer, with an eye on scaling, approached her then subcontractor, Joel Banos, who co-owned Skytell Wireless Services with his wife, Lindsey. Her idea was to buy him out while keeping him aboard because she recognized in Banos, who now holds the title of chief executive officer of Allwave, a skill set that complements her own. “He’s really good at managing the guys [on our crews]. He’s really good on the site,” she says. “And I am very good at strategic planning and growing the business.”

She credits her mentor, Mays, for teaching her the lesson of hiring those who are smarter than you, saying “If I am the smartest person in the room, we all have a problem. You better get out of that room fast.”

Following Mays’ lead on growth through acquisition, Iyer has her sights set on doubling Allwave in size and revenue, and stays open to the idea of selling.

When Mays sold a division of Pensare Technology Group in 2020, Iyer was hired by the acquiring  operating company, now named Calian Corp, in the IT and Cyber Solutions division as VP of customer success and service delivery. “It was like cutting the umbilical cord,” she recalls of moving into a new role with a much larger corporation, boasting about 4,500 employees.

And she’s got her own mind set on reaching C-suite level while making changes that will support other working women in the corporate world.

Starting at a smaller level, she’s hired a woman whose young twins can often be heard on calls. “We have to give grace to our mothers,” she says, fully understanding the juggling act. “The work she is doing is so impressive! And I am able to bring it to light.”

Already, under her leadership, change is brewing. Recently, Iyer was asked to cochair an internal women’s employee resource group. While she expected only a few to attend the first panel, 40 people showed up.

With one bare foot in front of the other, Iyer is making waves in her company, career and at home, providing a good life for her son, filled with opportunity. “It is scary, but my child adores me,” she says as tears spring to her dark brown eyes. “I hope he sees that I am trying for him.”

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Erienne Jones

Owner of Some Call Me Crunchy

Fifteen years ago at age 23, Erienne Jones began experiencing debilitating migraine headaches. Medicine eased the pain, but left her feeling lethargic. A few years later, a seemingly endless battle with vertigo arose, making her job as a teaching assistant and her grad school coursework a challenge. Finally, relief came in an unexpected way, setting her on an entirely new path, one that showed her that sometimes the most beautiful things in life are born of pain. Through self care and entrepreneurship, Jones discovered that taking care of business also means taking care of yourself.

Looking at Jones now, she is the picture of health with long, thick and shiny, dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, and radiant skin. She’s proud of how far she’s come, often showing her smiling visage on social media while promoting her natural face and body care online store, Some Call Me Crunchy. But that was not always the case.

When she first sought treatment for migraines, doctors prescribed Topamax. “It just made me feel horrible,” she says, cringing at the memory. “I had no appetite . . . I was scrawny.” When vertigo struck a few years later, doctors ran tests only to inform her that it was a symptom of an ongoing silent migraine — basically a migraine without the accompanying pain.

Desperate to feel better, Jones was willing to try anything and learned about Whole30 from some friends at her gym. She went on the 30-day eating program that eliminated processed foods through nutritionally balanced meals. “Within 30 days, the vertigo had gone away completely,” she recalls. “And I had had it for months and months.”

Thinking there might be a connection between her health and cleaner living, Jones began researching not only what she was putting into her body, but also what she was putting on her body and in her environment.

On a grad student budget, naturally made products were harder to access, so Jones decided to try her hand at making her own lotions, deodorants, facial cleansers and house-cleaning solutions, adding essential oils for a touch of aromatherapy. In just months, she noticed many changes for the better. No longer on prescription drugs, her migraines had eased up, her energy was back and her skin was on its way to looking better than ever. Before, she says, pointing across her jawline, “I had cystic acne from here to here.”

Excited about the results she was seeing and, more importantly, feeling better, she documented her experiences on a blog she called Some Call Me Crunchy, long before it would evolve into the online shop it is today. She continued blogging as a hobby while earning her master’s degree in library and information science and beginning her career as a Guilford County school librarian in 2013.

Meanwhile, she gave birth to two children, daughter Harper, now 8, and son Elias, now 5. Eventually she left her job to stay home and raise her kids, but, as she recalls, “That was the hardest job I have ever had.”

Knowing she needed something more to feel whole, Jones, encouraged by friends who swore by the products she shared with them, decided to try to sell her products online. While finding the time to dedicate to a new business was somewhat challenging, Jones discovered that the success of entrepreneurship changed how she viewed herself. “It made it so that I was filled up and I was able to love on my kids.” It proved to be just the thing to make her feel she was not only taking care of her children, but of herself: “Doing my business in and of itself is a form of self care for me.”

What had started as a quest to feel her best began to take root locally. She started selling at the Corner Market, located in Lindley Park (at that time) while her blog grew into a platform to market and sell her goods.

According to Jones, Greensboro is the “perfect-sized town” for a business like hers to bloom. While she now sells online and offers shipping, much of her customer base was built locally and remains here. “It’s small enough just to have these touch points with people and these connections with people,” she says.

Jones has also welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with local businesses, setting up pop-up shops at The Tasting Room. She’s also creating custom essential oil candles for her own online store with Scent Workshop, a candle-making shop in Friendly Center, plus selling paintings by local artist Thea DeLoreto and stickers from Tiny Plant Market. “I just didn’t know how much that would mean to me,” says Jones of both her community and collaborations, “how much the people that I met through my business would just be such a big deal for me.”

In addition to Scent Workshop, her products can be found locally at Vida Pour Tea. She recalls popping into Vida several years ago with Harper, who spied Some Call Me Crunchy products on the store’s shelves. “She was just so excited for me that I was almost in tears,” recalls Jones, who hopes that owning her own business inspires her kids to pursue their passions. Already, Harper, who dresses in bold colors and patterns, exhibits her mother’s creative spirit.

