Cuba: Part One, The Contradiction

I’m home from Cuba and people are asking, “What was it like?”

I hardly know where to begin. I found Cuba backward but lively, poor but happy, decaying but beautiful. It’s a country of contrasts.

Cuba still struggles under a socialist government. Even our Cuban tour guide, whose company is government-affiliated, admitted the flaws in state-run establishments. For example, he pointed out this sleeping employee in an empty government-owned bar.

sleeping girl bar

Wouldn’t anyone rather have a cocktail in the lounge of this privately-owned restaurant (called a paladar)? I was told the bar has been restored to look as it did in pre-Castro days.

fully stocked bar

Incidentally, my husband and I, along with our travel buddies, ate dinner at this establishment, called Restaurante 1800, in Camaguey. We enjoyed excellent paella, shrimp pasta, and lobster entrees, which ranged in price from only six to eight dollars. I kid you not.

Even with generous wine drinking and tip, our bill was less than thirty dollars per couple, probably a third of what we’d pay for that kind of restaurant meal at home.

Paladars are not the only sign of private industry trying to make a go of it in socialist Cuba. This flea market in Havana had plenty of trinkets and vendors who were just as eager to sell as any I’ve seen in the Caribbean.

flea market

A potter in Camaguey showed us his technique before we visited his salesroom. (To his left is our Cuban guide for the duration of our people-to-people trip.) I couldn’t resist buying some of this beautiful handmade earthenware, especially when it was so reasonably priced. I paid only two and three dollars for a couple of nice pots.


Life appears hard for many in Cuba, a country that seems to have missed the progress and prosperity of modern times. For instance, horse-drawn transportation was common everywhere. In cities, horse and buggy outfits were used as taxis. This fellow here seems to be a farmer.

horse and buggy

Another sign that Cuba lives in the past is the method of drying rice–spreading it on the highway. Yes, that’s rice in the picture, not sand. Our tour bus stopped so we could get out for a closer look. I would think the rice would get dirty from traffic rolling over it but evidently not.

rice on the road

The average Cuban makes about thirty pesos a month, which translates into thirty American dollars. Of course, many supplement their paltry salaries by working in the tourist industry, picking up tips as waiters in paladars or employees in hotels. Some Cubans have relatives living abroad (think Florida), who send money.

It sounds like a hard life to me, yet the Cubans I saw in various cities as well as the countryside seem like a happy lot for the most part. They’ll certainly burst into song or dance in restaurants, on the streets, or anywhere they think a tourist may tip.


For more about the contrast that is Cuba, check out my column in the Rocky Mount Telegram:

Stay tuned for the next blog, Cuba, Part II, where I’ll share more photos of this fascinating country.

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In A Whirl

One of the many good things about being in the Rocky Mount Garden Club here in my hometown is that every April we go on some sort of field trip.

This year we visited the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, a nearby city here in eastern North Carolina. I’d heard of this place for quite a while but had never taken the time to drive over and check it out.

whirligig park sign

What a sight! I didn’t count, but the Whirligig Park website says there are thirty giant metal whirligigs–the largest collection in the world–twirling here, all created by farm-machinery repairman turned folk artist Vollis Simpson.

park overview

Mr. Simpson began making whirligigs at his farm in Wilson County when he was near retirement age and kept at it until a few months before he died in 2013 at age 94. Before his death, a plan had been hatched to preserve his work by moving it to downtown Wilson.

whirligig creator

The visitors that once flocked to Mr. Simpson’s farm to view the whirligigs now come to Wilson, helping to revitalize downtown.

The day of my visit, I wandered for quite a while in the whirligig park under an almost-hot April sun, taking picture after picture. Beneath each windmill-like sculpture, a title is posted, related no doubt to features of the whirligig. Do you think these whirligigs are aptly named?

Reflector Box

christmas tree

Christmas Tree

dive bomber duck

Dive Bomber Duck

tricycle globe

Tricycle Globe

Somehow I missed the name of one of my favorites. I’ll call it Sawing Logs. A lady in our group said she’d seen this whirligig in a stiff breeze with the crosscut saw moving briskly back and forth and the dog’s tail wagging.


