Almanac Sept 2017

For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. 

For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.

— Edwin Way Teale

Soft thuds of September apples tap at the windows of ancient memories.

This is how it always goes. Long before the leaves turn golden-orange-scarlet-purple, we feel the subtle yet sudden arrival of fall. We can smell it in the air. Even our skin has memorized this electric instant.

We open the kitchen window.

Inside, chrysanthemums in mason jars and herbs in tidy bundles, hung to dry. Outside, a murmuration of swallows flashes across the whispy-clouded horizon, confirming what we already know: Autumn is here. This moment of recognition is embedded in our bones. 

Among the harvest — winter squash and lettuce greens — Rome Beauties call for homemade pie. Brilliant red spirals of skin fall away with each smooth crank of the apple peeler, spelling out a sacred message on the countertop. We flash back to grade school, remember twisting the stems of our lunchtime apple to see whom we might marry. 

Soon, the trees will be naked as the apples on the cutting block. We cut them into perfect slices, toss them in brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Autumn’s first breeze filters through the open window — a dear, bright-eyed friend returning home with stories and souvenirs.

Harvest Season

September apples call to mind Pomona, Roman goddess and virgin wood nymph depicted as keeper of the orchards and fruit trees. The harvest she effortlessly carries in her arms reminds us of the sweet abundance of this most prolific season.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, one of the best days for harvesting this month is with the new moon on Sept. 1. The full moon rises on Saturday, Sept. 16, which also happens to be International “Eat an Apple Day.”  Lakota tribes associated this moon as the time when the “plums are scarlet.” For the Omaha, it rose “when the deer paw the Earth.” 

On Friday, Sept. 22, the sun enters Libra (the Scales) on the autumnal equinox. We look to nature and our gardens to remind us of our own need for balance and harmony. Day and night will exist for approximately the same length of time. Literally and figuratively, now is time to reap what we have sown.

The Feast of the Archangels is a minor Christian festival observed on Friday, Sept. 29. Also called Michaelmas, this celebration honors the angelic warrior who protects against darkness.

As autumn days grow shorter, we acknowledge the dance between lightness and dark.

Crock-Pot Apple Butter


6 pounds apples (variety)

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg


1. Peel, core and slice apples.

2. Combine apples, sugar and spices in a Crock-Pot; cover and cook on high for one hour.

3. Remove lid, and cook on low, stirring occasionally, until apple butter reaches a spreadable consistency and is dark brown in color. Cook time will vary, depending on the types of apples you use.

4. Transfer apple butter to hot, sterilized jars.  OH



The milkweed pods are breaking,

And the bits of silken down

Float off upon the autumn breeze

Across the meadows brown.

— Cecil Cavendish, The Milkweed

A Slice of Heaven

Joe and Liz Kelleher keep the home fires burning
in their hidden Green Valley ranch

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Amy Freeman


This,” Joe Kelleher says with a wry little grin as he stokes up the flames of his backyard pizza oven, “is the known center of the universe.”

In a sense, Joe and his wife, Liz Kelleher, have found the best of both worlds — and certainly the center of their universe — in a  typical yet gorgeously renovated Green Valley ranch house tucked into a verdant corner on a high and heavily forested ridge above Greensboro’s seven-acre Cascade Park.

As Joe tends to the hardwood coals of his one-of-a-kind wood-fired oven he crafted by hand — more on this engineering feat in a Green Valley moment — hummingbirds flit among  the late-summer blossoms of Liz’s lush woodland garden. All at once, you get the fleeting feeling of visiting fortunate former-city friends, urban flatlanders who traded the grind of city life for a retreat in the untrammeled country. In short, the sense of splendid (if suburban) isolation is wildly palpable.

“We love this house because it feels like a house in the forest to Joe but is close enough for me to walk to Harris Teeter,” Liz allows with a coy little smile of her own as she shapes out the fresh dough for Joe’s homemade pizzas on the work counter of her  blissfully uncluttered kitchen. She recalls how even before she set foot in the house in June of 1991, she knew this little abode was perfect for their growing family of five.

“I took one look at the backyard,” she adds, “and I knew Joe would love it. And why not? A beautiful forest began at the end of the driveway.”

Despite growing up in cities — Liz in Raleigh, Joe on Cornwallis Drive in Greensboro (“Before Cone Boulevard was built!”) — the great outdoors in general, and forests in particular, beckoned the inner nature child of both Joe and Liz. According to script, fate introduced them at N.C. State in the 1970s where both were studying forestry. After marrying and working their first jobs in the forestry business down in Bertie County and Lake Waccamaw, respectively, the couple returned to Greensboro, where Joe went  into business with his brother and father, and later opened his own firm specializing in fine hardwoods.

“In those days, we had a small house on the north side of town with three little kids,” Liz remembers. “And not a lot of room for a growing family. We moved, basically, for the schools on the west side of town and were fortunate to find the perfect small house with lots of rooms and plenty of doors! For privacy.”

“That’s important,” Joe deadpans,” in a small house.”

During the summer of 1991, a real estate agent found them the modest 1,800-square-foot ranch perched on the edge of a forested ravine — four bedrooms, two baths, a living room, and cozy den with a fireplace, plus a nice eat-in kitchen. “It fit like a glove,” says Liz. “We found home.”

Time and childhood have a way of passing quickly, especially for busy parents. In 2006, with the young ’uns (two girls and a boy) suddenly grown and flown, Joe added a dramatic screened porch with a cathedral ceiling to the back of the property, which quickly became the couple’s favored morning and evening spot for coffee, talk and reading. Just under a decade later, they embarked on a long-planned renovation using local builder Rob Wilcox of Design/Build Service Remodeling.

“I’d been collecting designs I liked and renovation ideas from magazines and the Houzz website for a long time,” says Liz, who nevertheless hired a local designer to consult with her on how to create the ideal “forever” house for a very active couple that was nearing retirement age. “All I knew at the start was that I wanted a house, and especially a kitchen, that was open, bright and sunny — not cluttered and as serene as possible.”

To accommodate this vision, the couple blew out an outside utility room to provide for a kitchen expansion that included customized white cabinetry with dramatic black soapstone counters and artful gallery lighting that adds a nice theatrical flair. A removed den wall opened up the space even more, effectively doubling the prime gathering room’s size, while creating an enhanced dining room area that flows seamlessly through the main portion of the house, giving the entire house an airy feel. “Whenever we entertain or the kids come home with friends or family, everyone congregates in the kitchen area anyway, so we decided why not open up the space,” notes Liz. “That has proved to be a very good decision. We’ve had everything from bridal parties and holidays in this room.”

A cleverly reworked foyer provided a wider entryway and an expanded home office where Joe — now a forestry consultant who assembles heritage lands for philanthropic clients — works whenever he isn’t scouting the hills for The Conservation Fund out of Chapel Hill or for his clients. Liz, a longtime staffer at Friendly Center’s beloved Extra Ingredient, has her own home organizing area in a corner of her kitchen.

Adding to the dominant woodland theme, Liz selected a Benjamin Moore painting scheme called “gray cashmere” that adds both a unifying sense of color and a subtle psychological serenity. “It’s very calming — very spa,” she says with the same coy smile as she finishes up the pizza dough and bowls of meat and veggie fixings for the pizza production about to commence out of doors in the Certified Wildlife Habitat that is their suburban backyard.

Not surprisingly, Joe’s version of a home “spa” is out on the patio. Two years ago, while grilling on their frequently used patio chimney, he was inspired to take on an even more ambitious project of constructing his own wood-fired oven.

“I really wanted one forever and got it in my head that I wanted to try and build my own outdoor oven for baking bread or making pizza,” he explains. Joe first researched their availability online and found that most were made in New Zealand or Australia and could set you back as much as 10 grand.

He enterprisingly found a stove guru living in Asheville who took him in hand and explained how to construct a “serious” working, Old World, wood-fired oven from scratch. The process involved the elaborate layered construction of a solid platform made of wood and structural steel covered by perlite concrete, a fine silicone sand, firebricks and stucco. In a stroke of ingenuity, Joe used a 30-inch rubber exercise ball to mold the oven’s distinctive ceramic-domed ceiling, added boiler insulation, more perlite, stucco and finally a coat of white paint that makes the entire contraption look a little like Chilly Willy’s igloo.

Joe calculates that he spent about $1,200 to build his backyard masterpiece.

“But, oooh!” says fire-master Kelleher, “What it does to the taste of food!”

The couple inaugurated Joe’s oven for the first time on Independence Day in 2016, delighting their neighbors and friends with fire-cooked pizzas that have quickly become — along with amazing chicken wings seasoned by Roland’s Rub, a seasoning Joe found on one of his forestry sojourns — the Kellehers’ signature backyard fare. Not surprisingly, their al fresco evenings have trebled ever since that day.

“It’s taken us even more outdoors,” Liz says.

“In fact, regardless of weather, we rarely come inside these days,” jokes Joe — who, indeed, keeps a remarkable little working shed nimbly tucked above the ravine where he makes furniture and fiddles with various projects, including his homemade cooking implements. One half expects to see them soon go on the shelves at the Extra Ingredient.

Inside the dome, meanwhile, chunks of oak and hickory raise the cooking temperature upwards of 1,600 degrees, cooking one of Liz’s delectable pizzas in as little as two minutes — three tops if Joe opts to add “leoparding” char by holding the pizza close to the flames with a baker’s tool — one he made by hand, of course.

When it comes out, the pizza is bubbling, gorgeous, striped by the flames, better than anything you’d find at a local house of pizza.

“How is it?” the hosts asks his guest.

“Which do you mean?” replies his guest, tucking into a wedge. “The house or the pizza?”

“Whichever you prefer?”

“Both are a slice of heaven,” comes the answer.   OH

A Walk in the Garden

A long and vibrant life, and memories
of a beloved white peony

By Ross Howell Jr.


Amy Forbis sits in an overstuffed chair by a window that looks out on her backyard garden. The garden is shaded by old pecan and linden trees. Just outside the window is a bird feeder. A cardinal snatches a sunflower seed and flutters away. A smile crosses Amy’s lips as she watches.

This year in May Amy celebrated her 91st birthday. Twice she’s been widowed. She’s raised five children — well, seven, if you count her second husband’s two daughters. And once — in 1973 — she was shot in the stomach during an attempted carjacking.