Surprisingly, it was through journaling and poetry, of all things, that she resolved the conflicting emotions involving motherhood and divorce into acceptance and respect for who she was. “I have been going through a divorce and just losing myself a little bit through that,” says Jones. “But all in an effort to find myself again, I have discovered poetry.” (Her poem, “New Year, New You,” can be found in the January 2023 issue of O.Henry.)  Eventually, she worked up the courage to share her written words on Instagram, where her themes of motherhood, grief, self love and acceptance resonated with her followers. Now, her printed poems are part of her seasonal collections.

These days, Jones, reenergized and renewed, can be found curled up in bed with her kids as they read through the Harry Potter series together. With shared custody of her children, she values her time with them more than ever, making every minute count. After being apart for a few days, she says through happy tears, “They come back to me and I am just overjoyed to be with them. It’s such a gift.”

Now, as Jones moves forward as a single mother, this business of self care, which evolved organically and carried her through some of life’s hardest challenges, must support her financially. But if she has learned anything from the last 15 years, it’s that some of life’s most beautiful surprises sprout up through the cracks of the most painful of circumstances.

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Uwharrie Here (You are here)

Uwharrie Here (You are here)

A seasoned hiker shares five favorite trails

By David Claude Bailey

As a travel writer and former airline-magazine editor, I’ve visited a mountain or two — Mount Olympus, the seat of Zeus in Greece, the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Mountain in California, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone. But all mountains are not created equal. Without getting New Age woo-woo on you, on some of them I get a feeling that transcends the five senses, an eerie, almost spiritual sense of connection.

I felt it first at Delphi, the ancient precinct that was home of the Delphic oracle. I felt it again among the ancient ruins near Ayacucho in Peru. And I feel it every time I go to the Uwharries, a Piedmont mountain range near Asheboro, where the peaks have been worn down from a whopping 20,000 feet to a mere 1,100.

How did that happen? More than 500 million years is one answer. When you tread the trails along Big Island Creek, you are walking on ground that belonged to the ancient landmass of Gondwana, a megacontinent that was once part of modern-day South America and Africa. Somewhere between 460 and 430 million years ago, part of Gondwana broke off and merged into ancient North America, piling up the Uwharrie mountains. Books and websites insist the Uwharries are the oldest mountains in North America, but that’s by no means the case. “The Rocky Mountains are between about 70 and 35 million years old,” says Kevin Stewart, a UNC Chapel Hill professor in the department of Earth, marine and environmental sciences. “Ancient mountains in the northern midwest stretch back to 2.5 billion years,” he says. And you want really old? Some mountains in South Africa are 6.3 billion years old.

In more recent years, the Uwharries have been the scene of gold mining, timbering, farming, bootlegging and, now, recreation, especially in 2023, N.C.’s official Year of the Trail. Running from south to north, the Uwharrie Trail is the longest single-track footpath in central North Carolina at 40 miles in length. Numerous other trails snake through the 52,000-acre National Forest, established in 1961.  

What I’ve attempted to convey here is a thumbnail, a personality portrait, if you will, of five of my favorite trails, paired with a number of unique hiking partners. This is not a hiking guide. Excellent guides to individual trails are available from websites such as and Don Childrey’s comprehensive Uwharries Lake Region Trail Guide covers more than 215 miles of trails in the area. I urge you to consult a guide or map before setting out. And happy trails.

Jumping Off Mountain Trailhead

Length | Two hikes are available from the trailhead, an 8-mile out-and-back and a 3.9-mile out-and-back.

Difficulty | Both hikes are challenging with significant elevation gain.

Dontʼt Miss | The sign in the parking lot that outlines a number of other nearby hikes.

Good to Know | The actual Jumping Off Rock, if you want to see it, is west, just a hop, skip and a jump up Flint Hill Road on the left.

Address | 2015 A Flint Hill Rd., Troy

“Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life,” the Carter family warbles, and it’s not bad advice. If a sunny walk in the woods is what you want, get yourself to the Jumping Off Rock Trailhead. Cross Flint Hill Road and hike up about a half-mile to the overnight camp cabin. There, you can enjoy a stunning, 360-degree view of the Uwharrie Mountains and have a picnic while reading the camp log. Keep going and you’ll bag an exhilarating 8-mile out-and-back hike to King Mountain, the highest point on the Uwharrie Trail.

However, as A.P., Sara, Ezra and Maybelle admit in the very same song, “There is a dark and a troubled side of life.” And maybe that’s just the sort of thing that appeals to you. If so, don’t cross that road. Trek right up in the shadow of the appropriately named Dark Mountain, as recommended in An Afternoon Hike into the Past, penned by the late Joe Moffitt, a trapper’s son who grew up in the Uhwarries during the Great Depression. That will put you on a trail trod by murderers, moonshiners, and the odd haint or two. Which is what we did.

Mind you, the switchbacks up Dark Mountain are challenging. Gaining 400 feet of elevation in less than a mile, twice, hikers not quite as old and in the way as we are pass us. After about three-quarters of a mile, you reach the ridge line. Follow the white blazes on the Uwharrie Trail and you’ll enjoy a glorious 3.9-mile out-and-back jaunt.

But we’ve come to see Paint Rock, which we look for along a deserted road to the left. “They all look kind of painted,” says Lin Marie, pointing to dark spots and orangish-brown splatters that are clearly lichen. A naturalist who worked for a nature museum and a state park, Lin knows a thing or two about plants and fungal identification. As we’re poking around, she briefs us on how fungal substrates allow fungi to respond to changing availability of resources. And how she’d just read a book on the way “mother trees” communicate with their offspring.