There’s an interesting urban legend connected to the whirligigs. When my daughters were in high school, I’d hear them talk about visiting a place called Acid Park. They were cruising over to Wilson to view the whirligigs, which at the time were at the Simpson Farm.

They thought the whirligigs had been created to honor a daughter who’d died in a car wreck after having done LSD. The story was that Mr. Simpson had dreams of what his drugged daughter had seen on the night she died and set about creating these images. In reality, Vollis Simpson did have a daughter, but fortunately she is alive.

The truth is the whirligigs were created by a man who had a lot of spare parts left over from his days as a farm machinery repairman combined with a lot of spare time when he retired. Add to that a whopping talent for creating fascinating, gigantic, outdoor folk art.

The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is definitely worth a trip to Wilson.


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This Old House: Final Installment

Five historic districts visited with two to go, Villa Place and Lincoln Park. I was already familiar with Villa Place, but I had to use MapQuest to locate Lincoln Park.

Villa Place was featured on a walking tour I took a while back, so I knew right where to find this lovely historic neighborhood tucked away near villa place historic signdowntown Rocky Mount. Developed from about 1900 to 1949, many Villa Place homes are on the well-known streets of Pearl, Nash, and Grace.

Probably the most impressive and recognizable home in Villa Place is Machaven, a National Registry Property built in 1907-1908 in the 300 block of South Grace Street.

I remember my young nephew falling in the goldfish pond on the front lawn of this house at a wedding reception years ago. The house has been idle for some years now but is currently being renovated and supposedly will be open to the public again for various functions. I certainly hope so. I’ve missed Machaven.


Another landmark in Villa Place is the James Craig Braswell School. According to the Rocky Mount Historic District website, the 1940 two-story brick structure was designed by Rocky Mount architect Harry J. Hades and built by contractor D.J. Rose. Do you know anyone who attended or taught at Braswell School? I do.

braswell school Just look at these colorful homes in Villa Place. I almost feel like I’m on Rainbow Row in Charleston, South Carolina. I love, love, love the gingerbread trim on the porches of these Victorian-style houses.

rainbow road

Here’s another street view a couple of blocks away. The colors are more subdued on these large bungalows. There’s something for everyone in Villa Place!

villa place street

I gushed over this house at 304 Pearl Street in a column I wrote for the Rocky Mount Telegram a few years ago. I now know it’s called the Mary Thomas Bullock House and is considered to be a wonderful example of early twentieth century Queen Anne style. In another life, I can picture myself sitting on that wraparound porch with a glass of lemonade, chatting with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk.

304 pearl

Of all the historic districts I visited, Lincoln Park was the only one I was totally unfamiliar with. Why did I not know the story of this area?

Located off Leggett Road near two public parks, Stith-Talbert and Martin Luther King Jr, the historic-designated part of Lincoln Park consists of homes mostly on the Ellison Drive loop.

The historic marker tells how the neighborhood came to be developed.

lincoln park sign

Yes, to quote the sign, “The neighborhood was the first housing district designed in Rocky Mount to cater towards middle class African-Americans seeking opportunities to become homeowners.”

The houses are mostly modest affairs, built between 1948 and 1953 during the post World War II boom years. The Rocky Mount Historic Districts website describes the style as Minimal Traditional.

800 ellison drive

Fancy awnings make the home pictured below stand out. And what an inviting front stoop. It’s also interesting that this front stoop doesn’t face the street; rather, those ornate awnings do.

fancy awnings

This home uses partial brick for siding. With the Tar River behind it, the house sits on a slight incline. I imagine the backyard slopes down to the river.

brick house with siding

As with almost all the historic neighborhoods I visited, Lincoln Park had a few abandoned houses. Is that a central chimney I see in this house? Wouldn’t it make a cute home for a young couple or a retiree?

better days

Speaking of abandoned, the Lincoln Park Motel and Restaurant are but faded reminders of former glory. Built in 1953 during the days of segregation, this landmark motel and restaurant did a booming business in their heyday catering to traveling African Americans.

The restaurant was known far and wide for its barbecue and also featured professional entertainers such as Mahalia Jackson and B.B. King. Wow.

