by David Cecelski
I didn’t get much chance to explore the mountain communities near Penland while I was blacksmithing, but I did drive up NC-226 twice and look around Bakersville. The old mining town is the 1-stoplight seat of Mitchell County and is a lovely place to visit. Built along the banks of Cane Creek, the town wasn’t much more than a country store until mica mining began nearby in the late 1860s. Located central to the famous Sink Hole Mine in Bandana and the Clarissa and Hawk deposits on Cane Creek, the town boomed toward the end of the 19th century, and then staggered through mining busts, floods and a big fire. Nowadays the town is having a renaissance and has lots of interesting eateries and charming artisans’ shops.
My favorite food place in Bakersville was OakMoon Creamery, which boasts that it makes “Old World-Style Goat Cheese with a Blue Ridge Flair.” The little shop is located in the basement of the Johnson Building, just off NC-226 and only a few feet from Cane Creek. The cheesemakers, Cynthia Sharpe and Dwain Swing, turn out some incredibly good cheeses. These are not the farmer’s cheeses you buy at your local country store to eat with Saltines for lunch either.
Take their Red Oak Boulette, for instance. Modeled after a classic French chevre, the interior is an herbed pate, a rich chevre mixed with chive and cumin seed and rolled in sweet or smoked paprika. I bought a hunk and took it back to Penland with me. When I ate it a couple days later, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I also bought a cheese called “Mountain Mediterranean,” little balls of chevre seasoned with herbs, garlic, peppercorns and marinated in extra virgin olive oil. The next morning I spread it on apple slices and I thought it made the best breakfast ever.
The creamery was closed when I stopped by, so I also really appreciated the shop’s honor system. Sharpe and Swing have left a little refrigerator full of cheeses, prices marked, in the basement’s foyer. You just leave your payment in a tin box. You have to like a town where people have that kind of trust. And I don’t think I’ve ever tasted better goat cheese—I just wish I had bought more to take home with me.
Also, if you go to MoonOak Creamery, be sure to walk cross NC-226 and visit the very touching memorial garden next to the Mitchell County Historical Society. The garden is dedicated to the eight victims of a local jailhouse fire that happened in 2002. It’s on the right-hand side of NC-226 just past the town’s stoplight.
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OakMoon Creamery also sells its goat cheeses at local farmers markets, most often at the Madison County Farmers Market in Mars Hill and the Yancey Farmers Market in Burnsville, but also sometimes at the Spruce Pine Farmers Market (Wednesdays, 2:30 – 5:30 PM) and the Mitchell County Farmers Market there in Bakersville (Saturdays, 9 AM – Noon). I found some real treats at the little market. I bought some wonderful blueberries and black raspberries and I also got a delicious little turnover stuffed with red raspberries, almost like a little galette.
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If you’re in Bakersville, you might also want to try two very busy-looking country-cooking places, Sallie’s Mountain View Restaurant and the Creekside Diner, both on NC-226. I hear that you can get a good trout dinner at both of them.
Also, be sure to check out Dellinger’s Grist Mill, 4 miles west of town on SR 1211 (Cane Creek Road) in the little community of Hawk. Jack Dellinger, the current miller, is the 4th generation of his family to operate the mill. You can purchase cornmeal and grits there every day except Sunday in October and November, but only every third week from May to September, so you might want to call (828-688-1009) or check the mill’s web site before making a special trip.
You can also buy the mill’s products at the Orchard at Altapass , on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 3 miles north of the Spruce Pine entrance, and at Young’s Fuel Servicein Bakersville.
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Things I’d like to do in Mitchell County when I’m not so busy blacksmithing: go tubing at Loafer’s Glory; go hear bluegrass, gospel and country western music on a Saturday night at Young’s Mountain Music in Bakersville; find the Toe River swim hole where the rocks are supposed to be covered with mica; take in a show at the restored Carolina Theater in Spruce Pine (once home of the “Carolina Barn Dance,” a wildly-popular country music show broadcast across the nation); check out the local apple orchards, Silver’s and Salyer’s; visit the old graveyards; tour the mica factory in Spruce Pine; take my son trout fishing and gem mining (there are a passel of tourist gem mines up by the Blue Ridge Parkway); find the site of the state’s first free public library in Ledger; and, last but not least, sit and re-read Muriel Earley Sheppard’s 1928 classic Cabins in the Laurel, about the Toe River Valley, one of the few places where you can learn about the hard-driven laborers who built the Clinchfield Railroad and worked the early mines.
photos by David Cecelski