“I wasn’t about to give that man my car keys,” Amy states, matter-of-factly, the way she discusses most topics. “It was a brand new Cutlass. And besides, I had a load of groceries in the trunk.”

The incident happened right in front of the police station in downtown Greensboro.

“So thank goodness, help was right there,” Amy says. “And you just wouldn’t believe all the people who came to the hospital to visit me.”

As we chat, Amy admits to feeling a little weak from the open-heart surgery she had a few months ago.

“Don’t pay any attention to what they tell you about your golden years,” she says. “It isn’t fun. Anytime I go anywhere now, I have my walker.”

The shelves behind her chair are filled with books. There are photographs in frames on the shelves, on the walls, on a table by the back door.

Amy first came to this house on Olive Street in 1933 when she was a girl of 8. We’re neighbors, so I’ve visited a few times. Today I’m here because she wants to tell me about a special peony in her garden. But she warms to one of her favorite topics — family.

“My father was from Henry County, Virginia, and his family owned property from an original land grant,” Amy says. Though she was born in Greensboro and has lived here nearly all her life, she says because of her father she has a special love for Virginia.

“I was a Daddy’s girl, you see,” she says.

“But Daddy didn’t want to farm, so he gave up his inheritance to follow a career in business,” she says. “He came to Greensboro and at the time was the youngest auditor in the city’s history. Daddy was working for a bank when the Depression hit, and he lost just about everything, as many people did.”

Amy’s father died when she was just 10 years old. It was a difficult time for her family.

She married her first husband, Walter Hitchcock, in 1947. He hailed from the borough of Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he had served as mayor. Hitchcock was the father of her children — Walter, Weldon (nicknamed “Sparky”), Sandra Morris (nicknamed “Morrie”), John, and Robert Lee. Hitchcock worked as an engineer with the highway department and helped build many of the main bridges for North Carolina roads. Which brings us to the peony.

As much as Amy enjoys gardening, she says it was her husband who was the real green thumb in the family.

“Anything Walt touched would turn green,” she says. “He just had that gift.”

One spring her husband was helping build a highway through High Point.

“He told me the roadway cut right through an apartment building with a big garden,” Amy says. “So he brought a peony home from that garden and planted it in the backyard, by the fence.”

She leans toward me in her chair. “You know, that was almost 70 years ago? And every year since, there’s always been at least one white peony blooming on that plant for Mother’s Day,” she says. “I can’t tell you how it makes me feel! It’s very spiritual.”

And it wasn’t just plants that Hitchcock brought home. From his highway projects he’d bring orphaned squirrels or baby rabbits from a nest. Amy remembers one Easter when Hitchcock bought up all the baby chicks a vendor had left.

“Of course the problem with chicks,” Amy says, “is they become chickens. They were all the time flying over the fence and pecking away at the plants in the garden. Oh, there was never a dull moment with Walt around, I can tell you.”

Hitchcock passed away in 1971. He had served as a U.S. Marine in the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Though he had survived three island invasions, the experience had taken a toll.

Amy married her second husband in 1977. Charles Forbis was of Scots-Irish descent. His family had been stout Presbyterians in the Carolinas since before the American Revolution. An ancestor, Colonel Arthur Forbis, suffered a leg wound at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. When the leg showed signs of blood poisoning, a physician recommended amputation.

“Now the Forbises are stubborn people,” Amy says. “So the Colonel told the doctor if he was going to die, he was going to die in one piece. And that’s what he did, a few days later — gangrene. The local chapter of the North Carolina Society Daughters of the American Revolution is named in his honor.”

With Charles Forbis’s two daughters and Amy’s five children, they had quite a full house. Although they bought a home on Cridland Street, which had more space, Amy always held onto the house on Olive Street.

She asks if I’d like to tour the garden. Though I caution against the venture, she stands and dismisses my anxiety with the wave of a hand. She shuffles to the back door as I scurry to open it. Her walker is leaning against a wall by the door. She grasps the walker firmly, using it as a cane to lower herself, step-by-step, to the landing. When she’s reached the first stone of the garden walk, I help her unfold the walker, and we begin our tour.

We pass through a low arbor.

“This always reminds me of a place I used to play when I was a girl,” she says. “O.Henry’s aunt had a school on Market Street near the Masonic Home. There was a little arbor in back, and I loved to go there.”

She frets at the weeds and vines infiltrating her beds, whacking at one with the leg of her walker.

“We have men who mow the front yard,” she says to me over her shoulder. “And that’s fine. But you just can’t trust them in a garden. I had some men in once, and they pruned a fig bush with the fruit still on the branches! Can you believe such a thing?”

The stone path is uneven, yet she moves along confidently. I’m worried about the exertion. And how on earth would I explain myself to her son John, who lives with her and provides her care, should she fall out here on the stone path?

She leads on. A few feet ahead, near the center of the garden, is a rectangular pool with concrete walls about two feet tall. The water looks dark in the shade.

“I started digging this out when I was pregnant with my daughter Morrie,” Amy says. “I wanted a place where the children could cool off.”

She leans on the walker. “Of course, my work wouldn’t do for my husband Walt, the engineer. So he took over, and built everything plumb and square.” Water splatters into the pool from a pipe.

“Children from all over the neighborhood would come,” she continues. “The pool was about four feet deep. They’d swim and splash for hours, and I’d make them sandwiches at lunchtime and sit here with them and eat. They all called me ‘Mom.’ Some of the mothers in the neighborhood weren’t so happy about that.”

Now the pool is home to about 40 plump goldfish and five or six big coy. Amy tells me she feeds them once a day. Chicken wire covers the surface of the water, put there to discourage depredations by neighborhood raccoons and cats.

“See that plant there?” Amy asks. “They say it’s ancient. I can’t recall the name.”

I do a quick Google search, and find it’s horsetail, Equisetum hyemale, a plant that has changed very little from its ancestors, whose fossils trace back to 350 million years ago.

“And day lilies,” she says. “I’ve always loved them. They used to be just thick.” The yellow blossoms nod in the breeze. Ivy has spread through the bed and climbs the limbs of old azaleas. We keep moving along the path.

There are Lenten roses, and lush Southern wood ferns. Here and there, a gardenia.

Amy raises the walker and turns to me.

“You’d never know it now,” she says, “but I used to spend hours working out here. Almost every plant we had was given to us by somebody. And you know gardeners. If I ever had extra plants, I’d pass them along to somebody who wanted them.”

In addition to raising her own kids, Amy worked for 19 years at a children’s day care school run by Amelia Hopkins from her home near First Presbyterian Church. Every day Amy would come home to have lunch in her garden.

“Walt had built a table right by the pool,” she says. “First we had a sand pile the kids loved to play in. But they were always jumping from the sand pile into the pool, and Walt was worried the sand would ruin the filter and pump.” So he hauled away the sand and built a table and bench.

“It was so peaceful,” she says. “Listening to the water. And the birds. I had a lot more blooming plants then. Lots of color. My mother always called them ‘beauty plants.’ I loved them because they attracted butterflies.”

Amy turns and leads me to the spot by the fence where her husband planted the peony for her so long ago. Its foliage is deep green, shiny, vigorous.

“It bloomed this Mother’s Day,” she says. “Just like always.”

The breeze rises, whispering in the leaves of the pecan trees. A towhee calls from the azaleas at the edge of the garden.

“See that little lilac there?” Amy asks, pointing just a few feet beyond
the peony.

“My grandson planted it for my birthday,” she says. “Morrie’s boy.” Her
face is beaming.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she asks.

I nod in agreement. Her breathing sounds labored to me, and now I’m really nervous.

“Don’t you think we should go inside?” I ask.

“I suppose,” she says.

In truth we’re just moments from the back door, but as we make our way back — Amy a bit unsteadily — to me it seems like ages.

I help Amy fold her walker and hold the door for her as she climbs the stairs. Her breathing is steady as she eases back in her chair by the window.

“I never go into the garden unless someone is with me,” she says. “I don’t want anything to happen. My balance isn’t the best. And I don’t want to put my family through anything more.”

I nod, and thank her for showing me around. As I’m taking my leave, the thought strikes me.

On our brief walk in the garden, Amy and I had traveled a lifetime. OH

Ross Howell Jr. admits failure in his experiment planting Carolina allspice in the heat of July last summer. But a friend gave him new starts this spring, and they’re thriving. “Never thank someone for a plant,” his friend cautioned. “Because it might just die.”

The Soul of an Urban Farmer

Innovative Aussie gardner, Stephen Johnson, makes
his mark on Greensboro’s Lindley Park neighborhood
Next objective: The City at large

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Lynn Donovan


If Stephen Johnson’s Australian accent didn’t give away his homeland, his Aussie-made Akubra hat might.

It’s a floppy felt lid made from the soft undercoat of rabbit fur. Light and waterproof, the hat keeps Johnson cool in the summer and warm in the winter, which is important when you spend as much time outdoors as he does.

He’s a farmer, but not just any old MacDonald.

He’s an urban farmer.

Unlike hobby growers, he aims to turn a profit with his herbs, greens and vegetables. At least, that’s the idea.

“The last two quarters, I broke even,” says Johnson, 52, who started urban farming full-time in 2013. “I’m still experimenting.”

As far as Johnson knows, he’s the only farmer inside the Greensboro city limits.

His spread? About three-quarters of an acre behind the 1914 bungalow he shares with his wife Marnie Thompson, on South Elam Avenue.

The yards in their Lindley Park neighborhood are vast.

“I have a land map from 1937 that shows this land was zoned agricultural,” says Johnson. “Most of these houses were here. The guy who developed this neighborhood was a contemporary of Olmsted.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in the United States, is most famous for designing New York City’s Central Park. Lindley Park echoes that pastoral feeling. Johnson recalls a Boy Scout troop trekking through his backyard once.

“They said, ‘Wow, we didn’t realize there was a city park back here.’”

True to the neighborhood’s agricultural roots, Farmer Johnson can be found on most Saturday mornings at The Corner Farmers Market, an assembly of 20 or so local vendors who pool, year round, in the parking lot of Sticks & Stones, a pizzeria up the street from Johnson’s house.

