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Queen of the Carolinas

Published: 02/07/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » July/August 2014 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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Before there was the Yukon in Alaska or even Sutter’s Mill in California, there was Carolina – the first gold rush in the newly-minted United States of America. The story goes like this; in 1799 a young Conrad Reed found a shiny rock in the creek bed on the family farm in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. He gave the rock to his dad, John Reed, who reputedly used it for years as a doorstop.

In 1802, Reed the Elder took the rock to a jeweler, who bought it from him for a week’s wages, a fraction of its value. But not to worry; Reed came out all right in the end. The next year, one of his slaves discovered another nugget – this time 28 pounds – and the mining operation Reed started made him a rich man. Today the Reed Mine is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The amount of gold dug out of the Carolina clay was so great, in 1835 the US government set up a specialized mint in Charlotte “for the coinage of gold only,” according to the act that established the branch. Over its years of operation up to the end of the Civil War, the Charlotte Mint struck over $5 million in gold, and today, neumismatists the world over prize these rare and valuable gold coins stamped with the letter “C.”

For nearly 100 years, the building that housed the mint sat at 400 Trade Street in what is now called Uptown Charlotte. By the 1930s the building was set for the wrecking ball, but a group of Charlotte citizens raised the money to buy it from the Treasury Department, move it and turn it into the first art museum in the state. Today the Mint Museum houses permanent collections including American art, American and European ceramics and an immense assortment of North Carolina pottery. And of course a specimen of each coin turned out by the mint.  

Uptown Beat

However, the removal of the mint from Trade Street did not diminish Charlotte’s standing at the very heart of trade in the Carolinas. In 1755, Thomas Polk built a house at the crossroads of two Native American trading paths between the Yadkin and Catawba rivers. One of those paths was part of the Great Wagon Road – now Tryon Street – while the other is now Trade Street.

Trade and Tryon is the epicenter of Uptown Charlotte, and is otherwise known as Independence Square, or simply the Square. During midweek lunchtimes it buzzes with banking staff – Charlotte is the second-largest banking hub in the US, and one of the city’s biggest employers, Bank of America, has its headquarters just by the square – while street musicians belt out the blues to passersby. 

Four statues, one at each corner of the square reflect the core threads that have contributed to the Queen City’s growth: An African American laborer represents Transportation, a gold prospector Commerce, and a mill worker Industry. All three are facing the fourth, a mother and child, who represent the Future. 

A couple of blocks north of the Square on Tryon, you will find one of Charlotte’s most charming areas. In the mid-19th century the Fourth Ward was a well-heeled neighborhood, home to merchants and ministers. But as residents shifted out to the suburbs, the area went into decline and many of its grand Victorian residences were demolished. Beginning in the late 1970s it underwent restoration, and about 40 of the houses have been retained as part of the Fourth Ward Historic District, the tree-lined streets of which make for an enjoyable stroll.

Notable examples include Alexander Michael’s (aka, Al Mike’s Tavern) at 401 West Ninth Street, a quaint if somewhat cramped restaurant housed in the neighborhood’s 1897 grocery store, and the pink-hued Overcarsh House (326 West Eighth), in Queen Anne style dating from the 1880s.

In the center of the district, Fourth Ward Park is a pleasant spot for a pause – the skyscrapers of Uptown, visible above the trees, provide a striking contrast to the historic homes of the district.

The Levine Museum of the New South, located east of the park on 7th Street is a fascinating place to explore the South’s post-Civil War history. Its “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” exhibit explains how the South has moved “from field to factory to finance,” through the dark days of slavery and war, into reconstruction, segregation and the Civil Rights movement to Charlotte’s present role as a money center.

The 1,000-plus exhibits are arranged chronologically and designed to be interactive – you can step inside a tenant farmer’s one-room house and listen to folk tunes from the time, or take a seat at a lunch counter and learn about the sit-in protests of the 1950s and 60s.

It’s a sobering, evocative reminder of how the past continues to inform the present. 

Steps from the museum, the Seventh Street Public Market opened in 2011 to promote local farmers, artisans and entrepreneurs. Housed in a voluminous industrial-style building, its vendors sell everything from prime meats, cheeses and colorful fruit and veggies to fine wines and delectable chocolates.

Salts of the Earth stocks 170 gourmet salts from around the world – such as black truffle salt made from French gris de Guérande and Italian black truffles – while Small Keys sells pretty handmade soaps and beauty products.

Local Loaf serves up delicious sandwiches, while other stalls offer up gourmet pizzas, sushi made to order and zingy raw juices. Fans of the Showtime series Homeland may notice some familiar landmarks as they wander through the Queen City. The TV series was shot in and around Charlotte, with local locations doubling for the Brody family home, CIA Headquarters and Morgan’s college.

Tobacco Road 

Whether or not your only knowledge of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – better known to the world as NASCAR – has been gleaned from repeated viewings of Days of Thunder or Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, visiting the NASCAR Hall of Fame will be an education. 

Open since 2010 in a striking racetrack-inspired building, the Hall of Fame celebrates the great and the good in the world of NASCAR. The sport has its roots in the South – during the days of Prohibition, bootleggers in the Appalachians would soup up their cars and load up their trunks with moonshine, running the booze on the backroads full speed to escape the police. Today a somewhat more respectable – and lucrative – version of the sport has a huge fan base.

There’s a whopping 40,000 square feet of space to explore, including Glory Road, an exhibit of historic cars from Buck Baker’s 1957 Chevrolet 150 Black Widow to today’s lean machines, and the Hall of Honor, where the sport’s greatest drivers are hailed. If you fancy having a go yourself, you can sit in a stock car in the high-tech race simulator and pit your skills against other visitors. Visit nascarhall.com.

Of course, simulators are all well and good, but for the real deal, diehard racing enthusiasts can head up the road a piece (as we say in the South) to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Located a 30-minute drive from Charlotte on I-85 at Concord, NC, the speedway is a huge multi-track facility that hosts a drag strip, short track, dirt track, road course and even go-kart races. But the centerpiece is the 1.5-mile oval where NASCAR stars roar past the crowd of up to 135,000 at camera-blurring speeds over 200 mph.

The 50-plus-year-old race track has seen its share of Hollywood moments, providing the locations for the aforementioned Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights. It also welcomed such celebrity names as Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy for the world premiere of Disney/Pixar’s hit animated movie, CARS. 

But all the Tinseltown glam aside, the track is, quite literally, where the rubber meets the road. And even lowly mortals have the opportunity to know – albeit in a relatively safe and controlled environment – what it really feels like to take on one of auto racing’s legendary courses. 

The speedway hosts a number of so-called driving “experiences,” usually associated with some illustrious racing name; Mario Andretti, Rusty Wallace, and ‘The King,’ Richard Petty. An entry-level three-lap ride-along in Petty program starts at $109, but you can actually get behind the wheel for eight laps on race day for $525 

Not during the race, of course. 

By Michelle Harbi and Dan Booth 

 

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