The Heart of North Carolina

August 2014
Written By: 
Denise Mullen
Explore the rich history of the pottery artisans and visionary citizens

Just a three-and-a-half-hour ride north from the Grand Strand, a scenic weekend drive can take you along the verdant rolling hills, river valleys, forests and ridges of Randolph County, the geographic “heart” of North Carolina.

It is a place that personifies the term down-to-earth.

It is home to hundreds of pottery artisans, many of whom still mine the rich clay for their wares from their own backyard. It is an agricultural mecca that beckons prodigal sons and daughters to leave their big city careers and return to family farms and orchards to work them again.

With such reverence for the land, is it any wonder that it’s home to the North Carolina Zoo, the world’s largest natural habitat park of its kind?
A dry county that for most of its history did not permit the sale of alcoholic beverages, it fostered the racing spirit of NASCAR as moonshine runners zipped along its back roads.

With a rich heritage and a treasure trove of visionary citizens, Randolph County is a fascinating spot to visit. Making the trip even sweeter, the locals will welcome you with open arms and leave you basking in true Southern hospitality.

The To-Do List
Pop in on potters in Seagrove, the handmade pottery capital of the United States where artisans create handcrafted pottery inspired by the traditions that began in this community more than 200 years ago. Drawn to the abundant clay deposits in this Piedmont region, early potters crafted utilitarian wares like jugs, crocks, pitchers and baking dishes. With nearly 100 workshops and galleries scattered throughout the countryside, you will find everything from traditional tableware to folk and collectible art pieces and historical reproductions.

The Original Owens Pottery (3728 Busbee Road., (910) 464-3553) is owned and operated by the children of the late M. L. Owens, a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award winner and one of the modern legends in the Seagrove tradition. It is the oldest pottery here, established in 1917. The showroom is located in a small log cabin while an extensive complex of sheds behind it houses the wheels, glazes, kilns, drying racks, clay mills and other equipment. Nancy Owens Brewer and Boyd Owens, M. L.’s youngest children, still make decorative pottery here, in the famous Owens red and other original family glazes.

Nestled in 30 acres of woods, From the Ground Up (172 Crestwood Road, (910) 464-6228) features the Celtic slant of the pottery works by Michael Mahan. Trees are painstakingly etched into pots and platters, and Mahan’s meditation bells and soul pots are irresistible. You can also find fetching dinnerware in southwestern and ash glazes.

Greatly influenced by his grandfather, who was a master potter in the Seagrove tradition, Ben Owen III studied Asian ceramics and brought that aesthetic to his work. One of the most well-known potters of the day, he can be visited at Ben Owen Pottery (2199 S. NC Highway 705, (336) 879-2262). Here, you’ll see the Asian elements of Owen’s pottery in its smooth shapes and brilliant colors. Attached to the showroom is a small log cabin that was Ben’s grandfather’s shop. This cabin is now a museum of the Owen family’s pottery.

If you also have a penchant for handmade ceramic tiles, skip on over to Snowhill Pottery & Tileworks (402 E. Main St., (336) 301-6681) where owner/artist Laura Johnson plies her wares. You can shop the quaint open-air cabin for collectibles, unique dinnerware and hand-painted jewelry, or even commission custom work.

To plan your own pottery adventure—taking in the countryside, visiting the artists and touring workshops—go to Or join the 33rd annual Seagrove Pottery Festival, which will be November 22 and 23. Call Martha Graves at (336) 873-7887 for more information, or go to the events calendar at

Take a long walk on the wild side at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro (4401 Zoo Parkway, (800) 488-0444), the largest natural habitat park in the world. Spanning more than five miles of trails through the two exhibit regions of North America and Africa, it takes between 4 and 6 hours to see everything. And that means more than 1600 animals throughout 500 wooded acres, including baby chimps and baboons.

Check the animal status boards located outside the admissions windows. The boards will give you daily information about feeding times, keeper talks and which animals might be off exhibit that day.