“He’s really a mentor to everybody here,” says market coordinator Kathy Newsom. “If somebody says, ‘Wow, I only sold $10 today,’ he’ll say, ‘Well, let’s go look at your booth.’ He’s able to do it in such a gentle way that it doesn’t feel like he’s telling you what to do. There’s no finger-wagging.”

At market, Johnson sets up wherever there’s room, under a canopy with a small sign that says Elam Gardens. He sells fresh seasonal produce — mostly greens and herbs. If he grows too many fruits and vegetables for his personal use, they appear at market, too.

This commerce-over-coffee accounts for half of Johnson’s green.

The other half comes from selling to restaurants in the same area, the so-called Four Corners at the intersection of Elam and Walker avenues.

Sticks & Stones Clay Oven Pizza; Fishbones; Lindley Park Filling Station; Reto’s Kitchen — all of them buy just-picked herbs, salad greens and heirloom tomatoes from Johnson’s plot, the closest they can get to having their own kitchen gardens.

Johnson switched to farming after a working for more than 20 years as a psychologist, first in public schools and later for companies that developed assessment and certification tools for various industries.

“It was interesting,” he reflects. “But when you retire, and sit down, will it have made sense?”

Johnson answered his own question by leaving his job four years ago and doing what made more sense to him: growing produce.

“I’ve always grown things, ever since I was 7 years old,” he says. “My first set of plants was a strawberry patch outside the front door.”

That was in the city of Perth, on the western edge of Australia.

His strawberries bloomed, but Johnson harvested no fruit.

“One day, I came home to see a big, blue-tongued skink,” he says, naming the berry-loving lizard.

Johnson learned the first lesson of growing: “Plant more than you need, because you’re going to lose some.”

Another memory of his youth: going to market.

“On the weekends, you went to market to get all sorts of stuff: toys, books, clothes, food,” he says. “It used to be run by mostly immigrants — Chinese or Greek or Italian or Vietnamese.”

Johnson carried the experience with him when he became an immigrant.

In 1995, he visited Greensboro, half a globe away from his hometown, to follow his Ph.D. adviser to UNCG. He found more than scholarly advice. “I came back in late 1996 so that Marnie and I could be on the same continent,” he says.

When their neighbor, restaurateur Neil Reitzel — he owns Sticks & Stones and Fishbones — proposed creating The Corner Market in Lindley Park four years ago, Johnson latched on to the idea quickly.

“My original plan was I’d build a little market cart and go sell on the weekends,” he says, laughing.

His plan mushroomed into a new career.

Johnson bought an old diesel tractor and a 50-foot-long hoop house, where he grows his main cash crops: arugula, parsley, basil, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes — which become toe-MAH-toes under the influence of his accent.

Outside the hoop house, where it’s cooler, Johnson grows an assortment of lettuces for restaurants, along with vegetables and herbs for personal use. Basil is a staple.

“I make a mean cashew pesto,” he says.

He experiments with different crops in a back corner of the yard. Last year, he tested carrots, potatoes and oats. This summer, he tinkered with okra, and got better results.

Nothing goes to waste, be it produce or experience. If crops succeed, they go straight to table or market. If not, they — and the weeds — go to the chickens that Johnson tends, on his property, with a neighbor.

Another neighbor minds the bee boxes along the drainage ditch that bisects the yard.

“I get the benefit,” says Johnson, a smile flowering at the center of his salt-and-pepper beard. “I get honey.”

For several years, he’s been working to improve the ditch, and the quality of the water that flows through it, by flattening the banks and planting them with willows, blackberries, elderberries, sedges and other grasses.

The plants slow down and filter the storm water that passes through his yard.

“I’m trying to think not just of my needs but my community’s needs,” he says.

To those ends, he and Thompson — she co-manages the nonprofit Fund for Democratic Communities — have installed a 10-by-30-foot solar panel in the middle of their backyard. By capturing the sun’s energy, they meet most of their home’s daytime electrical needs.

“We’re going through the process of getting a system for solar hot water,” says Johnson.

The couple’s appetite for Earth-friendly ways of living extends to the wood stove that heats their home and to the system that catches rain from their home’s metal roof and funnels it to barrels and a 1,500-gallon cistern. They use the water for irrigating plants, including their front-yard fruit trees.

Johnson eyes more improvements. Next to the chicken run, he’s building a fish farm/aquaponics operation. He has introduced bluegill, bass and crappie to two plastic vats filled with water and equipped with aerators. The water, fertilized with fish waste, will circulate to zip-grow towers — essentially square vinyl post covers with a slit down one side.

In theory, lettuces and other greens will sprout in a soil-free matrix.

The idea of growing food in vertical spaces intrigues Johnson.

“There are places in the world — like Singapore and Hong Kong — where they are building multistory grow towers on the line of skyscrapers,” he says.

Earlier this summer, more vertical experiments dangled nearby. Johnson drilled out fat plastic tubes, plugged them with strawberry plants, and hung them, like living wind chimes, from a wooden frame.

He painted the tubes red and green to study the effect of different colored reflected light on the timing and duration of strawberry blossoms.

Fellow farmers will recognize his trial-and-error approach to growing.

“There’s that old thing that most farmers are country bumpkins — well, no,” says Johnson. “To have a successful growing operation, you can’t be switched off to technology that’s coming down the pike.”

Johnson hopes to spark more interest in urban, and suburban, farming.

“Greensboro could feed itself — with all of its protein and vegetable and most of its fruit needs — without a doubt in my mind,” he says. “We get as much sunlight as Cyprus; we’re on the same latitude.”

His blue eyes flash at the thought that so little of Greensboro’s food is
grown locally.

The know-how is here, he says. He sings the praises of N.C. A&T State University’s urban horticulture program, which has supplied him with advice and physical assistance for his USDA-registered farm.

“There was an intern there that had worked on a strawberry farm,” he says. “We built the strawberry towers together.”

John Ivey, an agent in the Guilford County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension, helped Johnson with crop selection and marketing.

The Carolina Farm Stewards Association, based in Pittsboro, schooled Johnson on the best uses of his hoop house.

Given the readily available knowledge, Johnson is flabbergasted that Greensboro is so dependent on food grown elsewhere.

“We could develop a resilient food system, and put people to work and do it sustainably — financially and environmentally,” he says. “It’s achievable, but it requires a different mindset and support system.”

He sees opportunity even in the developed parts of town.

“There’s so much empty commercial real estate in this city,” he says. “Why aren’t we rethinking the use of existing commercial properties for hydroponics or food production?” he says.

It’s nutty, he says, that an Aussie transplant should be at the fore of urban farming here. “I should be following people in North Carolina,” he says.

Newsom, the farmers’ market coordinator, says Johnson doesn’t give himself enough credit. She’s watched him work at the market and at meetings of
the Lindley Park Neighborhood Association, which he heads.

“He can lead without looking like he’s leading,” she says.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry.

Want to Go?

As a part of Local Foods Week, the N.C. Cooperative Extension will host a tour and talk at Stephen Johnson’s home on Thursday, September 28, starting at 5:30 p.m. Johnson and kitchen managers will discuss the advantages of using locally grown food. The talk and tour will be followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant. The audience will be limited. Register by going to and looking for “local foods.”

The Secret Life of William Sydney Porter

How the master of the short story became O.Henry


By Bill Case

With his life in shambles, Will Porter — later to become known as O.Henry — boarded a train at the International–Great Northern depot in Austin, Texas on April 22, 1898, heading to prison in faraway Columbus, Ohio, to serve a five-year sentence for embezzlement. But that was not the only difficulty that the 35-year-old former bank teller and talented, though relatively unknown, writer and cartoonist confronted. Athol, the young Austin woman whom he married in 1887, had died the previous summer of tuberculosis — the same disease that had taken her father and Porter’s mother. This meant Porter’s 8-year-old daughter Margaret would have no parent at her side for the foreseeable future.

With Deputy Marshal Musgrave alongside guarding him, Porter had ample time during the three-day journey north to reflect upon the events beginning in 1882 that had led him from home in Greensboro to Texas and now to prison. While employed as a drugstore clerk in the downtown Greensboro pharmacy operated by his uncle Clark Porter, William Sydney Porter had developed an incessant, racking cough. At the time, the drugstore was a popular meeting place for city businessmen to gather and kibitz about goings-on in the community. One frequenter was Dr. James Hall, who took note of 19-year-old Porter’s persistent cough. Alarmed that the young man might be in danger of contracting tuberculosis, Hall urged Porter to accompany him during the doctor’s upcoming Texas vacation to visit two sons, Lee, a celebrated Texas Ranger, and Dick. The Hall brothers managed a 250,000-acre livestock ranch in south Texas. Dr. Hall reckoned a sojourn on the ranch would rid Porter of his hacking cough. Porter agreed to give Texas a try.

The doctor was right. Once on the Hall ranch, Porter’s health was rejuvenated. For the next two years, he immersed himself in the ranch’s work, relishing his role as a hand for the Halls, riding horses, sheepherding and fixing fences. But inevitably longing for more social interaction, particularly with members of the opposite sex, 21-year-old Porter decided to forego the prairie and try city life in Austin.

Once there, he cycled through several jobs: drugstore clerk, real estate company bookkeeper and draftsman for the government land office. The social Porter became a man-about-town, contributing his tenor voice to the “Hill City Quartet,” and hobnobbing with Austin’s younger set in the city’s saloons and gambling parlors. He courted several women, but it was Athol who caught his eye, and they married in 1887. It was she who now encouraged him to embrace his budding literary talent. Porter began composing short vignettes of Texas life and selling them to Eastern newspapers for modest sums.

But during his Austin days, Porter’s writing income couldn’t support a family — which by 1889 included Margaret. So when in 1891, an opening occurred for a teller at the First National Bank of Austin, Porter applied and landed the job. His lenient bosses at the bank let Porter continue moonlighting with his writing. Looking for an outlet for his talent, he purchased a failing Austin weekly newspaper, The Iconoclast, in 1895. Rechristening it The Rolling Stone, Porter served as a one-man band for the rag, responsible for writing, editing and drawing cartoons. Soon, he received recognition in local circles for his chatty jocular stories that often spoofed local figures. After a short period of being an attentive husband, Porter renewed what would become a lifelong habit of whiling away the nights in saloons and back alleys. He rationalized his behavior to Athol by claiming Austin’s diverse cast of characters provided fodder for his stories.