Lin is our resident polymath. If she doesn’t know it, she’ll look it up on the spot.

But back to Paint Rock. Moffitt, the legendary Uwharrie Trail-blazer, insists in his book that there’s a rock in the woods that still “bleeds” from where a giant man ran his sword through a diminutive Civil War deserter. As far as we can tell, there are numerous Paint Rocks. And maybe that fits Moffitt’s narrative: Three Civil War deserters were murdered near Dark Mountain in 1865. Bootleggers also killed two revenuers at nearby Licker Spring. And all of this in the environs of Jumping Off Rock Trailhead, named after another story that did not end well, as you might guess.

As we come across some of the largest boulders in the forest — larger than dumpsters and the Nifty Rocks near Badin Lake —  Lin, who helped Ohio State monitor butterflies for 15 years, is on the lookout. Lin, by the way, raises moths, which she adores. Honeybees not so much. “Alien invaders,” she calls them, just like earthworms. “Look it up,” she says, as we stare at her in disbelief.

We don’t find the cave where a bootlegger and his family once hid out. Nor do we see the ghost of the sacred white deer slain by Indian braves, nor any of the other ghosts Moffitt wrote about inhabiting the area. But as Moffitt observed, wandering around these shady hills is a bit unnerving: “I always seemed to feel as if someone is watching me.”

Better to get back in the sun and remember what the Carters sang about the sunny side: “It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way, if we’ll keep on the sunny side of life.”

Thornburg Trailhead


Length | 3.4 miles out and back, with side trails.

Difficulty | Moderately challenging with a fair amount of elevation gain.

Dontʼt Miss | The rocks strategically paced across the creek near the bridge.

Good to Know | As Wilder noted, it can be quite muddy.

Address | 3977 Lassiter Mill Rd., Asheboro

Getting Wilder out of his car seat when he’s raring to go is a little like untangling an octopus from a ball of yarn. So as soon as Cassie, his mom, finally gets his feet on the ground, he rips off across the farmyard like the Road Runner pursued by Wile E. Coyote.

“STOP!” the 4-year-old shouts all at once, holding up his hands as if to stop a train in its tracks. “I love birds,” he proclaims at the top of his voice, scaring away every song sparrow, robin, purple finch and chickadee within 100 yards. And as soon as he sees the circa 1850, two-story, apple-green Lewis-Thornburg farmhouse, surrounded by scraggly boxwoods, he also announces, “I love farmhouses.” Charging full throttle onto the porch, he’s fascinated by the screen door with its self-closing wheeze and whine, followed by a shuddering slam — for a solid minute. 

The National Register of Historic Places’ listing says not to miss the rambling farmhouse’s wide, heart-pine floorboards, the square balusters and moulded handrails on the staircase, the narrow, distinctive beadboard on the walls and ceiling. Wilder, though, is entranced by the mix of soot, feathers and leaves that have spilled out of the chimney onto the circa 1940s linoleum.

“I love holes in the wall,” he says of a crawl-space door left open on the second floor. Spotting a trap door overhead, I boost him up through the cutout and after peering around into the dim recesses off the attic, he says, “Spooky.” It is.

Ripping down the stairs, we’re on the back porch by the kitchen, where the well crank makes a mournful moan. Again and again and again.

“I love tractors,” Wilder says, lighting out across the yard to a brand spanking new John Deere behind the house. “Where’s the key?” he asks as he clambers up the steps and peers into a locked compartment where the shiny gear shift and steering wheel beckon. 

Then it’s shed exploration time. “Well, guys, someone’s been working here,” he says, discovering a coffee can filled with screws and nails in a tool shed. On to the corn crib, smokehouse, chicken houses, dog house, pigeon boxes, tack shed, hog shelter, animal chute . . . and an outhouse! Cassie restrains the Wilder unit from going head over heels through one of the two-seater holes. “Ewwwww, yucky,” he says as it dawns on him what’s what.

Finally, we’re on the actual trail heading down toward the creek. “STOP!” he says, stooping over. “Sparkles!” Yes, the red mud is alive with tiny, shimmering mica bits. Specimens of quartz from tiny to basketball-sized are everywhere, pieces of which he stuffs into his already overloaded pockets. On a little side trail across sage brush beaten down by rabbits, possums and the previous day’s rain, we’re soon surrounded by milkweed pods, which explode into a white flurry that swirls off into the wind, seeding next year’s crop.

Back on the main trail, Wilder halts progress again: “It’s a little ocean,” he pronounces as Cassie navigates him around a mud puddle, which Wilder stirs with a stick like a pot on the stove. A bridge twisted catawampus crosses Betty McGee’s creek. “Want some help?” Mom wonders. “Nawp,” he says, clamoring perilously near the creek. Then: “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t,” he admits. Pieces of bark torn from a shedding tree quickly become boats, which race down the creek. A pair of termites are minutely examined before they, too, float downstream.

We veer off onto another game trail and snake the edge of a field, where blackberry brambles soon occasion a cry of “Ouchy, ouchy, ouchy,” but no tears. “Snack,” comes to the rescue.

“STOP! It’s a gem,” Wilder says, holding up a rare piece of rosy quartz. No room left in his pockets, he casts it aside. “This is Quartz World,” Wilder decides. And he’s absolutely right. It might just be the second most magical place on Earth.

Purgatory Trail, North Carolina Zoo

“David, the entrance to the zoo is over there,” my wife, Anne, says as I slide into the North Carolina Zoo’s totally empty Parking Lot A.