Here’s a tip: If you go between April and October, start as early as you can from the Africa Entrance. Most visitors start at the main gates in the North America region, so you’ll be walking against the crowds and be up against fewer, if any, lines.

To plan your visit to this not-to-be-missed zoo, go to to map out your itinerary and get admission prices.

NASCAR fans, The Richard Petty Museum in Randleman (311 Branson Mill Road, (336) 495-1143) is calling you.

Making racing history with record-breaking skills and legendary innovations, The Petty Museum preserves the family business and influence on American motorsports. Cars, trophies and awards honoring the Petty family are showcased throughout the on-site gift shop.

Here’s a tidbit for you: How are NASCAR and potters related? Breakneck racecar driving was started by moonshine runners who had to outpace law enforcement, often along hairpin, treacherous mountain roads. And the local potters made the jugs to carry the moonshine in.

Go to for hours of operation or to book a group tour.

Get back to nature and the taste of fresh-plucked food at a U-Pick working orchard like Millstone Creek Orchards (506 Parks Crossroad Church Road, (336) 824-5263) in Ramseur.

From June through November, visitors can harvest their own blueberries, blackberries, peaches, grapes, apples, pumpkins and pecans. The Apple Barn Country Store on site serves fresh apple cider in the fall. There’s also a bakery and cannery.

Millstone Creek hosts special events throughout the year, making it a fun family destination for locals. Call ahead for details.

You’ll Eat It Up
Bia’s Gourmet Hardware
New to the Asheboro downtown scene in a refurbished storefront building (103 Worth St.), chef/owner Bia Rich is wowing the town with her fresh and unique spin that belies her Brazilian roots, world travel and 20 years of New York City restaurant experience.

I cannot rave enough about the wild mushroom soup with salami chips; Black Bass on corn salsa verde, black beans and pancetta; wild boar chops or filet mignon with ribbons of squash. The chocolate pot au creme dessert is to-die-for!

The menu changes every two months to celebrate the local bounty. For more information, call (336) 610-2427 or visit You can also follow Bia’s passion for food via her blog, Rich and Sweet.

Goat Lady Dairy
“When we change a person’s relationship to their food, we change them and the world together.”

A working farm that churns out award-winning goat cheese, Goat Lady Dairy in Climax (3531 Jess Hackett Road, (336) 824-2163) offers monthly five-course gourmet dinners in the rustic post and beam outbuilding.

Guests gather on the porch for appetizers like crispy radishes and dill spread on rye toast and then take a tour of the farm and meet the resident goats and chickens.

Everything served hails from the farm and incorporates the homemade cheeses. On an April visit, the meal began with an artisan cheese selection, followed by a beet salad with smoked goat cheese, rutabaga leek soup topped with house-made creme fraiche, jagerwurst with an onion confit and mustard sauce and goat cheese truffles for dessert.

Go to for more information, or check out available dinner dates and reservations at

Something Different Restaurant
Locals flock to Something Different in Asheboro (1512-F Zoo Parkway, (336) 626-5707) for the dining trifecta of good food at good prices made by good people. It’s a casual eatery with a diner-esque vibe.

The menu doesn’t miss a morsel: appetizers, salads, sandwiches and wraps, kabobs, quesadillas, chicken, fish, steaks and chops, pasta, Bayou over rice, signature dishes (including a lobster tail, chicken cordon bleu and shrimp scampi) and daily specials. Plus, a children’s menu and roster of desserts.  
Visit to see the extensive menu.

Where to Stay
Accommodations are fairly limited with a few bed & breakfast inns and campgrounds in the region. To be within 10 to 15 miles of Seagrove, the Petty museum and the North Carolina Zoo, snag a room at one of the chain hotels in Asheboro. If there’s none to be had in Asheboro, you can venture about another 10 to 15 miles further to Archdale. Go to for a comprehensive listing of lodging options.


Photographs (animals) courtesy of the N.C. Zoo (Owens) by Ben Owen III (Mahan) by Michael Mahan, (Johnson )by Ilona Kohari, (berries )by Debbie Woody, (restaurant ) by Bia Rich (cheeses) by Dan Routh