Sunday, May 16, 2021

First Impressions: Why I’m Loving My New Home of Halifax County, NC

I moved to North Carolina in July 2019. Now is a good time to reflect on my first twenty-two months. To put in writing what I have been bragging about to family and Facebook and otherwise friends throughout the USA, Canada and overseas. 

As an unofficial, volunteer ambassador for Halifax County, I have offered to host and show them around if their health, time and finances allow for a visit whenever post-coronavirus safe travel begins.

During my first eleven months here—including during March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic semi-unexpectedly began to wreak havoc on our county, state and nation—I had hosted eight family members and friends hailing from Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Washington State. And both new and longtime North Carolina friends from Edgecombe, Johnston, Nash and Wake counties, and some from Virginia, have blessed me and Halifax County with their presence and dining and shopping dollars.


Historic churches and rural highways


The 156-year-old church I joyfully serve is in Weldon. The church building (see below photo) is one of over 250 structures that lies within the federal government-recognized Weldon Historic District. Five miles south—and just three miles north of “The Birthplace of Freedom” county seat of Halifax—is my affordable rental house with its two guest rooms. The stretch of highway U.S. 301 that the quiet rural home on 275 acres is situated on is part of North Carolina’s 17-county Historic Albemarle Highway.


On a broader level, the pre-Interstate 95 and 1,100-mile U.S. 301 that runs from Delaware to Florida was once known as “The Highway of Southern Hospitality.” Though meant more for hotels and motels, I hope to exemplify this historic nickname to family, friends and strangers alike with my private residence. “[Seek] to show hospitality' (Romans 12:13). "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). "And one more thing: prepare a guest room for me" (Philemon 1:22, 2 Kings 4:10).

Prior to beginning pastoral ministry at Weldon Baptist Church in December 2020, I originally arrived in Halifax County to serve a semi-rural church along the 350-mile U.S. 158. The now 131-year-old Bethlehem Baptist Church is three miles west of the Roanoke Rapids city limit, near Thelma.

--> NOTE: It was an active and fascinating time serving at Bethlehem Baptist Church, minus dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:

 + See here for the online article about the November 2019 pastoral installation service at Bethlehem that saw pastor-author-conference speaker friend Jim Savastio of Louisville, Kentucky, preach the pastoral and congregational charge. 

+ See here (June 2020) and here (July 2020) for online articles--and here for a related and inspiring 25-second news video from a major Raleigh television station on Father's Day 2020--on my local preacher-evangelist friend of 11 months, the late James "Simp" Lewis Jenkins (1926-2020). In the 1950's, beloved Simp was converted, baptized and mentored at Bethlehem. He remained an active pastor at the Halifax County church he founded (1989), Little Country Baptist Church, up to his death at age 94. An inspiring man of God!

+ See here for an online article on my new FBI-Raleigh Supervisory Special Agent friend who substitute preached for me at Bethlehem in October 2020. (I am a graduate of the 9-week, 30-hour FBI Citizens Academy-Charlotte/Raleigh, fall 2019.)

+ See here to learn about a 100th birthday party I attended in November 2020 in Chincoteague on Virginia's Eastern Shore. The party was for a widow and beloved former pastor's wife at Bethlehem (1953-60), the Halifax County-native Ethel Virginia (Bryant) Britton, wife to prominent pastor and revivalist Raymond L. Britton, Sr. (1923-2003). 

It is a simple but semi-long and neat story of how I first heard about Bethlehem Baptist and Halifax County in February 2019 while living in Kentucky. After visiting in March 2019, and then moving here thirteen weeks later, my usual eager-to-learn curiosity and gas-friendly motorcycle have enabled me to discover a lot about 263-year-old Halifax County and the surrounding area in a short period of time.


USA, Canada, Israel


For the sake of geographical context and prior to this current American Southeast/mid-Atlantic residence, I lived in the Midwest/Upper South, 2013 to 2019, in Louisville, Kentucky, and Toledo, Ohio, ages two to five; two decades in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, in Port Angeles, Quilcene and Marysville, Washington; and fifteen foundational years in the Northeast/New England, ages five to twenty, in West Hartford, Connecticut. 

To add to the geographical autobiography, I was born in Miami Shores, Florida. But my native Midwest parents (mother Ohio, father Kansas/Nebraska) moved us six kids back to northwest Ohio after only one year in The Sunshine State. So, since age one, I have been a traveling man, with travels in all American states (minus Alaska) and living in The Buckeye State, Constitution (or Nutmeg) State, Evergreen State, Bluegrass State and now The Tar Heel (or Old North) State.  