800 carver place

I’ve had a great time exploring the seven historic neighborhoods of Rocky Mount: Edgemont, West Haven, Falls Road, the Mill Village, Central City, Villa Place, and finally, Lincoln Park.

If you live in the area, I hope I’ve inspired you to get in your car and drive around Rocky Mount. Find a historic district, park, and get out. Walk up and down the sidewalks. Get a feel for the history of Rocky Mount.

My blogs have been photo heavy and detail short, so if you’re wanting more specific information, google Rocky Mount Historic Districts. Also check out postings on Stepheny Houghtlin’s blog, Main Street Rocky Mount.


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This Old House/ This Old Town: Part 3

My third visit to Rocky Mount’s historic districts took me downtown or uptown, whichever term you use. The Historic District crowd calls it Central City.

Main Street is a main attraction here, or was in its heyday, but there’s a lot more to Central City, so much that I’m not doubling up neighborhoods today, but giving downtown/uptown its own entry. Also, most of what caught my eye wasn’t residential, hence the slash in the blog title to include “This Old Town.”

I began my tour at the north end of this district, where I took a picture of the historic Church of the Good Shepherd. This beautiful Episcopal church dates from 1877. Simple and classic, as many old Episcopal churches are.

church of good shepherd

From there, I drove south following Main Street to the Helen P. Gay Historic Train Station. When I traveled by rail the other year from Charlotte to Rocky Mount, this circa 1930 renovated railroad depot was one of the most impressive on the route.

train station

Not too far from the train station is historic Fire Station No. 2, built on Church Street by D.J. Rose in 1924. I’ve read the style is Mediterranean Revival. What an elegant public building.

fire station 2

Located beside the fire station at 416 South Church Street is the circa 1895 Summerlin House. According to the Rocky Mount Historic Districts website, this “two-story Queen Anne-style house is the only surviving dwelling constructed during Rocky Mount’s 1890s boom period on Church Street….” As you can see from the boarded-up windows, it needs a loving owner to restore its former glory.

summerlin house

Speaking of renovation, I’d love for the old Masonic Temple, circa 1927, to be turned into a boutique hotel or specialty shops. I’ve always been fascinated by this building, partly because the Masons themselves seem so mysterious to me. The Egyptian Revival architecture of the building also adds to its allure.

masonic temple

The old Central City post office is another imposing structure. Located across the street from the downtown campus of Edgecombe Community College, this beautiful limestone structure no longer deals in mail. Instead, there’s a sign in front that sounds like an invitation to developers.

post office


sign at post office

No trip to Central City would be complete without mentioning the railroad track that acts as the dividing line between Nash and Edgecombe counties. Coming back from the Edgecombe side, I got caught by a passing train, as has happened to me many times over the years.

Oh well, sometimes it’s good to sit still on a Saturday afternoon and watch box cars slowly passing by.

train track

I’ve heard people say they don’t feel safe in downtown Rocky Mount. I parked my car in several locations, got out, and walked around to take the pictures above. I never felt any sense of danger. Just a feeling of being one of the few people hanging out in an area that I’d love to see as alive as it once was.

Coming soon: the final installment to This Old House, the historic neighborhoods of Villa Place and Lincoln Park.









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This Old House: Part 2

I had the best time this week on my self-guided, picture-taking tour of the Falls Road Historic District and the Rocky Mount Mills Village. Although the two are located next to each other, each is given separate historic district recognition. (Scroll down to see last week’s blog on the first two of Rocky Mount’s seven historic districts I visited.)

I began with the Falls Road Historic District. According to an excellent website (,    this area boasts a range of architectural styles such as Queen Anne, Colonial, Georgian, and Craftsman.

I’m no architecture expert, but I can attest to the fact that there are some grand old homes along Falls Road. Here’s one on the corner of Falls Road and Braswell Street, currently owned by Rocky Mount Councilman Andre Knight. The plaque on the brick wall announces its name, Melrose Manor.

andres house

Avent Street, which runs parallel to Falls Road and is included in the historic district, has some distinctive homes as well. I love the blue exterior, brick chimney, and screened porch of this house.

avent street house

Here’s one for sale on Avent Street. If this house were in one of the downtown neighborhoods in Charlotte, it would go for half a million dollars in a matter of days. Location, location, location, right?

avent street for sale

When I think of historic Rocky Mount, the area around Rocky Mount Mills comes to mind. After all, the name of the town came from the rocky terrain at the falls of the Tar River, the site of the second cotton mill in the state.