Porter cared little for his work at First National. It was simply a means to an end. His involvement with the newspaper he acquired, The Rolling Stone, constituted his real passion. Sensing he was on the threshold of self-sufficiency, he quit the bank in October 1894 to devote full time to the publication. But despite its artistic success, the paper capsized in a sea of red ink in April 1895 and Porter was left adrift without gainful employment. In October, the editor of the Houston Post offered the struggling Porter a life raft: a position as a “special writer” at the modest rate of $15 a week. With no other prospects, Porter pulled up stakes and relocated to Houston. Athol and Margaret temporarily remained in Austin with Athol’s mother and stepfather, Mr. and Mrs. P.G. Roach, until The Post upped Porter’s pay. But upon finally arriving in Houston, Athol began to suffer the early symptoms of her tubercular condition. Ultimately, she and Margaret returned to Austin.

Meanwhile, a gathering storm forced Porter to take a leave of absence from The Post. Prompted by relentless Federal Bank Examiner B.F. Gray, a grand jury had handed down a four-count indictment in February 1896 against Porter, claiming he had embezzled a total of $4,702.94 while employed as First National’s teller. To those familiar with First National’s loose banking practices, it seemed unfair for the government to target Porter for the shortages. Routinely, the bank’s officers dipped into the till themselves, withdrawing cash without leaving IOUs. Bank policy had permitted overdrafts to these same officers. While Porter had been sloppy, too trusting of the bank officials and oft distracted by his duties at The Rolling Stone, his friends could not fathom he would be consciously dishonest.

As Will Porter reflected on these matters while riding the rails to the Ohio Penitentiary, he undoubtedly recalled the inexplicable decision he made on another fateful railroad journey two years before. On June 22, 1896, he was aboard an evening train steaming out of Houston to Austin for the start of his federal criminal trial. At some point after boarding the train, Porter changed directions and fled from justice. He disembarked the train in Hempstead 50 miles out of Houston and boarded another to New Orleans, where he would live as a fugitive for six months, picking up occasional assignments from local newspapers under the assumed name of “Shirley Worth.” In December, Porter grew concerned that authorities might be getting wind of his whereabouts, so he hightailed it to Honduras, a country having no extradition treaty with the United States.

Will Porter’s many biographers have offered an assortment of views as to why Porter fled — especially when it seemed he had a defensible case. One observer opined that Porter chose exile because he figured his bosses, who were well-known in the community, would be accusing him of wrongdoing to avoid being charged themselves. Another offered that Porter “could not measure up to the overpowering strain upon his sensitive nature.” A perhaps overly sympathetic writer asserted that “it was not cowardice that motivated his actions. . . It was the call of a new start in life, the challenge of a novel and romantic career.” Other historians say Porter believed (misguidedly) that if he successfully evaded prosecution by remaining outside the country for three years, the statute of limitations would protect him from conviction.

With her tubercular symptoms temporarily in remission, the loyal Athol enrolled in an Austin business school, arming herself with employable skills. But after her condition suddenly, and gravely, worsened, the Roaches contacted Porter, who came back to Austin, where he voluntarily appeared in court.

Federal prosecutor R. U. Culberson harbored misgivings about the strength of his case against Porter. But unceasing pressure from zealous Bank Examiner Gray had forced the prosecutor to press forward. Culberson did agree to a lengthy postponement, allowing Porter to attend to his wife during her final months. Athol died on July 25th at age 29. To escape his grief and the interminable agony of waiting for trial, Porter turned to his writing. Working in a room above the Roaches’s Sixth Street store, he wrote “An Afternoon Miracle,” which he sold to the S.S. McClure Syndicate. This first freelance sale of a short story was the one sliver of good news Will Porter received while awaiting his reckoning in federal court.

By the time the trial finally commenced on February 15, 1898, the charges had been pared down to two transactions involving a missing $554.08. But Porter’s chances of escaping conviction were marred by his detachment from the proceedings. He declined to review the bank statements with his lawyers. Perhaps feeling he was ruined regardless of the jury’s verdict, Porter sat listlessly at the defense table, seemingly indifferent to the damning testimony being offered. Porter urged his friends not to attend. He failed to testify in his own behalf, thereby leaving unrebutted the prosecution’s insinuations that Porter had used ill-gotten money from First National to fund his fancy clothes, nighttime revelries and to prop up The Rolling Stone. Still, many historians have concluded Porter likely would have escaped the jury’s forthcoming guilty verdict had he not fled. Porter himself acknowledged later that by doing so, he had “made one fateful mistake at the supreme crisis of . . . [my life], a mistake from which . . . [I] could not recover.”

Notwithstanding the verdict, Porter steadfastly maintained his innocence in correspondence with friends. He wrote Mrs. Roach that “I am absolutely innocent of wrongdoing.” To another friend, he complained that “[t]he guilty man [presumably a bank higher-up], if charged, would take the stand and call me a liar. He is not, as I thought, a man of honor, or he would have kept his word to me and straightened the matter out when I left Texas and the bank.” To another, Porter confided a concern he would be considered an accessory by not reporting another bank official’s wrongful conduct.

But now, as the steel gate of the penitentiary awaited, a paramount concern for Porter was how he was going to support Margaret, now 8, and under the care of the Roaches. While Will Porter may not have been the most dutiful of fathers, there is no doubt he adored Margaret. He would write: “Now I have a daughter, a child of my own blood, bone of my bone. She is my most precious possession.” And Margaret reciprocated this affection. Long after her father’s death, she fondly recalled that their relationship “was never that of father and daughter, but of two good friends . . . We were inseparable playmates and companions until my eighth year and the death of my mother.”

Porter helped plant an idealized vision of himself by going to great lengths to keep Margaret from knowing about his imprisonment. That was going to take some doing since Margaret, an intelligent girl, would most certainly be exposed to gossip concerning her father at school and elsewhere in Austin. So Porter convinced Mrs. Roach to move Margaret to the Nashville, Tennessee, farm of his mother-in-law’s brother, “Uncle Bud.” Margaret was told that her father would be away from home for a prolonged time on business.

Checked into the penitentiary as prisoner number 30664, Porter initially wallowed in despair. It appears he toyed with taking his own life. In letters, he mentioned that “suicides are as common as picnics here.” The chief physician of the prison reported that in his experience he had “never known a man who was so deeply humiliated.”

In spite of his mental anguish, Porter considered his relationship with Margaret a vital lifeline, and he did his best to preserve it, writing her frequently. He apologized for abruptly leaving in his first prison letter to her: “I am so sorry I couldn’t come to tell you goodbye when I left Austin. You know I would have if I could have. I think it’s a shame some men folks have to go away from home to work and stay away so long — don’t you?”

Much of his correspondence sought to reprise the rollicking tomfoolery the father and daughter had experienced while together during better times. “Don’t you remember me?” he teased. “I’m a Brownie, and my name is Aldibirontiphostiphornikophokos.” In another bit of whimsy, he wrote, “If you see a star shoot and say my name seventeen times before it goes out, you will find a diamond ring in the back of the first cow’s foot you see go down the road in a snowstorm while the red roses are blooming on the tomato vines.” He would pen other silliness, asserting in one missive that Easter eggs did not come from rabbits but from eggplants. Porter would promise Margaret that one day soon, he would have the pleasure of reading “Uncle Remus” to her once more.

Meantime, Porter adjusted to prison life. He renewed an acquaintance with train robber Al Jennings, a drinking buddy when both were hiding in Honduras. Jennings became his best friend in the pen.

Porter also managed to snag the position of night druggist at the prison hospital. In the course of his four years of drugstore clerking in Greensboro, he had become licensed as a North Carolina pharmacist. That background had come in handy in helping Porter land one of the prison’s least backbreaking jobs. He subsequently earned the thankfulness of the warden when he saved his life by speedily mixing a potion that relieved the effects of an overdose of arsenic that had been inadvertently prescribed by the prison’s doctor. The warden’s gratitude helped Porter obtain a position outside the penitentiary walls as the prison steward’s secretary responsible for nighttime bookkeeping. In this capacity, Porter was allowed to walk the streets of Columbus when not on duty, sleeping in quarters outside the prison with several other lucky “trusties,” including Al Jennings. He and his roommates formed what they termed the “Recluse Club.” Porter would scrounge together enough food in his daily wanderings that he and his fellow “Recluses” were able to dine surreptitiously but sumptuously on Sunday nights — white shirts required!

In better spirits and having more free time, Porter delved back into his writing with a newfound, previously untapped discipline. The prison years proved vital to Porter’s subsequent success as it was during his incarceration that he mastered the short story genre and developed his personal trademark of unexpected story endings. Biographer Gerald Langford in his book Alias O.Henry notes that many of his subject’s 14 prison stories involve, “the vindication of a character who has in some way forfeited his claim of respectability or even integrity.”

Through an elaborate conduit designed to hide the fact he was writing from prison, Porter began peddling his pieces under the name “Sydney Porter” (his given name was William Sidney Porter) — a rather thin alias for someone trying to hide his past. Porter then tried other names on for size, but O.Henry was the one that ultimately stuck. There are various tales as to how he chose the name, including : (1) he picked it from a society column’s list of attendees at a ball in New Orleans; (2) a friend’s cat named Henry would only respond to “O Henry!”; and (3) the “OH” initials were also the first two letters of Ohio. Biographers can’t agree as to what caused him to select this particular alias.

Despite the improvement of prison life, the infrequency of Margaret’s letters cut him to the quick. He worried the young girl was forgetting him, and he beseeched her to reply to his correspondence. In November 1898 he lightly scolded, “I guess you’d rather ride the pony than write about him, wouldn’t you? But you know I’m always so glad to get a letter from you even if it’s only a teentsy weentsy one.” Likewise, in February 1900, he wrote Margaret, now on the brink of becoming a teenager, the following: “I got a letter from you in the last century, and a letter once every hundred years is not very often.”

Meanwhile, the Roaches moved to Pittsburgh, where Mr. Roach took up the ownership and management of a second-rate hotel. Granddaughter Margaret came with them. Always trying to draw Margaret out, Porter inquired, “Tell me something about Pittsburgh and what you have seen of it. Have they any nice parks where you can go or is it all made of houses and bricks?” While Porter promised the Roaches he would reimburse them for their expenses in taking care of and schooling Margaret, his propensity for allowing money to slip through his fingers, often giving it away, made it impossible for him to fully catch up even after his later financial success.