--> NOTE: Among other schools he served as a college educator, my late father was the Dean of Faculty at Miami Shore's Barry University, 1970-71. Though not readily available online (contact me if wanting a digital copy), see the October 1, 1970 (section F), The Miami Herald article on my professor/dean father, "Barry's 'Radical': Changes Brewing on Campus." The W.W. II U.S. Army veteran and at-the-time 43-year-old Dr. Irvin Francis Kyle, Jr. (1927-2006) is quoted as saying, "A liberal education means to liberate and there is serious questions as to whether much of the present curriculum  has any liberating function. . . . The types of ideas I have alluded to are neither new, radical nor revolutionary--except from one's own personal point of view. They have been around for many years. If they are subversive then they ought to be. And if you label radical that which is different, then I'm a radical."


Additional but more temporary living locales have included ten years of long-ago seasonal jobs in three western U.S. national park hotels and restaurants (Glacier-Montana, Big Bend-Texas, Olympic-Washington State); six years of studies in Canada at a college near Calgary and a graduate school in Toronto, plus a three-year, semi-residential doctoral program in Portland, Oregon; and two years, spring 2009 to summer 2011, of spiritual pilgrimage and cross-cultural ministry in Israel, with the Armenian Quarter of Old City Jerusalem as my home base. 


The figurative “pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night” (Exodus 13:22) has divinely and adventurously led me to live, study, work, minister, volunteer, play, pray and motorcycle in some of the world’s many “pages.” “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page” (Saint Augustine). 

I now cheerfully add Halifax County, North Carolina, USA, to my "pages" in the "book" written by "the only true God" (John 17:3) who alone "created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it" (Isaiah 42:5). We live in a truly fascinating created universe. So much to learn and explore on land, sea and sky, and about cultures and people "made in God's image/likeness" (Genesis 1:26, James 3:9). But only one lifetime to do it in. "Let me be up and doing constantly, faithfully, firmly" (James Brainerd Taylor, 1801-1829). Gotta make this one life count "while it is day" (John 9:4), blessing others along the way. For the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have all of eternity/heaven to rest from our labors where our good works will follow us (Revelation 14:13). 


Answered prayer: return to semi-rural America

Having lived and ministered in cities, suburbs and semi-rural areas, I like semi-rural the best.


After ten fascinating, productive and consecutive years in and near three great cities—Jerusalem, Seattle and Louisville, 2009 to 2019—this lifelong and lifetime loan/debt-free bachelor intentionally wanted to slow his life down. To be more narrowly focused on his main calling in life by reducing and simplifying his personally rewarding but overly multi-tasking life and ministry.


So, with childlike faith I prayed specifically—and obediently asked in Jesus’ name—for a return to a less hectic and less distracting semi-rural area in the U.S. or Canada:


“. . . whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give to you. . . . Ask [in My/Jesus’ name], and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23-24 ESV). 


Yet in my asking I was fully aware that personal and national divine blessing and cursing occurs irrespective of geographic locale:


“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. . . . Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country” (Deuteronomy 28:3,16 NKJV).


And I was equally aware that physical and spiritual danger exists in every geographic context, as the New Testament’s Apostle Paul experienced during his extensive missionary travels:


“in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:26 NIV).


Found: new home


While not to be confused with Halifax County, Virginia, or Roanoke, Virginia—and with deep gratitude for divine grace, guidance and providence—I have unexpectedly and happily found a semi-rural place to call home in 50,000-resident Halifax County, North Carolina, and near the county’s most populous town of 15,000-resident Roanoke Rapids. Being one among North Carolina's 100 counties, this "good and broad land" is not a paradisiacal "land flowing with milk and honey" (The Promised Land, Exodus 3:8). But it will more than suffice for now and the foreseeable future as I seek to maintain my habit of "growing where I am planted."


In providing my first impressions of this area of northeastern North Carolina, this well-travelled newcomer and hopeful longtime resident will do so by means of using Halifax County, NC, as an acronym. 