“I thought we’d take a short walk in the woods before looking at the animals,” I tell her. “You’re gonna climb a mountain today.”

“The sign says ‘Purgatory Mountain,’” my knee-challenged wife points out.

“Trust me,” I say. She’s heard that before.

“It’s a gentle stroll, suitable for people with mobility issues,” I say pointing to a sign. “Even in wheelchairs.”

“The sign says it’s wheelchair accessible for only 0.125 miles.”

And so it is — on a wide path paved with very fine gravel, that too soon segues into a little more rugged trail that winds its way up through towering pines and mature hardwoods. “You’ve hiked 1/8 mile,” says an un-milepost.

“That vulture is following us,” says Anne as its shadow swoops across the fallen leaves.

Through the trees on our right we see the seedy underbelly of the zoo, piles of rocks, dirt and debris. I, of course, want to explore, but Anne keeps me on the not-so-straight and not particularly narrow path. To our left, deep woods and massive boulders the size of baby elephants stretch to the horizon.

“Acadian fly catcher,” my resident birder says. “No, a peewee. No, eastern phoebe.”

We breeze past the sign heralding the endangered Schweinitz’s sunflower; past the sign explaining woodland seeps (small pools), which sometimes harbor the rare four-toed salamander; past the sign marking the half-mile point.

“I’m doing OK,” reports Anniel Boone.

“Elevation 900 feet, with 150 feet of vertical ascent,” I announce after consulting my Gaia GPS app.

At the summit, where we’re congratulated for walking 5,280 feet, it’s 950 feet above sea level, only 60 feet shy of the highest point on the Uwharrie Trail. After enjoying the vista, we read all about ghosts, Indians, legendary critters, bootleggers, Confederate objectors and why the mountain was named Purgatory.

“Maybe because it’s just short of Hell’s Gate,” jests Anne, who, in the end, admits it’s a great trail and worth the climb, mobility issues or not.

“Climb every mountain, ford every stream . . .” I counter, breaking into song.

Tot Hill Farm Trailhead


Length | Our “lollipop” trek totaled 7.4 miles. If you just hiked to Camp 5 and back, it would be 6.4 miles.

Difficulty | More than moderately challenging with 607 feet of elevation gain.

Dontʼt Miss | The gold mines. You can visit them without making the loop by taking a left after 2 miles onto the Coolers Knob/Camp 3 trail. They’re about a mile down the trail.

Good to Know | There’s not a sign on the road marking the Tot Hill Trailhead. Slow down and look for it as soon as you see the golf course.

Address | 3091 Tot Hill Farm Rd., Asheboro 27205

My friend Randall’s German shepherd is a free-range critter. Unlike his urban canine counterparts, the Pia dog is untrammeled by leashes, fences or property lines. Randall lets her out whenever there’s a need . . . and Pia rings the doorbell to be let back in. German shepherds are like that, though she has yet to master the TV remote control. Pia has learned, for instance, how to roll down the rear window of Randall’s truck whenever we sit in the front seat piddling with our GPS apps.

“I’ve got her child-locked in — or maybe I should say dog-locked,” says Randall as Pia paws the rear-window button in the parking lot of the Tot Hill Farm Trailhead, the northernmost point of the Birkhead Mountain Wilderness Area.

Pia’s jet-black “eyebrows” shoot up and down in consternation. She twists her head quizzically to one side as if to say, “Did we come here just to sit around?”

We did not. We came to roam free, just like Pia and the couple of kids we turn back into as soon as we hit the trail. Our playground is the 52,000-plus-acre Uwharrie National Forest that stretches into Montgomery, Randolph and Davidson Counties.

Note that I said National Forest, not park. Under National Forest rules, Pia can run free. As can we. Cross-country trekking is allowed, as is horseback riding, ATV riding, camping, panning for gold, hunting and fishing — all, of course, with some reasonable restrictions. (You must “control” your pets.) While National Parks emphasize preservation of pristine areas, National Forests are managed for many purposes, including cattle grazing, mining and lumbering — permits required.

Our inner child kicks in as we cross Talbotts Branch. We pass the stone remains of a dam and watch Pia sniff dismissively at some coyote scat. At about a mile into the walk, we rest while Pia fetches.

At the tippy top of Coolers Knob our GPS says we’ve clocked 333 feet of vertical ascent in 1.2 miles. We pant. Pia pants. We keep booking it, heading for Camp 5, one of a number of campsites established by Joe Moffitt. In 1972, he started his Uwharrie Trail Project, backed literally by troops of Boy Scouts. Now, 40-some miles of trails later, Pia examines the camp for any scraps of Beanie-Weenies. At the 3-mile mark, we hang a left and take the Camp 3 Trail, which is marked as the Coolers Knob Mountain Trail on some maps. This initiates a loop that will take us back to Coolers Knob. Serious hikers call this a lollipop trek because of its shape on the map. Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most magical hikes in the Uwharries. We descend to the inviting Camp 3 site, checking out an enclosed spring, where we would never drink the water without purifying it first, especially after Pia drinks out of it. Decades peel away and we’re soon frolicking knee-deep in a maze, aptly named fern valley.  At 3.9 miles, we cross a cascading brook. A gentle waterfall is punctuated with islands of wildflowers.