An exemplary prisoner, Porter’s term was shortened and his release scheduled for July 24, 1901. Excited about the prospect of reuniting with his daughter, he wrote, “We haven’t gone fishing yet. Well there is only one month till July, and then we’ll go, and no mistake.”

Starting over as an ex-con in Austin was out of the question, and all of Porter’s relatives in Greensboro were deceased. Of course, he had virtually no money, so once freed, his only real option was to stay with the Roaches and Margaret in Pittsburgh, where he picked up freelance work with the Pittsburgh Dispatch. But not long after arriving, he moved alone to a flat in a rooming house citing the unconventional hours the newspaper required. It must have been hard on Margaret to have her father vacate so soon after his being long apart from her. She would later try to put the best face on the stop-start nature of their relationship. “We would just begin to emerge from an ever-increasing reserve that seemed to beset us both,” she wrote, “when time would come to part again.”

Porter expressed to Jennings his intense dislike for Pittsburgh, writing that, “Columbus people [presumably the prisoners] are models of chivalry compared with them [Pittsburgh residents].” His antipathy for the city aside, “O.Henry” successfully churned out a number of short stories while in residence, which increasingly began appearing in several New York–based magazines — most notably Ainslee’s, whose editor, Gilman Hall, suggested in 1902 that Porter relocate to New York. After negotiating a $200 advance from the magazine, Porter headed to the city where his dreams of making it big were on the threshold of coming true.

Porter’s arrival in New York proved to be perfectly timed. Public demand for good short story writing in the city’s numerous literary magazines had risen to a fever-pitch. Once editors got wind of Porter’s knack for the genre, they knocked down his apartment door in efforts to publish his stories, now all under the pen name of O.Henry. And even though he was prone to missing deadlines, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, McClure’s and Munsey’s magazines — and the New York World newspaper — remained at his beck and call. When absolutely forced to, he could churn out a story with astonishing speed. His tour de force, “The Gift of the Magi,” was conceived and written in longhand in only two hours after Porter discovered he had forgotten an obligation to the Sunday World to produce a Christmas story.

He wrote not for fame — that might cause the revelation of his dark secret — but for financial reward. He once explained that, “[w]riting is my business. It is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and Pilsener. I write for no other purpose.” But Porter seamlessly mixed his business with pleasure by roaming the “New York Tenderloin” long into the night, observing the escapades of both the high hats and dregs of the city, deriving potential story lines from these varied experiences. An incorrigible ladies’ man, he took particular delight in cajoling young shopgirls into joining him for dinner. For the price of a planked steak, he would urge the women to relate their troubles. Several stories Porter penned during his New York days involve the travails of shopgirls, no doubt gleaned from these dual-purpose encounters. In addition to his New York–based stories, Porter wrote others informed from experiences and people he encountered in Texas, Honduras and in jail.

O.Henry never quite managed to turn out a novel as several publishers urged, but collections of his short stories in such volumes as Cabbages and Kings and The Four Million became runaway best sellers. Suddenly he was being compared to the likes of Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Watson’s Magazine’s review of The Four Million summed up what many reviewers were beginning to realize: “In word limit all the stories are shorter than the average magazine story, yet it would be difficult to find as much observation and insight compacted in the short stories of any fictionist today.”

But Porter ducked away from all the plaudits. One of his editors, Robert H. Davis, remarked, “Porter fled from publicity like mist before the gale . . . shrank from the extended hands of strangers . . . and avoided conversations about himself.” On holidays from Ward-Belmont School in Nashville, Tennessee, Margaret would occasionally visit her father in New York, but Porter would keep the visits short. While Margaret may still have been in the dark, every editor in New York knew of Porter’s secret by 1907. Nonetheless, Porter kept trying to hide the secret that was no longer much of one — at least to insiders — until the end of his days.

Unfortunately for Porter, the end of his days were not far distant. Ill health began to dog him around 1907. Whether from staying out all night drinking copious amounts of whiskey or contracting some unexplained sickness, he found himself in a perpetual state of malaise. His deteriorating health may explain how he came to lean on a woman from his Greensboro youth. As a teen, Porter had been periodically smitten with an Asheville girl who was summering in Greensboro with relatives. Sara Coleman had faded out of Porter’s life once he moved to Texas. Suspecting that Will Porter and O.Henry were one and the same, she wrote to him in 1905, and a mutual correspondence ensued. The writings became more intimate as time went by, and Sara eventually visited him in New York in September 1907. Before she returned home, Porter had proposed marriage. Before she responded, he haltingly wrote her and revealed his problematic past. She accepted his proposal anyway. They were married in Asheville two months later. Porter had the best of intentions to reform his late night ramblings. “I’ve had all the cheap bohemia that I want,” he told a friend “It’s for the clean, merry life . . .”

But the marriage seemed less a romantic union than a dependent one, with Sara filling more of a mothering and nursing role. She convinced her husband to move out to Long Island, where he presumably would not be tempted to partake of the saloon life. Margaret, now an aspiring writer and winding up her education at a girls’ school in New Jersey, would be able to spend her summers with the newlyweds. Inevitably, Porter chafed at the peacefulness of his surroundings, and his wife’s unceasing efforts to get him to mend his ways. Like a moth to the flame, he was ultimately lured back to the bright lights of the city. Bearing little acrimony, the couple separated, with Sara moving back to Asheville.

Plunging back into the city’s nightlife doomed any chance of restoring Porter’s health. By midsummer of 1909, he was too sick to work and he reluctantly decamped to Asheville where Sara checked him into a sanitarium. But once feeling better, Porter again could not resist returning to New York. His condition promptly regressed. At the peak of his fame, Porter, 47, found himself alone with no family alongside at the city’s Polyclinic Hospital, where he had been diagnosed with kidney failure, cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes. On Saturday, June 5, 1910, a nurse stopped by Will Porter’s room at midnight to turn off the light. “Turn on the light,” he pleaded. “I’m afraid to go home in the dark.” This served as O.Henry’s personal surprise twist to his own ending. He died later that morning.

His long-suffering widow, Sara Coleman Porter, lived until 1959, penning two books herself, and keeping O.Henry’s literary career in the public eye. As for Margaret, she only learned about her father’s criminal past several years after his death. She had a short-lived marriage to Oscar Cesare, a Swedish cartoonist and associate of her father’s in New York, and an undistinguished a literary career of her own. Ultimately she succumbed to tuberculosis, like so many members of her family. She died on May 9, 1927 having married her caregiver, Guy Sartin, just three days before. Sartin would then become caretaker of Margaret’s personal effects, including letters from the man once known as Will, “Shirley Worth,” Prisoner No. 30664, the Brownie Aldibirontiphostiphornikophokos, Sydney Porter . . . and to the world, O.Henry.  OH

Bill Case, a transplanted Ohioan, moved to North Carolina three years ago. Combining his love of history with research skills honed as a litigation attorney, Bill is now a regular writer of historical articles for PineStraw magazine.


Howard Sartin, Guy’s son, donated his inherited collection of O.Henry letters to the Greensboro History Museum, as did other benefactors including E. M. Oettinger, Carl Prickett Paul Clarkson, and the Porter and Beall families of Greensboro. The GMH, along with the Greensboro Public Library and Greensboro’s News & Record, became faithful repositories of O.Henry — related correspondence, original magazine stories and other materials. Through a joint project of the GHM and the library, spearheaded by Brad Foley (now the librarian for Randolph County in Asheboro), many of these letters and documents became available online in 2005. More recently, GHM and UNCG have teamed up to place these materials onto UNCG’s Digital Collection, where they can be easily enlarged and downloaded at Word searches of transcripts will also be possible, making the O.Henry documents more easily accessible to the public.





Photographs courtesy of Greensboro History Museum

Paradise Reclaimed

From a dozen hidden springs comes fabled Buffalo Creek, a once-troubled waterway along which generations of Greensboro folks have played ball, pitched woo, made their morning run or evening walk. A meandering story of love and rebirth

By Grant Britt     Photograph by Mark Wagoner     Illustrations by Robin Sutton Anders



For those lucky enough to live in its proximity, it’s a pathway to pleasure, a ribbon of water that positively impacts their daily lives. Meandering through town at a leisurely pace, Greensboro’s Buffalo Creek supports a raft of stuff that’s good for what ails you. It’s a wildlife habitat, a stress-relieving space that can be stared at or galloped alongside on foot or bicycle, and a wild if short- lived thrill-seeker’s passageway if approached and mounted after a downpour. Like many waterways in urban environments, the mighty Buffalo has had its share of woes, including circulation problems restricting its mobility, breathing difficulties, and general health and well-being, as well as having harmful stuff dumped down its throat by man and nature. 

“I remember when we first bought this house here, I could get a running start and jump across Buffalo Creek,” says retired EMT Larry York, who has lived in the Westerwood subdivision on Hillcrest Drive since the late 1960s. “At that time they had cleared everything out; there was no vegetation growing there, and the erosion that was occurring was just off the tracks.”

York and buddy Ben Matkins went to the city and suggested that they stop dredging the creek and let the trees grow up around it to act as a buffer. “The city thought we were crazy,” York says. “The city engineer said, ‘Well, we need to get the water out of here as fast as we can.’”

York says the two of them tried to reason with the engineer: “‘Look, you have partial dams on the creek when it gets flooded. They’re called bridges. And there’s only so much water that’s going to go underneath those bridges.’ It made you understand that engineers didn’t understand the theory of water rolling downhill and gravity sucking. We played on that creek for years.”

It wasn’t all play, however. Ben Matkins, who passed away in ’96, was an avid environmentalist, a Sierra Club member and former president of the Audubon Society. He was also a political gadfly.

Matkins and York started their political careers together, fueled by civic fervor, a few beers and a love of Buffalo Creek. “We both ran for city council back in 1980,” York says. “We were sitting up in Ham’s one night; we were drinking, talking about how screwed up the city was. And I said, ‘Ben why don’t you run? I’ll support you any way I can. At least you’ll get one or two votes.’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll run if you will. We’re gonna turn so many heads they’re gonna wonder what’s happened to ’em.’ And it did.”