History. Native American, African American, Jewish (especially in Weldon), colonial era, Civil War, Reconstruction era, agricultural, canal, railroad, religious, political, athletic, industrial. Wow. Impressive. Such a wide variety of historical topics to choose from for this pastor and independent scholar whose specialty is the nineteenth century; whose church he is serving, Weldon Baptist, was founded in 1865 by the 26-year-old Confederate chaplain, George Washington University graduate and Virginia native, Joseph Franklin Deans (1839-1903); and whose rural stretch of U.S. 301 that his rental house on 275 acres lies along is part of North Carolina’s 17-county Historic Albemarle Highway. To my joy and fascination, nearly 50 of the state government-approved 1,600-plus roadside historical markers are in Halifax County. (To search and view the markers, see the free online database of the North Carolina Highway Marker Program. Created in 1935, the program is administered by the state's Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.)


Affordable Housing. I can guarantee that owning or renting a home or apartment in Halifax County is way less expensive than most other parts of the U.S. The same is true for property tax.


Lakes. Roanoke Rapids Lake and the 20,000-acre Lake Gaston—and the 50,000-acre Kerr Lake in the surrounding North Carolina and Virginia counties—offer refreshing and fun water opportunities for fishermen, swimmers, boaters, jet skiers and scuba divers. And for my fellow motorcyclists who are less aquatically inclined, the curvy country roads near the lakes are fun to cruise.

Interstate 95. Although I prefer driving the backroads, it is convenient living near such a major, multi-lane highway when having to get somewhere quick. And the rural portion of the 1,900-mile I-95 that goes through Halifax County is incredibly more relaxing than the super busy and often traffic-jammed Connecticut and New York stretch of I-95 that this Northerner grew up near. Also, because of “America’s Best Exit”—exit 173 that essentially divides Roanoke Rapids and Weldon—county residents have no shortage of gas station, auto repair shop, retail store, restaurant and hotel ballroom rental options.


Food and Beverage. There is a nice variety of national chain and family-owned restaurants to choose from in and near Enfield, Halifax, Hobgood, Littleton, Roanoke Rapids, Scotland Neck and Weldon. And, yes, I’m enjoying the vinegar-based Eastern North Carolina barbeque and Brunswick Stew. I never heard of either before moving to Halifax County. And for those liking fine craft spirits such as bourbon, gin, vodka and whiskey, there is the new Weldon Mills Distillery along the banks of the Roanoke River. Tours of the distillery are available. 


Area Attractions. Situated between Raleigh-Durham and Richmond, Virginia, Halifax County is close enough but far enough away from so many area attractions and three decent-sized international airports (RDU, RIC and Norfolk’s ORF). If one includes southern and eastern Virginia, within a 125-mile radius is a playground filled with historical sites, art museums, oceanside beach resorts, university and seminary libraries and events, sports entertainment options (including collegiate, professional hockey, minor league baseball and auto and motorcycle racing), county and state fairgrounds, festivals, theaters and concert halls.


X-factor: The People of Halifax County. Less hectic, semi-rural living that is surrounded by natural beauty is super pleasant and tranquil. But I learned decades ago that it is the friendliness, or the lack thereof, of the local residents that make or break a community. There are too many Halifax County new friends to mention that have made this Yankee’s transition to North Carolina smooth and enjoyable. On a humorous note, I must admit: in all my domestic and foreign travels, I have never lived in an area where so many older men are known in the community by their nicknames rather than their real first names. Because of this, I politely ask older male church members for their full legal name in case I need to visit them in the hospital.


Christianity. Past, present and future, the Protestant Christian faith saturates Halifax County. The Bible Belt-situated county is especially rich in Baptist and Methodist history. Present-day churches, Christian radio stations and live Southern Gospel, African American Gospel and otherwise concerts are aplenty. And the future bodes well for the Baptist denominational affiliations I happily identify with due to the solid leadership of and partnership among the North Roanoke Baptist Association, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Southern Baptist Convention and the Wake Forest-based Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Ocean. I am fully aware there is no ocean front property in Halifax County or—according to the George Strait 1986 classic song—Arizona. But Atlantic beaches, including along North Carolina's famous Outer Banks, are close by yet far enough away to avoid devastating hurricanes in our Upper Coastal Plain region. As a partly related and fun bonus, my boyhood hometown professional hockey team of the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997. In January 2020 in Raleigh, I attended Whalers Night at a Hurricanes game.

University of North Carolina “Founding Father.” Though not without his slave-owning flaws, Halifax County lays claim to the primary founder of the nation’s oldest public university (1795). The British-American and Princeton University-educated William Richardson Davie (1756-1820) spent significant time in Halifax County. When initially living along highway U.S. 158, I lived close to William R. Davie Middle S.T.EM. Academy, Davie School Road and Davie Wood Drive. I now live off of U.S. 301, close to the William R. Davie House on Norman Street in Historic Halifax.