There’s plenty of interesting history about Rocky Mount Mills. It began operation in 1818, was the target of Union attack in the Civil War, and was rebuilt in 1870. A village was established in the surrounding area as mill owners built company-owned houses for employees. When Rocky Mount Mills closed in 1996, it was the oldest operating mill in the South.

Nowhere in Rocky Mount has revitalization been more successful than in the area designated the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District. Thanks to Capitol Broadcasting Company for its investment in Rocky Mount.

RM Mills sign

Here’s what many of the mill houses looked like before restoration.

mill house in disrepair

Here’s what almost all look like now. I love the red porch swing and rockers on this house.

cute mill village house

Some of the rehabilitated mill homes are duplexes. Check out the two front doors with matching wreaths on this cheerful yellow house. A central chimney and a white picket fence make this a storybook home. (Do I sound like a real estate ad?)

cute duplex

The front porches of these renovated mill homes hearken back to a day before television and air conditioning when folks sat outside after supper, no doubt greeting neighbors walking down the sidewalks.


Today, historic houses on the site of the old Rocky Mount Mills campus are enjoying new life as pubs and restaurants. The popular Koi Pond Brewing Company is located in what was once the mill superintendent’s home.

koi pondThis large bungalow, the sole example of Craftsman style at the Mills, was used as a community house. Today it’s home to a restaurant, Tap @1918. I recently had a lovely dinner on that porch about where the employee is standing in the picture.

large bungalowThe grandest house on the campus of Rocky Mount Mills was built in 1835 for mill owner Benjamin D. Battle. Benjamin was the son of Joel Battle, founder of Rocky Mount Mills.

battle house

Before I go, three funny stories about my two tours of four historic districts. Yes, I feel a little weird parking on random streets, getting out of my car, and snapping photos of other people’s property.

When I was in Edgemont, a woman came out of the house across from the one I was photographing and asked if she could help me. I replied, “No, I’m just taking a picture of the house where my cousins used to live.”

“Okay,” she said. “I thought I heard a car horn.”  Hmm…right.

When I was in West Haven, I glimpsed a walker half a block away. Suddenly she seemed to speed up. She wants to find out what I’m doing, I thought. I didn’t have time to talk as I was already late for lunch, so I hurriedly snapped one more photo, jumped in my car, and sped away. I wonder if she got my license plate number.

And to the motorist on Falls Road who gave me a wolf whistle. “Seriously, Dude, I’m a 65-year-old grandma….But thanks.”

Next week, This Old House, Part 3

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This Old Home

Did you know that Rocky Mount has seven recognized historic districts? Can you name all seven? I didn’t and I couldn’t until I attended a recent meeting of Preservation Rocky Mount.

(Click if you missed my column in the Telegram.)

historic sign

Preservation Rocky Mount is a group of people interested in just what the name of their organization says, promoting historic preservation in the Rocky Mount area. Anyone can join, and I may do just that one day when I have time.

Oh, here’s the list, in alphabetical order, of Rocky Mount’s seven historic districts:

Central City, Edgemont, Falls Road, Lincoln Park, Rocky Mount Mills Village, Villa Place, and West Haven. Inspired by the meeting I attended, I’ve decided to visit all seven districts.

Today, I’ll highlight the first two I randomly picked: Edgemont and West Haven.

Well, maybe my selection wasn’t so random. The Edgemont neighborhood always brings back fond memories of spending the night with my town cousins in their house on Sycamore Street (below) before they left Rocky Mount for Texas in 1966. Funny how the house seemed bigger to me then.

the cousins house

My cousins lived in the modest section (I now realize) of this street that stretches for several blocks from Fairview Road to East Raleigh Road. Below is an imposing bungalow several blocks away on the corner of Sycamore and East Raleigh.

big house on sycamore.JPG

The Rocky Mount City website (Google Rocky Mount Historic Districts) cites Tarboro Street as being the “principal avenue” of Edgemont, so I drove down this long street a couple of times. I could see past the disrepair of many of the homes to imagine what was once a “stylish suburb” platted in 1914.