Both candidates lost, but they did get some attention, and their continued, concerted efforts, with the help of other close friends and neighbors and the Audubon Society, gradually brought about important changes for Buffalo Creek.

The Source

When you look at a topographical map of North Carolina, there are a plethora of squiggly lines spread across the state like varicose veins, quite a few with some version of Buffalo in their names. But while Greensboro’s Buff does originate in the state, it doesn’t trickle off any other tributary or wean itself from any mightier flow by nefarious meanderings.

“Buffalo Creek and all its little tributaries start up along Spring Garden Street,” says former UNCG chemistry professor Jack Jezorek, current co-chair of the T. Gilbert Pearson Chapter of the Audubon Society. “The name Spring Garden Street says it all. The railroad runs along what’s now Gate City Boulevard on one side, Spring Garden Street on the other side.” The railroad, he explains, runs along a ridgeline. “The railroad always is built on the highest ground. Lot of roads are that way too. There are lots of little springs and seepages along the north side of the railroad along Spring Garden Street.” Jezorek goes on to say that when UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum was built 25 years ago, problems developed, “because they dug down, and lo and behold, there were a whole bunch of springs on Spring Garden Street.” He laughs. “So all these little tributaries you see around town, they all start right around Spring Garden Street.”

That takes care of the birthing of the North Buffalo. The South Buff is born from more seepage, down south a ways. “You know the term Sandy Ridge Road? That’s another ridgeline,” Jezorek says. “If you go west of Sandy Ridge Road, you’re now in the Deep River drainage — Deep River, Oak Hollow Lake, down to High Point. On the east side, you’re in the Buffalo Creek drainage. So there’s North Buffalo Creek, which runs through Westerwood here at Lake Daniel Park, and South Buffalo, and they join out near McLeansville to become just Buffalo Creek.” Farther downstream, he says, they join up with Reedy Fork Creek. “And it’s Reedy Creek which joins the Haw over towards Burlington.”

Matkins didn’t get to see his vision of the Buffalo realized, but his efforts encouraged others, and finally the city took notice.

The natural buffers that he and York and Jezorek and County Commissioner Joe Wood and Westerwood neighbors advocated came to fruition in the early ’90s’ with the help of former Mayor Carolyn Allen with a project she dubbed  StreamGreen. “We took a Greensboro city map, glued it to some poster board, and we drew with a blue magic marker all of these little creeks that you see all over town,” Jezorek says. “We’re right at the headwaters of this Buffalo creek system, and it is amazing. Every little dip in the road on Friendly, on Market, any other street in town, every time the road dips down, you can bet there’s a creek down there. A lot ’em are piped when they were small, a spiderweb of creeks.”

Almost every little hillside in town has a little seep, and down at the bottom of the hill there’s a little creek, a little drainage. “They’re all over town, which is nice because it means it’s pretty clean water,” Jezorek says. “We’re fortunate we’re at the very headwaters of the Cape Fear. Cape Fear is formed from the Haw and the Deep. When they join below Jordan Lake dam, that’s where the Cape Fear starts. So we’re in the Cape Fear drainage, and we’re lucky because our water’s pretty clean up here, nobody else uses it but us.” With that comes an obligation, he says, “to take care of that water so that the folks downstream don’t have crappy water, and that was one of the points of the StreamGreen project, to take care of these creeks, keep their banks from collapsing with vegetation, roots holding banks in place.”

Mythical Beasts

It might make a good argument to claim the mighty Buffalo was named for a shaggy creature who might have denuded those banks in a quest for a grazing paradise. Nice try, county historian James G. W. MacLamroc informed Greensborians in a ’72 News & Record Hot Line response asking about the creek’s namesake. His research indicated that Buffalo were rare around these parts when early settlers moved here in the mid-1700s, so it’s unlikely the beasts donated their name to the stream. More likely, whoever laid the name on the waterway just chose it because the mighty bison projects a strong American image for a creek, a robe or a nickel.

In his 1709 travelogue, surveyor John Lawson presents an in-depth scrutiny of North Carolina’s climate, waterways, wildlife and botany, with help from his Indian guides. Despite his jaw-breaking title, A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. And a Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel’d Thro’ Several Nations of Indians. Giving a Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, & c., Lawson’s account is fun to read. In those days, beasts were apparently quite abundant, and a partial listing of Carolina’s wild denizens included the “Buffelo,” or “wild Beef,” as well as “Cat-a Mount, Tyger, Polcat, Bever and Bearmouse.” Despite his inclusion of the shaggy behemoths in his Carolina zoology, a bit later in his accounts he admits that the “buffelo” seldom roam the Carolinas, preferring for some reason the wilds of “Messiasippi.” “The Buffelo is a wild Beast of America, which has a Bunch on his Back, as the Cattle of St. Laurence are said to have,” Lawson wrote. “He seldom appears amongst the English Inhabitants, his chief Haunt being in the Land of Messiasippi, which is, for the most part, a plain Country; yet I have known some kill’d on the Hilly Part of Cape-Fair-River, they passing the Ledges of vast Mountains from the said Messiasippie, before they can come near us. These Monsters are found to weigh (as I am informed by a Traveller of Credit) from 1600 to 2400 Weight.”

So with a bit of creative license, we might be able to postulate that an escaped “Messiasippi Buffelo” could have wandered down Spring Garden street a while back and been spotted by a scribe with pencil and paper at hand to document the occasion and honor the seepage with its namesake, but it’s a bit of a stretch.

The Buffalo Creek Canoe Club

There is, however, a trait that both beast and creek share that’s not much of an honor. Unfortunately for some of its neighbors, the creek, like its namesake, has at times given off a pungent reek that repels environmentalists and pleasure seekers alike. At one point, the pollution was so bad that Greensboro Record staff writer (and longtime O.Henry contributor) Jim Schlosser reported in 1971 that alleged sightings of minnows in the creek were so unlikely that “to anyone familiar with the stream, Martians in Jefferson Square would seem more believable.” He goes on to describe the creek as “long considered one of the State’s most wretchedly polluted waterways.” The cause he says, was Greensboro’s growing population and its effluents. Up until the ’40s, the mighty Buff was a popular and prolific fishing spot. But the South Buffalo Waste Treatment plant introduced its product to the stream, resulting in pollution and stagnation, virtually eliminating the former finned denizens. By the late ’60s, summertime pollution levels were so high that the stream’s oxygen content was measured at zero. The Buffalo released a mighty stench to go along with its oxygen starvation program, causing residents to berate city officials about cleaning up the creek, and in ’69, efforts started on what would become a decades-long journey to give the creek a cleanup and makeover. 

Matkins and York got some attention to the cause back in 1980 with their city council bids. “Neither one of us got elected, but we did make a lot of changes. They had to pay attention to us,” York says. “The establishment was telling us we were radical and irresponsible. Ben and I watched the creek a lot because we were always around it and we would detect fish kills. We found syringes from Wesley Long hospital in the creek. There was a place out on Spring Garden Street on the other side of Holden — there was a chemical plant there — and they were dumping chemicals into Buffalo Creek, and it caused several fish kills, and we finally got that stopped.”

The duo got even more attention in the mid-1970s when they took a staff writer for the Greensboro paper, Bill Lee, on a canoe trip down the mighty Buff at storm surge tide all the way to the other side of Revolution Mills from their Hillcrest Drive home. But the attention came not from riding the scenic surge Lee documented with photos as well as text, but from a concerned citizen who thought the canoeing environmentalists were reckless as well as radical. “At the risk of sounding like a fuddy dud, I am compelled to comment on Bill Lee’s ‘Canoeist Careens on Buffalo Creek,’ an account of three youths canoeing the Buffalo in flooded stage,” Tom Berry wrote in on the Public Pulse section of the letters to the Record editor in July of ’75. Berry’s Fudd impulse was triggered by the callous youths’ alleged dare-demon attitudes. “I am afraid the article may well have put the idea into young heads who even now may be waiting for the rains to come,” he fussed. “While recognizing the need for youth to frolic and the unquestioned appeal of an opportunity in their own backyard, the flooded North Buffalo is no place for a canoe ride. Statistics of canoe fatalities are top heavy with just such innocent looking adventures occasioned by familiar shallow streams suddenly full of water.” He might just as well have added a harrumph or two for good measure. “I hope your youthful readers will not be induced to do so,” he wrote. “On the other hand, river canoeing can be a safe and sane recreation if approached reasonably, with the opportunity for as much excitement as one wants (and then some) when one has the skills for it.”

York’s wife, Suzanne, jumps to her husband’s defense, citing their expert handling shooting the tricky part under Revolution Mill where caissons await the careless and reckless, unfuddy canoers. “The caissons are going like this, and the water is going like this, and if you didn’t know what you were doing you’d run right into a caisson,” she says. “But they were experienced canoers.”

But even the inexperienced can and did shoot by them unscathed, if guided by pros. Matkins called this writer house one day just after a summer thunderstorm and said, “Let’s go canoeing.” And even though I told him I had no expertise in matters canoe, he said not to worry. He came and got me, and we set out down Buffalo Creek with a case of beer. It was pouring down rain. “Where are we going?” I asked. He said, “We’ll know when we get there.” So we just floated down the mighty Buffalo, sodden, but serene. Turns out I wasn’t the only beneficiary of the beer and Buffalo smorgasbord.

“One afternoon we were up at Ham’s and it was pouring rain and we were drinking and Ben said ‘I bet we could paddle Buffalo Creek right now, the water’s so high,’ says former city commissioner Joe Wood, a neighbor and friend of Matkins. “So we all got bundled up, went out, creek was up, got down near Cone Mills. Only one place we had to get out because of a pipe and that was down by Wesley Long Hospital.” After a brisk sojourn down the Buff, the sodden sailors, York included, retreated back to their watering hole and decided to give the outing’s participants a formal title for their watery shenanigans. “Ben christened it the Buffalo Creek Rainy Day Canoeing, Drinking, And Social Club,” Wood recalls.

Matkins’ daughter Brandye (Patterson) also navigated the Buffalo’s waters, but under different, and more sober circumstances. “When I was 8, my dad gave me a 10-foot Mohawk canoe for my birthday, and I remember paddling down Buffalo Creek,” she recalls. “We probably put in by the playground there at Lake Daniel Park. And I remember him holding on to the painter line as I paddled down the creek. He had custom-made a paddle for me, ’cause they were all too long. And he cut it down for me, put the paddle back on it, and it was just perfect.”