Nature and Weather. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors during the county’s four distinct seasons. The list includes Medoc Mountain State Park, Roanoke Canal Trail, Roanoke River (“The Amazon of North Carolina” according to the Our State March 2021 magazine cover and extensive photo essay) and the amazing Sylvan Heights Bird Park that is home to the world's largest collection of water fowl. And the weather extremes during the summer and winter are bearable here, allowing year-round outdoor exercise at the county-wide Roanoke Valley Fitness Interactive Trail (F.I.T.) developed by the Roanoke Rapids-based Roanoke Valley Community Health Initiative ("Empowering Healthy Lifestyles").


Tourism Dollars and Related Jobs. The Lori Medlin-led Halifax County Convention and Visitors Bureau does a magnificent job informing the state and nation of the county’s abundant cultural, historical and natural assets, as well as the popular Visitor Center dog park/run by I-95’s exit 173. This includes billboards along I-95; colorful advertisements I have seen in USA Today travel supplements and North Carolina's popular Our State monthly magazine; and the easy-to-remember web address that redirects to HCCVB’s when clicked. And to the joy of the Halifax County Economic Development Commission, with the tourism industry comes jobs. The HCEDC does impressive work in making Halifax County attractive to businesses while providing this promise: "If your company is considering expansion or relocation, you’ll find a wide range of resources to help you evaluate Halifax County as a location for your business. You will find information on incentives and financial assistance we offer to qualifying businesses, available buildings and sites, demographics and economic data, and other valuable information and options to support your business needs."


Youth. Pre- and post-coronavirus, there was and will be no shortage of enjoying in-person high school athletic contests on a Friday night or otherwise. Go Chargers, Trojans, Vikings (both Halifax Academy and Northwest) and Yellow Jackets! And enjoying theatrical productions and concerts by students in the county’s public and private schools. This former K-12 substitute public school teacher, and former middle/high school and community college basketball coach, is impressed with the local students, parents and educators he has met so far. After high school, I like the fact that young adults can choose to remain here for affordable higher education by attending the accredited Halifax Community College.

Tagline and image borrowed from Halifax County Convention & Visitors Bureau. 2020.

National, State and Global Significance. The astonishing list is long and growing for Halifax County. 

+ The Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776, is the first official action in the American colonies calling for independence from Great Britain.


+ According to Preservation North Carolina, the county has produced more leaders—governors, congressmen and generals—than any other county.

Enfield, founded in 1740 and therefore the oldest town in Halifax County, was once the world's largest raw peanut market. The 1759 Enfield Riots are one of the earliest political actions against British tyranny, helping to spark American independence. 

+ The founder of the Branch Banking and Trust Company (BB&T, est. 1872 in Wilson, N.C., bought by Truist Financial Corporation in 2019) was born in Enfield. Alpheus P. Branch (1843-1893) grew up in the recently renovated house ("Branch Grove," built 1848) his father, Samuel Warren Branch (1804-1865), had built on his family's plantation.  

Weldon is “The Rockfish Capital of the World,” attracting fishermen from near and far. 

+ Weldon once had a vibrant Jewish community up until the early twentieth century. Many owned clothing stores. Residents of neighboring Roanoke Rapids and Emporia, Virginia, came to Weldon's Temple Emanu-El to worship on the Sabbath. (Both available online: see the "Weldon, North Carolina" entry in The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities and Leonard Rogoff's 100-page A History of Temple Emanu-El [1912-2006]: An Extended Family [2007]).


+ In 1840, the 161.5-mile Wilmington and Weldon Railroad has the longest railroad in the world.

+ With its own roadside historical marker since 1965 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994, the still-standing Kehukee Primitive Baptist Church near Scotland Neck (at junction of highway N.C. 125 and S.R. 1810) was erected around 1872. But the original, now no-more church building located less than three miles away was erected around 1742 during the revival-filled First Great Awakening. The original church was the Mother Church of the Calvinistic-believing Kehukee Baptist Association (est. 1769), the nation’s fourth oldest Baptist association behind only the Philadelphia (1707), Charleston (1751) and Sandy Creek, North Carolina (1758) Baptist associations. See Lemuel Burkitt and Jesse Read, A Concise History of the Kehukee Baptist Association (1803).

+ The prominent Methodist Bishop and "Prophet of the Long Road," Francis Asbury (1745-1816), often stayed with pastor-educator Henry B. Bradford (1761-1833). After recently moving from the Enfield/Fishing Creek area to Halifax, the Bradford Denton House (ca. 1760) has marvelously been restored. See here for excerpts (1801-03, 1815) from Asbury's journal regarding some of his visits to Halifax County. 