At four miles, we come to a series of open-pit gold mines, each of which Pia explores extensively. These are the remains of a gold mining era that began in 1799 when a 12-year-old found a 17-pound nugget of gold in a creek near Charlotte. Farmers riddled their land with open pits and shafts like the ones that surround us. At one time, as many as 600 mines dotted the nine counties surrounding Montgomery County. Randall, Pia and I once panned the Uwharrie’s streams for gold (

We did not strike it rich. And that’s OK. The riches of the Uwharries are less tangible — its lush vegetation and wildlife, its wilderness, and its storied past. Pia knows all about what, to her, is most precious in the Uwharries: running without a leash, uninhibited by paths and private property. Although I hike for exercise and adventure, I’m always looking for something else — for the child who once roamed free without a care. And for the ties that bind us to the land and to those who inhabited it millennia before we did. Whether it’s the plane crash site a mile from where we are, or the Moonshine Run Trail, or the hike to Bingham’s Graveyard, the treasures of the Uwharrie Mountains always beckon.

Wildlife Resources Commission Birkhead Wilderness Area Trail

Length | 4 miles, more or less, depending on when you want to turn around. It’s not a loop trail.

Difficulty | Easy-peasy. Fairly flat and wide.

Dontʼt Miss | The graveyard if you can find it. And be careful not to venture out of the Wilderness Area. It borders private property.

Good to Know | The entrance is easy to miss. Slow down!

Address | 3800 High Pines Road, Asheboro

I smell onions,” Randall says.

“My cheese-and-raw-onion sandwich,” Joe replies between munches.

“At least Bailey’s not eating kippered herring. Move downwind,” suggests Randall.

For me, half of the joy of hiking comes from what my daddy called picking at your friends.

“Where’s this slave graveyard,” Joe wonders as we blaze our way through an explosion of hollies, their red berries punctuating dotting the understory of dogwoods and sourwoods.

Randall, who lives in the Uwharries, leads us, again and again, down one remote, wild and off-the-beaten path after another. And that’s exactly what we encounter at the clumsily-named Wildlife Resources Commission Birkhead Wilderness Area Trail. (Let’s just call it the WRCBWAT.) It’s connected to — and about 2.5 miles southeast of — the heavily-trod Tot Hill Farm Trailhead.

By contrast, the WRCBWAT is practically untrammeled. 

“This looks more like an old road than a trail,” Joe observes.

“It is, in fact, a former road,” says Randall.

For onion-eating history buffs like Joe, hiking in the Uwharries is like walking back into the pages of a leafy anthology. On our 4-mile trek, we encounter, among other artifacts, a series of abandoned but open gold mines (very common in the Uwharries), the stone remnants of a chimney, vestiges of several homesteads (aka junk piles), the aforementioned graveyard and the ghost of a housing development.

It turns out that the trail we’re on had been graded decades ago by a developer for a 40-unit tract, but was rescued by the Three Rivers Land Trust. That enabled the folks at N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to buy a prime piece of forest adjacent to the 52,000-acre-plus Uwharrie National Forest, which became the 6,000-acre Birkhead Mountain Wildnerness Area.

Our path surely overlaps the trail of pioneers who’d settled in the area as early as the 1760s, having traveled down the Occaneechi Path (aka Great Trading Path). At least 12,000 years ago, the Catawba Indians hunted in the very woods around us, now designated as N.C. game lands. (Always wear orange in the Uwharries during hunting season.)

“That’s it,” I say, pointing to a flat area. Standing erect in two rows are more than a dozen rough-hewn markers, some larger than others, all without inscriptions. “Maybe tenant farmers. Maybe slaves. Who knows?” I say. “And, yes, I do know ‘enslaved’ is now preferred among politically-correct speakers.”

“Children’s graves,” Randall speculates of the rocks that are the size of serving platters.

“King of the hill,” Joe suggests, pointing to one stone much larger than the rest.

We fall silent, gazing at the markers of those who once lived and loved and worked and played where we now stand.

“You’re never alone in the woods,” I say.

David Claude Bailey is grateful to former Greensboro News & Record columnist Jerry Bledsoe for writing about the Uwharries way back when.



Working Without a Net

The bold, acrobatic Carolina chickadee

By Susan Campbell

The chickadee is one of the most beloved feeder birds across the country. Central North Carolina is no exception, but “our” chickadee species is the Carolina chickadee, merely one of five different chickadees commonly found in the United States.

Chickadee species are quite similar, but the Carolina averages the smallest — less than 5 inches in length. It also has a range that extends farthest south: from central Florida, throughout the Gulf States and across to central Texas. The Carolina chickadee overlaps with the more widely distributed black-capped chickadee in parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. Black-cappeds and Carolina chickadees are very challenging to separate in areas where they are both found. Subtle differences such as the coloration of the edges of the wing feathers and variations in the calls are used to tell them apart. Here in North Carolina, black-cappeds can be found at the highest elevations of the Appalachians.

Carolina chickadees reside in a variety of woodlands across the state, from the mountains to the Outer Banks. They feed on everything from insect larvae to seeds and berries. Their stout, pointed bill is a useful tool for both picking at and prying open food. And these little birds are quite the acrobats: They have very strong feet, which enable them to easily cling upside down when foraging. Carolina chickadees are regular customers year-round not only at our sunflower seed feeder, but on the suet cage feeder. They are very bold, driving off woodpeckers and wintering warblers to get at the protein-rich offerings.

Our chickadees are not migratory, so the same individuals are around from day to day. Family groups will associate from summer through late winter before the young wander away in search of mates of their own. If they are to do so, it has to happen quickly, because the breeding season starts early for these little birds. Carolina chickadees are looking for empty cavities or a small snag by the end of February. Nests of soft materials are built during the month of March. A thick outer layer of mosses or shredded bark is lined with animal fur or plant down. The nest conceals the eggs and insulates the young during the cool days and nights of early spring.