Brandye has a piece of memorabilia from her dad’s wilder Buff excursions. “I still have a homemade piece of art someone painted, I’m not sure who did it, of a Buffalo in canoe and it says the Buffalo Creek Canoe Club,” she says. 

She also has vague memories of her dad working to establish a pocket park on the Buffalo over by Cone Hospital when she was small. “I don’t know specifics, my memories of that are being on that spot of land as a child and just hanging around while they were building a trail. I know there’s a picture of me and my dad looking out over that area, the caption talks about how this area is a work in progress, getting this area converted into the natural area it is now.”

Jezorek is able to provide more details. “It’s called the T. Gilbert Pearson Audubon Natural Area,” he says. “We’re still working on that. We’ve developed a system of trails.” Sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s, an 11-acre tract owned by Cone Hospital was leased to the city of Greensboro for 99 years as a natural park. “We somehow got wind of that,” Jezorek says. “I don’t know whether it was Ben or who found that out, but we said ‘Hey, let us, Audubon, manage it for the city.’ So we have a contractual signed agreement with the City of Greensboro that Audubon will manage that natural area.”

The society has built a system of trails in the area over the years, installed picnic tables and benches, and is trying to remove invasive species as well as adding more native species. The Greenway, the work in progress that has made a maze out of downtown streets recently, will eventually meet up with it. “The trail that runs through Lake Daniel and Latham Park, which now ends at Elm Street is now to be extended along Tankersley Drive — that’s the street that runs between Elm and Church — on the south side of Tankersley where there’s a sidewalk,” Jezorek explains. He says the trail will continue “through the natural area, either over Church Street or under, following the creek over to Revolution Mill, then out to the northeast part of the city, hopefully in our lifetime.” The society uses the natural area for educational and recreational purposes, and sponsors the Great American Cleanup the first of April, with volunteers and members going down in the creek and pulling out trash.

It’s been a long process. Matkins, York, Wood and Jezorek, as well as many of their neighbors along the waterway lobbied the city for years to let the creek be more natural. “We had the notion that they shouldn’t be mowing the banks and all the vegetation around the creek for a whole lot of reasons,” Jezorek says. For one thing, vegetation shades the water, keeping it cooler. “We had a lot of fish kills in those days — the city mowed everything,” Jezorek says. “There was not a tree, not a shrub, nothing.” He calls it a “a biological desert,” because in shallow creeks in the summertime, the temperature goes way up and the oxygen gets depleted. That, not pollution, was killing the fish. Shading is a simple and effective solution. The efforts of former Mayor Allen, The Audubon Society and the Westerwood neighborhood, finally brought progress in reviving the Buffalo in the early ’90s. The groups studied the programs of four forward-looking states — Colorado, Florida, Maryland and Oregon — that had taken steps to care for their waterways and introduced similar programs and policies to Greensboro.

“The city manager was Ed Kitchen, a really good guy, still involved with Action Greensboro, and Carolyn was mayor, so it was the best of circumstances,” Jezorek says. “We set up with the city and with Westerwood a pilot project to let the banks grow up, did some work putting some rocks and things in the creek to provide some ripples and get some oxygenation going.” It took a decade or more, he says, but finally, “bowed out and the city actually came up with a policy of its own. Our effort predated the city’s storm water division.” The project made tree-huggers out of a bunch of Buffalo denizens. “Now, if anyone wants to remove a tree in the buffer along the creek, the neighborhood gets up in arms. We did all kinds of education presentations in the neighborhood. It’s become part of the community as it is all over town. That postdated Ben, but he planted the seeds in a bunch of our minds.”

Princess Whitewater Lives

Another seed that Matkins planted resulted in a raucous pageant and free-for-all that made cross-dressers of Greensboro’s straightest citizens under the guise of raising money for charity with a Buffalo-themed annual ball crowning Princess Whitewater. “Again, it involves drinkin’,” says Wood, who had Matkins for his campaign manager. A bunch of friends had gathered on Matkins’ back patio just after the Greensboro Debutante Ball had just taken place at Blandwood. “And we said, by Gawd, why don’t we have a neighborhood party for all our daughters who are never gonna be invited to be Debutantes and have a party for ourselves and our daughters, introduce them to society? So we thought on it a little more and drank a little more, and said ‘Why don’t we have a men’s beauty pageant? And why don’t we do it for charity?’”

That twisted logic sounded pretty good at the time, but proved to be a hard sell in the sober light of day. “Nobody wanted to dress up in women’s clothes at that time, which was 1980,” Wood says. But the group forged ahead, renting Blandwood, hiring a band, inviting around 600 people, getting several local bars to sponsor them. There wasn’t a pageant the first year, but the affair got an unexpected boost from  an impromptu parade for the occasion. “Bill Eckard agreed to play the role of Princess Whitewater, put on a pink shift and a Minnie Pearl hat, put a canoe on top of Ben’s van, and we all gathered in front of Tiajuana Fats, on Federal Place. Had the Buffalo Creek Marching Kazoo band, and Bill Eckard was the princess on top of the float,” Wood says.

From then on, people got in line to be a Princess Whitewater contestant. “We started doing it the next year, ’81, which was the second Princess Whitewater — had about 10 or 12 bars in Greensboro to sponsor candidates, Faye Nelson from the Ritz [Costumes] helped everybody get costumes. It was raunchy — helped to have some stomach and some facial hair.” Wood estimates a crowd of 500 showed up, paying about $8 for admission and a chance to gape at local celebrities in drag. “I remember Forest Campbell, head of the County Commissioners, was there, in a tuxedo jacket and a pair of those boxer shorts with the Valentine hearts on ’em, and was on roller skates. Everybody, from millworkers to CEOs of big corporations in Greensboro, was there. We raised about $2,000 and donated it to charity. I have no idea what the first charity was but the nine years we actually had a pageant we raised about $25,000 for charity.” Beneficiaries included the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Carolina Theatre and the Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation.

Princess Whitewater crown-wearers included Stan Swofford from the Daily News, the first Princess Whitewater when a pageant was held. “Kent Hoffman from the Costume Shop downtown was a princess, I was a princess. When we had the final Princess Whitewater in 1989, we had the Princess of the Decade and Bill Eckard who was the original princess won the thing. Lots of incriminating photos. Ogi Overman was a Princess Whitewater, Harry Murr. That’s as much as I can tell you without telling you all the trash.”

A Creek Reborn

These days, just like the folks who shared their memories with us, the Buffalo is all grown up. “Best thing that happened to that park is those trees coming up in there,” York says. “That’s attracted a lot more wildlife. I’ve got some neighbors here who tell me that deer won’t come into the city. I tell ’em ‘Do you think deer stop at the city limits sign and turn around and walk off?’” There have been deer sightings at the Pearson park tempting some to invite the shy animals to dinner — as the main course. “There was a big write-up in the paper about a bear being down there,” York continues. “And we’ve seen herons down here, and they have hawks and ducks, the mallard ducks, falcons,” Suzanne York adds. There have also been reports of groundhogs, muskrats and beaver. But the elephant in the room is the mighty buffalo — still no signs of the scruffy, unruly, but noble creature that lent its image and in days past, its aroma to the creek. It’s wandered on, back to the Messiasippi perhaps, or parts unknown. But its spirit lives on, wild, wooly and wondrous, in the creek that proudly bears it name.  OH

From his hilltop home, Grant Britt gazes longingly at the mighty Buff on stormy days, but has learned his limitations over the years and is content to be up the creek without a paddle.


Dear Sylvia


I wait for you here with my coffee cup

and newspaper, and I watch the sea.

The dolphins head up the beach,

and in the evening scallop down.

The force of their numbers through surf

pushes toward the condo village,

past the gnashing mongrels gathered

on shore. The dogs collect every morning

to stalk grackles, whose molting feathers

stick out like charred trash or timbers.

Even if these grackles were crash sites,

only dogs would investigate.

Sylvia, I watch the dolphins skimming by

undulating, their splendid continuum

unbroken, water like silk shedding from

their slick gray backs.

Sylvia, I am still waiting for you

to notice me, turn toward my shining skin.

— Cathryn Hankla

Wandering Billy

Rites of Passage

Remembering old friends and places, and
welcoming a new life to the Gate City


By Billy Eye

“I know he’s a gentleman because I saw him come out of a room that said so.” — Dean Martin

How is it Iíd never been to College Place Methodist on Spring Garden until recently? I must pass it several times a day. It’s a charming place with some of the most impressive stained glass windows found anywhere. The chapel was constructed at the turn of the last century with a spectacular Gothic Revival-styled addition facing Tate Street that will celebrate its centennial in just a few months.

I was there for what will surely be the first of many funerals for former classmates. Ever been to a memorial service where it’s obvious the pastor didn’t know the person they were eulogizing? That certainly was not the case for Russell Teague Copeland’s sendoff. Rev. Robert Smith, now in his 80s, had known Russell since he was a child in the church pageants and, along with Rev. Jason Harvey, delivered one of the most touching memorial services I’ve attended.

I really looked up to Russell and his twin brother, Ruffin. And not just because they were taller than I was. It just seemed that they shared some mystic knowledge between themselves that I was never going to be privy to. I was somewhat intimidated — they were smarter than I was, more athletic, better looking. Russ and I were cutups in chorus (boy, that teacher hated me), he had a full-on bushy ’stache in high school. When I sported a mustache in the 12th grade musical, it had to be spirit-gummed to my face. Bigger, better, badder. That was the Copeland boys to this gawky teenager. If Russ and I were in a room together, there would always be laughter, each trying to top the other, or he’d be ridiculing me for some doofus move on my part. 

Just three years ago, at a Page High reunion, I got to see the Copeland brothers again and it was a genuine thrill. I mean, we weren’t great friends; we didn’t hang out much as I recall. In reality, I hardly knew Russell Copeland. Didn’t know he pursued his life’s dream to become a captain for Delta Air Lines, that he raised four children in Gainesville, Florida, with his devoted wife of 32 years, Lisa, or that, three months before he died, doctor’s discovered he had stage 4 cancer. Online, fellow pilot Tom O’Neill testified to his commanding presence: “Russ had the best PA voice ever. Sam Elliott was jealous of Russ’s voice.” He was one of the good guys at a time when we need all the good guys we can get.