Edgemont fixer upper

With boarded windows and an overgrown yard (among, no doubt, many other problems inside), this fine old Tudor (above) has seen better days. With a big dose of urban renewal, the house, as well as others in Edgemont, could again be a showplace.

I left Edgemont, crossed the railroad tracks in downtown Rocky Mount, and headed to another historic neighborhood, West Haven. When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, West Haven was home to many of Rocky Mount’s wealthiest citizens. It still is.

Barker big house

I love the different architectural styles in West Haven. Nothing cookie cutter about this historic subdivision. According to the Rocky Mount City website, there’s an assortment of Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial, Dutch Colonial, Tudor Revival, minimal traditional, and ranch houses. Check out the interesting lines of the house below.

West Haven modern.JPG

Despite the large lots and grand houses on many of the streets in West Haven, there are also some smaller homes in the area. Who wouldn’t love to retire in this cute yellow ranch? Or start a family?

West Haven small house

I’ll explore two more historic districts in my next post. Stay tuned.

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A Blueprint for Rocky Mount?

Recently my husband and I spent a weekend in Greenville, South Carolina. It was our anniversary, and we wanted to take an easy trip to somewhere we’d never been. Hearing that Greenville, SC, had a vibrant downtown scene–something that many of us would love to see more of in Rocky Mount–I suggested we go check it out.

Wow! These folks have got it going on. For starters, they’ve developed an area, named Falls Park on the Reedy, around the waterfalls that used to power their old textile mills (sound familiar?).

the falls at reedy

There are lots of trails to walk (note one to the left in the picture above) interspersed with gardens. An impressive pedestrian suspension bridge straddles the river.

Besides walking and taking in the beauty of the falls, visitors might encounter street artists such as this one I photographed sketching portraits near the park’s entrance on the Saturday I was there.


Falls Park on the Reedy is smack-dab downtown Greenville, SC. My husband and I walked there from the Holiday Inn where we were staying. We strolled through block after block of upscale restaurants and shops. The streetscape was wide and inviting and full of people out on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.


We saw lots of statues, such as the one below, honoring Greenville’s historic Sterling High School, a prominent all-black educational institution in the days of segregation. (Unfortunately, the school burned to the ground in 1967). The school boasts a Who’s Who of former students, including Jesse Jackson, who was the star quarterback there as well as an honors student.


Greenville has restored most of its downtown buildings. Here’s the Old Greenville County Courthouse, a beaux arts building that served the area from 1918 to 1950. Today it houses a bookstore and a candy shop on the ground floor.

old building

The sidewalks don’t roll up when the sun goes down, at least not on weekends.

at night

How did all this happen? Evidently there was once a Greenville citizen named Buck Mickel. A Google search reveals that he was a successful executive of a local construction company, and his “support, encouragement, and cash helped create today’s vital Main Street.” Pretty much what this Reedy Park memorial says.

buck mickel

Do we have a Buck Mickel (or several) in Rocky Mount? Ben Braddock comes to mind. The developer of Station Square in downtown Rocky Mount, he was recently named an N.C. Main Street Champion. The folks from Capitol Broadcasting are also heroes for developing the campus of the old Rocky Mount Mills.  It’s a beginning, but we need others with similar vision (and deep pockets).

The population of Greenville, SC, is roughly 68,000. The population of Rocky Mount, NC, isn’t too far behind at about 54,500. Greenville, SC was once known as the textile capital of the world. Rocky Mount, NC, home of one of the first cotton mills in the state, has an extensive textile history. Greenville has the Reedy River; Rocky Mount has the Tar River. Both have beautiful waterfalls.

It’s a tale of two cities. One has capitalized on a river, its waterfalls, an old downtown once dominated by mills. The other has taken the first steps. It could be wonderful, Rocky Mount. Go to Greenville, South Carolina, to see for yourselves, or at least check out the city’s website detailing how the development happened:


*To read more about what I saw in Greenville, SC, and my thoughts about similar development in Rocky Mount, click here for last Sunday’s column (March 17, 2019) in the Rocky Mount Telegram:



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