It is fun to watch female chickadees during their nest building. They are the busy architects with the males looking on, defending the territory from other chickadees or competing nuthatches. Clumps of fine cat or dog hair (puggle undercoat is very popular in our yard) will be gathered by the mouthful if available. Otherwise, chickadees will, believe it or not, seek out mammals such as raccoons and pick loose strands of fur to take back to their nests.

A pair of chickadees may raise four to six young in a year. If eggs are lost to predators or the weather, they may try again, provided it is not too late in the season. Often chickadees are replaced by bluebirds or titmice in birdhouses come May or June, once their young have fledged.

So keep an eye out. You may find you have a pair of these feisty birds that has set up housekeeping nearby, or perhaps you will see a new family of chickadees descend on your feeder like the Flying Wallendas. OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

A Religion of Birds

On a wing and a prayer, a mother attempts to explain life’s greatest mystery

By Sarah Ross Thompson

It’s the first day of preschool. I am making a last-minute sign for my 3-year-old, Owen, to hold while I take his picture on our front steps. You know the ones, complete with name, age and class (Bees). Lastly, I ask him, “Hey, O, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he replies, “Well, when I die, I want to be a bird.”

Caught somewhere between laughing and crying, I say, “That’s such a nice idea.” And then, because there is still the sign to think about, “You like firefighters a lot, too.”

“Yeah, firefighters, Mommy!” he agrees.

His words, of course, stay with me the rest of the day. After some thought, I realize that the idea must have come from a trip to the Bog Garden months before. He and I had walked hand-in-hand on the trail while his infant sister rode along strapped to my chest in the front-carrier. We fed the ducks, called for owls, noticed the chickadees hopping on their tiny feet, and, toward the end of our walk, came upon a crow that had died. To my surprise, Owen became tremendously emotional, refusing to leave the bird’s side. And because it’s almost impossible to carry a crying 3-year-old down a steep, muddy trail with one baby already strapped to your chest (If you’ve been there, you know), I had no choice but to stay — and breathe — and discuss the afterlife of the crow.

While I believe in God, I am not a churchgoer. I look for God in nature, love and moments of stillness. Moments such as sitting on a muddy trail, holding my babies and trying to make sense of loss in such a beautiful world.

I don’t pretend to actually know what happens to crows after they die. And yet, I can’t bring myself to leave him with that helpless feeling of uncertainty. So instead, I share with Owen bits and pieces of what I hope happens. “We are only seeing this bird’s body. Its soul is in the air all around us,” I say. “You have a soul, I have a soul, and this bird has a soul, and souls live forever. This bird’s soul may even come back as another bird one day.”

He seems to take this in and process it, asking through sniffles and staggered breath, “What kind of bird, Mommy?” I feel almost paralyzed with the awareness and responsibility of how much weight my words carry for him. It’s not until six months later on the first day of preschool that I discover his words carry the same power for me.

Since then we’ve talked a lot about birds. We’ve got bird feeders, birdhouses, birdbaths, you name it. There is absolutely nothing better or easier than going to feed ducks, geese or swans with my now 5- and 2-year-olds. We do it so often that it’s become our own little religion.

Certain things about birds I hold sacred: Red birds remind me of my Mema, yellow birds remind me of my Grandma and, when I see these birds in our yard, I believe they are my grandmothers coming to check in on us. Or maybe to remind me to be still, to look up, to breathe.

And I agree with Owen: When I grow up (and eventually die) I want to be a bird.

It reminds me of that iconic line from The Notebook, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.”

But seriously, please God, let me be a bird. I want nothing more than to navigate eternity with my children’s wings flapping by my side.  OH

Sarah Ross Thompson lives in Greensboro with her husband, John, and her children, Owen and Ellie. A psychologist by training, she finds getting lost in the woods and writing little stories to be two of the greatest therapies.

Nature’s Wonders

Nature’s Wonders

Cheeky Chippies

A closer look at this adorable mammal

By Mike Dunn

Our home has a lot of windows, so we can look out and watch the goings-on of our wild neighbors in the yard. After living on this property for several years, I looked out one morning and saw a brown blur racing from a stone wall to a small footbridge. What was that? It moved so fast as it darted between the plants and under the bridge. In a few seconds, I knew the answer: our first chipmunk! I was hooked — chipmunk-watching can be addicting. A few days later, there were two dashing around the yard and, ever since, I have enjoyed observing their antics as they go about their busy lifestyle. I later learned that a group of chipmunks is called a scurry, an appropriate name for these critters, which I think are the cutest of all our native wildlife species.

Chipmunks are a type of small ground squirrel, measuring only 8 to 10 inches in total length, including about a 4-inch tail. There are over 20 species of chipmunks in the United States, but our only species here in the Piedmont is the Eastern Chipmunk, Tamias striatus. The genus name, Tamias, is Greek for “storer,” and describes their habit of squirreling away large quantities of food in their burrows. The species name, striatus, means “striped” and refers to their most recognizable physical trait — the alternating dark and light stripes on their cheeks and back. The word chipmunk is from a Native American word meaning “one who descends trees head first.” Though they are a ground squirrel, I have witnessed them run up a tree trunk when startled. They also climb to seek nuts or seeds or to get a better vantage point as they chew on an acorn or scan their territory. 

Another notable feature of chipmunks are their expandable cheek pouches, which they can stuff with seeds, nuts, berries and other food. Each pouch has an opening between the jaw and the cheek that can expand to be the size of half a ping-pong ball. I enjoy watching our “chippies” (a word that I now can’t help calling these little dynamos) run around as they gather nuts and seeds and stuff them in their pouches until their heads are almost three times the original size. Observers have counted as many as 60 sunflower seeds or three acorns being stuffed into one pouch. The quantity they can gather in a short time is impressive. One person recorded a chipmunk hoarding 150 acorns in one day. And famed 19th-century naturalist John Burroughs once observed a chipmunk collect and store 5 quarts of hickory nuts, 2 quarts of chestnuts and a large amount of shelled corn – almost a bushel of food. The pouches are emptied by squeezing the food out with their front feet. Cheek pouches allow chipmunks to quickly gather large amounts of food in preparation for winter and thereby reduce the amount of time they are out in the open exposed to predators.