I confess to being in a somewhat embarrassing situation just before the service. Without thinking I accidentally walked into the family room where I met Russell’s mother, who was as lovely and charming as I would have imagined. How dumb I felt! I was headed to the chapel, this obviously wasn’t the chapel, so why did I mindlessly wander into a place I had no business being? And this sweet lady, in a moment of unimaginable grief, being so kind and as diplomatic as possible to someone blundering into this most private of moments. I have no ready explanation to this lapse in judgment, I only know Russ would have pointed out my misfortune and laughed his ass off.


Completely out of the blue, I stumbled into discovering who the perpetrators of the Eastern Guilford High School fire were back in 2006. That’s a story for another venue but it reminds me of another fire that led to a somewhat devastating consequence. The O.Henry Hotel opened in the summer of 1919 as one of the finest resorts in the South, an eight-storied wonder that curved around North Elm onto Bellemeade. Our Fabergé Egg, a self-contained universe with 300 rooms augmented by a world-class barber shop, hair salon, shoe shine parlor, pharmacy, cigar stand, newsstand, coffee shop, elegant dining room, second floor ballroom, speakeasy poolhall, and the area’s No. 1 radio station broadcasting from a glass booth in the sub-lobby. The main lobby was incredibly impressive, with delicately tiled floors and soaring marble, oak and white plaster columns rounding as they merged into a two-story high ceiling. The effect was that of a Romanesque palace by way of the antebellum South. In Greensboro, this is where the ’20s roared. Where the ’50s got nifty.

Competition from motels and the high-rise Hilton on West Market (where Elvis slept) attracted most of the business travelers in the ’60s. In the spring of 1975, the Alsonett hotel chain closed the O.Henry after 56 years of service. Among the reasons given were the astronomical utility bills. A few months later, on lease from Alsonett, the O.Henry reopened as a residency hotel and became the go-to spot for recently separated husbands and old folks. Assisted living, 1970s-style.

It was a short-lived experiment. In the early morning hours of January 15, 1976, an elderly tenant, smoking in bed, ignited a corner of the fifth floor and was killed. Fifty-seven people escaped to spend the rest of the night in the lobby, bundled under blankets. Although three rooms and a hallway were gutted (these were pre-sprinkler days), fire inspectors would have allowed the hotel to remain open, but broken water pipes discovered in the investigation is what ultimately shut the place down.

That grandiose building was demolished in 1979 for a parking structure. The very similar Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel in our state capital was converted into apartments in the 1970s. It’s a real shame the O.Henry couldn’t have been rehabilitated in the same way. It was a beautiful place.


Capitalizing on the fact that the bottom two floors of the Kress building are vacant, Wrangler has installed a nifty graphic timeline of their famous jeans in the former retailer’s dual showcase picture windows. It depicts 70 years of innovation and clever promotions like sponsoring bronc-busting legend Jim Shoulders, a 59-year partnership, and country western stars including a young George Strait. Did you know Gilligan cavorted around that sandy atoll he was shipwrecked on in a pair of Wranglers? What I want to know is — how can I get one of their new retro Peter Max denim jackets?


And finally, here’s Emery Isabella Stringer because who doesn’t like photos of adorable newborns?  OH

Billy Eye is finishing his new book, Greensboro Babylon, wherein he will reveal all the dirty little secrets of this town. If you’d like to be left out of it, please mail a cashier’s check for $1,500 c/o the O.Henry offices.


Haunting Call of Summer’s End

The plaintive song of the mourning dove


By Susan Campbell

Doves are very much taken for granted, though they are almost everywhere we look. Their cryptic coloration and still habits make them easy to overlook, but they are nothing short of beautiful. Mourning doves are the most familiar members of the group statewide. Of course, we have plenty of rock doves (aka pigeons) and a rapidly increasing number of Eurasian collared doves as well.  However, it is the mourning dove that is my favorite — and garners the most attention.

The species has a sleek, medium-sized, light brown body with distinctive wings that are splotched with black. But it’s the bird’s small head and eye ring, accented with a pale bluish crown, that make the mourning dove one of America’s prettiest species. At close range, a rosy sheen can be seen on the breast feathers of the males. The mourning dove’s name originates from its plaintive song. Its mournful hooting is almost haunting and has been known to fool people into thinking they are hearing an owl.

By late summer as crops ripen doves are flocking in large numbers in and around big fields.  They feed busily on the ground, swallowing a variety of seeds as they fatten up prior to migration. All doves will consume large amounts of whole seeds in their crop. This means they need to perch in a safe spot to digest their gorging. Where and how far they fly depends on weather and food availability.  Most do not move long distances but rather seek out areas that will hold a diversity of grains for weeks at a time.  Flocks of hundreds of birds can be found perched on wires or in snags adjacent to good foraging habitat.

Young birds blend in well with the adults very soon after fledging. Their tails may not be quite as long, nor will their heads be as distinctly patterned, but these are field marks that are only visible at very close range. Three to five clutches of two are not unusual in a season. With a moderate climate here in North Carolina, especially along our coast, mourning doves have been found breeding in every month of the year.

There is no better time for individual mourning doves to seek safety in numbers than early September. Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of hunting season and doves are the first game on the calendar. Their robust population seems to handle the harvest throughout the state and nationwide.  This is at least due in part to their fast and erratic flight behavior, which makes the birds challenging targets.

Dove hunting has a rich cultural history here in the South. It is a time to bond with family and friends, enjoy the waning days of summer afield and perhaps even bring home enough plump breasts for a hearty meal.  Scouting out the right spot is the key. Hunters will survey known locations looking for the best variety of seed-bearing cover crops, strategic perching sites and hopefully at least a few doves hanging around.  For those who do not have access to suitable private land for hunting doves, the State Game Lands (Sandhills, Caswell, Jordan and others) offer opportunities. Both private and public lands manage habitat specifically for mourning doves year round.

And if you don’t hunt, take some time and seek out these attractive birds: no ammo or binoculars are required!   OH

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at


In the Spirit

Bar Staples

Don’t come home without ’em


By Tony Cross

This Month,
I couldn’t resist sharing what I keep in my personal liquor cabinet — my home bar staples. I may be biased, but I’d say it’s pretty gratifying when you get that quiet nod of approval from your guests when they inspect your liquor cabinet. Now, for those of you who are lacking in liquor, I assure you creating an impressive spread does not have to be a daunting process. Some couples or singles will throw “Stock the Bar” parties when they move into a new apartment or home, and that’s a great way to have a little liquor inventory on your hands. But what if you’re not moving anytime soon, or worse, your friends have lousy taste in spirits? This is an easily remedied problem. Here are some of my home essentials; if any of these are foreign to you, then give it a shot. Pun intended.

Orange Bitters

Let’s start with the smallest ingredient that will go into your cocktail. I’m talking about bitters: the salt and pepper of your drink. Admittedly, Angostura Aromatic bitters is the obvious choice to have on hand; there is none better. However, having the right blend of orange bitters can take your old-fashioned to the next level. I say “blend” because after taking notes from other bartending books years back, I’ve learned that I like my orange bitters as follows: equal parts Regan’s Orange and Angostura Orange Bitters. Gary Regan’s formula is more bitter and tastes more like an orange peel to me, while the Angostura has a sweet, almost candy-like aesthetic to it. Put them together, and you get, well, the best of both worlds. The next time you’re making an old-fashioned, add a few dashes (in combination with Angostura Aromatic bitters), and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

TOPO Organic Vodka

Disclaimer: Tito’s vodka isn’t bad. I’ve enjoyed it plenty. But it’s getting a bit cumbersome having to hear people maraud their two cents into conversations about how it’s “the best vodka out there.” Nonsense. If Tito’s was made in Turkey, and not Texas, no one would care about it. Don’t believe me? Try Chapel Hill’s own TOPO vodka side by side with the Lone Star State’s beloved spirit. What intrigued me on first taste was its touch of sweetness. (Is it from the “organic, soft red Carolina wheat” they use when distilling it? I don’t know. I asked TOPO spirit guide, Esteban, one night over a round of drinks, and in Tony fashion, forgot.) Anyhow, I firmly believe it trumps other vodkas on the market. Buy a bottle and try it for yourself. If anything, you’ll have supported a local distillery that graciously supports the community. I’ve always enjoyed TOPO vodka as follows:

The Wallsteen

Build in a rocks glass:

Large ice cube

2 ounces TOPO Vodka

2 ounces fresh-squeezed organic grapefruit juice

(That’s all. And boy, is it delicious.)


Ah, yes. I would have never imagined years ago that if Campari ran out in my quaint bachelor’s pad, I would mutter, or scream, depending on the day. As a matter of fact, one of my first bartending gigs was at a little restaurant, and they carried the Amaro. No one ever ordered it, and the bottle was always three-quarters full. That is, until one night when a lady stopped over to have a Campari and soda. She rambled about how she “only drinks Campari” and how “it’s so sophisticated,” and blah, blah, blah. I looked at her like she was hallucinating and stopped listening. But damn, she was right. My first time trying Campari was in a Negroni, and I thought, “This is awful!” Things change, and over time, so have my taste buds. Just as I’ve grown to love certain vegetables and herbs, I’ve changed my tune over certain types of beer, wine and spirits/liqueurs. Another reason that I probably stared at my first Negroni with disgust is because I made it and totally butchered the job. A few months later, it clicked. I had it before dinner, and it was the perfect complement. I was just discussing Amaro the other day with someone who said, “The older I get, the more bitter I like my flavors.” I couldn’t agree more. Lately, I’ve been making passionate love to the Boulevardier; think Negroni, but with whiskey instead of gin. It’s the bomb, and I’m not ashamed to say it.


Build in a rocks glass:
Large ice cube

1 1/4 ounces rye whiskey (Wild Turkey for the win)

3/4 ounce Campari

3/4 ounce sweet vermouth (please try Dopo Teatro Cocchi Vermouth, it’s bitter too)

Stir for 15 seconds, and then express lemon peel lemon oils over the glass before dropping the peel in. From my liquor cabinet to yours, cheers!  OH

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering
Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.