Sir Archie (1805-1833), the first great Thoroughbred racehorse stallion bred in America and an inaugural member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, resides in Halifax County when he was owned by William R. Davie and then Davie’s son. This is before Sir Archie lives at Mowfield Plantation near Jackson in Northampton County.

+ Civil War activity and shipyard, including the building of the 376-ton and 158-foot steam-powered ironclad warship CSS Albemarle by the Confederate States Navy (CSN). The warship had much success against the Union before its sunken demise on October 27, 1864, in Plymouth, N.C. (A floating replica of the warship is on display at Washington County Historical Society's Port 'o Plymouth Museum. And the ship's smokestack is on display at the Museum of the Albermarle in Elizabeth City, N.C.)

+ Begun in 1892, the 5,500-acre Caledonia State Prison Farm near Tillery is the state’s oldest correctional institution.

+ Three new historical marker displays—in Halifax, Roanoke Rapids and Weldon—are part of the National Park Service-created National Underground Railroad “Network to Freedom” trail. (Since 2020, I have served on the Halifax Underground Railroad Advisory Committee.) 

+ The Tillery Farms Resettlement project is an African-American national success story thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s rural anti-poverty agency, the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration (1935-37). 

+ The wealthy George Eastman (1854-1932), of Eastman Kodak camera fame, chose beautiful and friendly Halifax County for his “home away from home.” The New York entrepreneur and philanthropist owned a 2,500-acre plot and built his rustic hunting retreat, Oak Lodge, in Ringwood near Enfield.

+ The pre-Rosa Parks Civil Rights Movement incident on August 1, 1952, in Roanoke Rapids sees the 23-year-old African American Sarah Keys—while dressed in her U.S. Army Women’s Army Corps uniform—refusing to give up her seat on a Trailways bus. August 1, 2020, is declared “Sarah Keys Evans Day” in Roanoke Rapids and in conjunction with the dedication of a new mural depicting her story in the Martin Luther King Park on Virginia Avenue.

+ In 1909, the Roanoke Rapids Paper Manufacturing Company is the first to ever produce kraft pulp

+ Opening in 1972 in Weldon, the Chockoyotte County Club’s 18-hole, par 72 private golf course is designed by the well-respected golf architect Ellis Maples (1909-1984). A native of “The Home of American Golf” (Pinehurst, N.C.), Maples was mentored by the legendary Scottish-American who put Pinehurst on the golf radar: Donald Ross (1872-1948). 

+ Roanoke Rapids’s J. P. Stevens and Company textile mill worker and union advocate, Crystal Lee Sutton (1940-2009), inspires the 1975 book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by a New York Times reporter, and then the 1979 movie Norma Rae that earned Sally Fields the “Best Actress” Academy Award. 

+ The now 92-year-old Jack Tant, one of the winningest engine builders in NASCAR history, is a longtime resident of Littleton.


Cultural Attractions, Events and Shopping. While not super abundant due to its more rural locale and when compared to the big city, 50,000-resident Halifax County nevertheless has its fair share of cultural attractions, events and shopping opportunities within its 731 square miles. These include the Napolean Hill-created large outside murals; Halifax County Arts Council exhibits and gatherings; theatrical and other performances at the Lakeland Cultural Arts Center in Littleton, and the Enfield Performing Arts Center; concerts at Roanoke Rapids Theatre, Weldon Mills Distillery, The Centre at Halifax Community College, churches and other venues; and super affordable movie tickets and amazing popcorn at Roanoke Rapids’s RCE Theater. Moreover, antique, artisan's gallery and outlet shops at the neat Riverside Mill in Weldon, and Aunt Ruby's Peanuts and Southern Secrets at Mears (original art, handmade gifts, home accessories and interior design, event resources, custom engraving) in Enfield, are three among many Halifax County stores worth one's shopping time and dollars. The (Highway) 301 Endless Yard Sale is also an annual highlight in Weldon.

November 2019

Bethlehem Baptist Church
Est. 1890
Halifax County, NC

Weldon, Halifax County, NC
Est. 1745

Weldon Baptist Church
Est. 1865
Weldon, Halifax County, NC

March 2021
Weldon Baptist Church
Weldon, Halifax County, NC

March 2021
Weldon Baptist Church
Weldon, Halifax County, NC

Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
Est. 1830