Chipmunks always seem to be on the lookout for potential danger — probably because they’re on every predator’s dinner menu (hawks, foxes, coyotes, snakes and free-ranging house cats are local dangers). Chipmunks make warning calls to alert others of the presence of predators. Researchers have discerned three main types of alarm calls given by Eastern Chipmunks: a chip-trill — a short high-pitched call made while running to defend territory or escape predators; a high-frequency chipping call made from a stationary position like a prominent rock or log that indicates a threat from a terrestrial predator; and a lower-frequency chucking call when facing a threat from an aerial predator like a hawk (again made while stationary). The repeated low-pitched clucking note of chipmunks is a woodland sound that fooled me years ago when I first heard it, thinking it was some sort of bird. Now when I hear it, I scan the sky for hawks. Once they are spooked, a chipmunk can disappear in a hurry, scampering to their burrow or other shelter, tail held high.

Chipmunks are most active early in the morning, with another peak in late afternoon. I see them forage all across the yard and nearby woods, but they are particularly fond of the areas around the bird feeders (no surprise there) and the rock walls around our two ponds. They have regular paths they take to and from their burrows as they forage. Burrows can be extensive, especially for the females. A tunnel system can consist of several entrances (a main entrance and some escape exit holes) extending a few feet underground and spanning 10 or more feet in length. They may have multiple underground chambers for different purposes like food storage, raising their young, sleeping or even an outhouse. It can be difficult to find a chipmunk burrow since they usually carry away the excess dirt in their cheek pouches, leaving no obvious mound of dirt at the entrance. Plus, they often disguise their burrow entryways. Two years ago, we started finding 1-1/2- to 2-inch holes in our gravel walkway off our deck. One would appear, then get filled in, and another would pop up in a different location. We suspected chipmunks, but it wasn’t until I put a trail camera on one of the holes that it was confirmed. A chipmunk was indeed going in and out and would periodically drag leaves, sticks and even rocks over to hide the hole.

The tunnel system is particularly important in winter, when chipmunks go into torpor, a hibernation-like state of suspended activity with reduced heart rates, body temperature and breathing. Since chipmunks don’t develop a huge layer of body fat like bears do for the winter, they must wake periodically to eat some of their stored food and void waste products. They may stay awake for several days and even wander above ground during warm winter weather. I have even seen chipmunk tracks in the snow in our yard (you remember snow, don’t you?) after a January thaw.

Chipmunks breed in early spring and often again in summer, producing broods of three to five babies. The females nurse their young underground until they venture out after six to eight weeks. I remember seeing the first baby chipmunks in our yard over a decade ago — four bundles of energy about two-thirds the size of the adults, zigzagging everywhere as they chased and tumbled with each other. Soon after, they were on their own, finding new territories and digging their first burrows. Home range is usually pretty small, often only a third of an acre up to about an acre depending on food availability. Life expectancy in the wild is 2 to 3 years.

The distribution of chipmunks in our state is highly variable — some suitable habitats in Wake County have an abundance, others none. Until recently, they were not found in the Coastal Plain, but have shown up in the Wilmington area in recent years (eight new counties were added to their range in 2021). Found in both urban and rural areas, they prefer open woodlands and forest edges with dry ground for digging their burrows.

Some days I see two or three chipmunks darting about the yard and it just makes me smile. I know that a few people dislike these little guys as they may steal a snack out of your garden, but, so far, we have lost only a few bites from low-hanging tomatoes and the occasional bean to our chippies. So I, for one, am glad they have decided to chip and cluck in our woods.  OH

Mike Dunn is a lifelong naturalist educator living on 14 acres of woods in Chatham County. When not chasing chipmunks with a camera, he enjoys camping, canoeing, and observing and sharing the natural world, from NC to Yellowstone and beyond. Learn more at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Not So Fast

Old dogs learn new appliances

By Maria Johnson

I was warming up a cup of coffee in the microwave.


I expected that.


I didn’t expect that.

It happened when I opened the door of our built-in microwave, which required me to slightly lift up on the handle, which was necessary because the hinges were bent.

Later, I tried to remember how the hinges had gone south.

Best guess: gravity aided long ago by a young son reaching up to open (i.e. hang on) the door in the process of exploding his Easter Peeps in the microwave because he’d heard that was possible and wondered if that was really true.

The answer was yes. A vivid pink yes.

In any case, the hinges were bent but the door still worked. And, as with so many things that are damaged but still functional, we lived with it and adjusted our behavior slightly as a work-around.

So we tugged upward to open the door.

Several times a day.

For 20-plus years.

What could go wrong?

Standing there, with a detached microwave handle in my hand, it took my uncaffeinated mind a few seconds to grasp what, indeed, could go wrong.

“Oh, no,” my husband said from across the room.

He was focused on the microwave.

“Oh, ****!” I said.

I was focused on the coffee inside the microwave.

I clawed at the edges of the door.

“Stop! You’re gonna break it!” my husband implored.

“Too late!” I barked.

Always good at triage, I was on a mission to save as many fresh-ground lives as I could.

One butter knife later, I calmly sipped my coffee. We surveyed the damage.

The door handle was part of the frame, which was irreparably broken.

A few telephone calls later, we learned that a new door was not available.

The only alternative was to buy a new microwave, which meant buying a new wall oven, too, because they were sold as a single unit, and we didn’t fancy rebuilding the wall.

Luckily, a locally-owned appliance store could order a replacement that would fit perfectly.

In the meantime, we patched the microwave handle as best we could, with black duct tape, upon the advice of our Peep-wrecking son, now an engineer who specializes in — wait for it — superheated, molded plastics.

In other words, you might have to wait a long time to see the benefit of your kid blowing up his Easter candy, but, God willing, the payoff will come when you need it most.

A couple of months later, our father-daughter installers, Dave and Alison, showed up with the new combo. They were lovely, professional people with entertaining stories about Dave’s Maine Coon cat, who eats salad and relaxes in a water-filled bird bath.

Never mind supply chain delays. Those images were worth the wait.

At the end of the installation, Dave gave a quick demonstration of how to use the new appliances, which shared a banner-style control panel across the top. The microwave controls were on the left, under “upper oven.” The regular oven controls were on the right under “lower oven.”

If we were baking something and needed to use the microwave oven at the same time, we would see a split screen of cooking in progress.

Oddly, Dave explained, when the microwave was finished, only the microwave display — not the oven display — would remain on screen unless we pushed the “cancel/off” button on the left side.

“Don’t push the cancel/off button on the right side, or you will turn off the oven. That’s what most people do,” he cautioned. “Got it?”

I rocked my noggin like a bobble-head in a sort of “yes-no-not-really” motion.

“It’s really a design flaw that they should fix,” he said.

I bobbled an affirmation.

“We’ll read the instruction manual,” I said weakly.

After Dave and Alison left, Jeff and I were faced with the horrible truth.

We would have to learn something new.


At the same time.

It wasn’t gonna be pretty.

One year before, we’d reconfigured our trash can/recycling can setup in the kitchen.

Months later, we were still dropping plastic bottles into the empty under-counter space where the recycling can had been.

We finally we caught on. Though in times of omelet-induced stress, I have been known to toss egg shells into the recycling can, which stands where the trash can used to.

Brain experts would explain this in terms of neural pathways. The more a behavior is repeated, the stronger the nerve connections leading to that behavior. Unused pathways disappear.

That’s why learning new tricks is the best way to slow down mental decline, according to scientists who probably croaked with their microwaves still in boxes.

That night, Jeff and I stared at our new brain trainer.

We wanted to warm up some leftovers.

It took us twice as long to figure out the correct order of steps — five in all — as it did to heat the food.

But we’re gaining on it. We’ve hacked the zapping down to two steps not found in the instruction book.

Turns out, old dogs aren’t half bad at learning new tricks.

And hungry dogs are even better.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

Pleasures of Life

Pleasures of Life

Hats Off to Hats

With a little help from the royal family

By Ruth Moose

I miss wearing, seeing, buying hats. Queen Elizabeth always wore the most elegant, most becoming, absolutely stunning hats. Hats that matched her outfits. Perfect hats. Of course, she did have at her command and fingertips the finest millinery in the land. And she did them proud. What are the chances a newly crowned King Charles III can do half as much for the humble hat?

My grandmother, a country preacher’s wife, owned two hats — one for summer, one for winter. Summer’s hat was a flat pancake of black straw with silk daisies. Winter’s hat was a black felt cloche with a feather or two. She would never have gone to church bareheaded.

Nor without her gloves.

The last time I wore a hat was to a funeral. I had, on a crazy whim, gotten some fairy hair for fun. It was a sort of passing fancy, and the funeral for my sister-in-law was totally unexpected. I could not go to a funeral sporting red and blue and green fairy hair. Since it was January, I dug my black felt cloche from the top closet shelf and very respectfully went to the funeral. I was the only one there wearing a hat.

My mother was not a hat person, so I must have gotten my “hats” gene from my grandmother.

My Great Aunt Denise sold hats in the Peebles department store in Norwood, North Carolina, the town where she lived. It must have been the smallest store in the Peebles chain, yet she sold the most hats.

Every December Peebles paid for Aunt Denise to take the train from Hamlet, North Carolina, to New York to buy for the store. They knew every woman in town depended on her to “know” the market.

When the women of Norwood came into Aunt Denise’s Peebles, they went directly upstairs to the mezzanine, where Ladies’ Ready to Wear had mannequins with no arms, nor legs, that sat on tables wearing hats in every color, shape and fabric. Wide hats, tall hats, hats with flowers and feathers. Spring hats were pink and yellow, fluffy as frosted cakes. Some had veils or netting. All had ribbons. Fall and winter hats were serious in grays, blacks and browns. Gray hats hugged the mannequins close. They were the colors of rain and fog. Black hats were dark as night, and the women in Norwood knew they had to have at least one for funerals. It might have a feather or a veil, but it had to be a solemn piece.

No salesperson, male or female, ever knew their Ready to Wear clientele better than Aunt Denise knew hers. “Mrs. Cohen, when I was in New York last week and saw this hat, I knew it was just for you. I said to the designer, ‘I know just the lady for that hat.’” And then she’d add, in a whisper, “I only bought one. You won’t see yourself coming and going in this town. No ma’am.” Then she’d hold that hat up like a prize trophy, and Mrs. Cohen would start to reach for it, but Aunt Denise would step back, still holding the hat aloft. “Here,” she’d say, “let me put it on for you.” Then she’d lift it lightly, lay it on like a crown. “There,” she’d say, “don’t you feel like a queen now!”

Do you suppose Charles will feel so good?  OH

Ruth Moose taught creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for 15 years and tacked on 10 more at Central Carolina Community College.