Deep in the mountains of North Carolina is the town of Franklin. When walking down Franklin’s main street, there’s a memorial or sign for every period of history: a sign talking about the town’s role in the French and Indian War, a history trail on women in the region, an homage to the Scots-Irish who settled in the area, and a Civil War Memorial, among others. Along with a strong cultural legacy, the town’s streets are lined with small businesses that serve as the social glue of the community. Franklin serves as a small hamlet to its citizens and one of the most luxurious and touristy stops for those brave enough to hike the Appalachian Trail. Franklin is a town of a bygone era, one of community and heritage with a bright future in Appalachian Trail tourism.
We arrived at Franklin right around dinnertime, settled into our hostel for the next two nights and immediately asked, where are we going to eat? I had done some research on places to eat in the area, but we decided to ask our host, and see what was popular around town. Our host provided us with a map of the town, that contained every place that mattered. He asked us what we wanted to eat, and me being me, I said I wanted burgers. He said that the best place to have burgers in town was this place called, Motor Company Grill. The menu online said that they had over 30 different types of burgers. I was sold.
As we entered the place, we quickly noticed they had a 50’s style diner vibe happening. The place had black and white checkered floors paired with red walls, that had portraits and pictures of famous celebrities in black and white. The atmosphere was welcoming and it felt like a good place for friends and family, or even a first date.
We were greeted at the door, and taken to a booth, where we saw the glorious menu. They had options for everybody, you could replace the meat patty for a turkey or veggie patty if needed, which cannot be said for every burger joint. The staff was very attentive, and when we asked for what they would recommend they quickly told us their own, as well as other popular options.
I started browsing through the menu, considering what I wanted to have, and mind you, I was very hungry. That is when I landed on the “The King.” This burger had two fresh seasoned beef patties, paired with cheddar, swiss, bacon, grilled Onions and mushrooms. Normally, in these places the patties are not too big so I felt confident in ordering the two patties, but this burger lived up to its name. This was indeed the king of burgers. It was huge, the patties were cooked to perfection and you could taste everything on it.
Once we finished eating, we were all fully satisfied. But we were not done. Our hostel had this arrangement with several businesses around Franklin, that if you wore a rubber band you could get certain deals at the establishments. And at Motor Co.,we got free sundaes. These sundaes were classic vanilla ice cream with fudge, and they were delicious.
It was hands down the best meal we had all weekend. The environment was so nice and welcoming, the food was amazing and the service as well. Anybody who visits Franklin, North Carolina needs to visit this place and live, as well as eat, this experience for themselves.
The town of Franklin was bustling but the life of the party was on the outskirts. Hoards of people, young and old alike, crowded around downtown Franklin.
A steep paved hill ran through the center of town toward the more residential and on this specific Saturday, it was near impossible to find an opening amidst the gathering. Caution tape and balloons guarded the road as onlookers peaked over and leaned with their full body weight to watch the spectacle.
There was a booth atop the hill advertising the sale of pumpkins for the competition. Participants were given a number which was then called for the next-up to get into position and get ready to begin.
The Pumpkin Roll:
Participants were instructed to pick a pumpkin (pro tip: a round pumpkin rolls differently than a cylindrical pumpkin.)
Two men clad in neon vests stood at the bottom of the hill next to the mark indicating the farthest rolling pumpkin record.
The challenge was simple: how far can you get your pumpkin to roll? The trick was in the direction, similar to bowling. Cones were not satisfactory in their job of protecting the audience of run-away pumpkins. If the pumpkin rolled into the viewing audience, it was encouraged to kick the pumpkin back into bounds. More often than not, the tough ground will be too much for the pumpkin resulting in an explosion of seeds and gooey orange insides.
Cheers erupt as the pumpkin rolled down the hill, and you heard shouts with such emotion you never thought you would:
“Roll, pumpkin, roll!”
“Yes, I knew that pumpkin was a winner”
“WOOOOOOOOO YES, GO PUMPKIN!”
Although repetitive, the crowd was unwavering in enthusiasm. After a long while and many rounds as spectators, we said good-bye to perhaps one of the best and underrated sports.
Willy’s Diner is a small, family-style BBQ restaurant in Franklin, North Carolina. Located a few minutes outside Franklin’s downtown area, Willy’s is home to a variety of Southern style cuisine. Our concierge at the hotel recommended the restaurant, commenting that their fried catfish “melts in your mouth” and that the ribs have “meat that just smoothly falls off the bone.” With these glowing reviews in mind, we made our way toward Franklin’s most popular BBQ joint.
Upon entering the restaurant, which is situated upon a hill overlooking the town landscape, one is welcomed to a traditional scene for many Southern, family style restaurants. Glossed over wood covers the building end to end with a variety of pictures and signs covering the walls that seem fitting on shows like American Pickers. Once finished, customers pay up front where they can view the strung-up t-shirts and merchandise with the Willy’s logo. Our party of four had a waiting time of about ten minutes, and at first glance, the restaurant seemed to be a popular family dinner spot. We were eventually seated in at corner wooden table with an assortment of sauces to choose from.
The menu was organized in much the same way as traditional BBQ joints: you had your platters and the bevy of sides to choose from. Some of these were classic side staples like fried okra, coleslaw, and baked beans. Others were refreshing spins on traditional sides like squash bites, which were a blend of fried cornmeal and squash that had a moist texture most cornmeal based dishes lack.
The platters were also classic features of southern style cooking: catfish, barbeque and ribs were the centerpieces of their menu. I ordered a fried catfish platter with sides of potato salad, coleslaw and fried okra. I was forewarned by our waitress of the magnitude of this platter that many people don’t finish it do to the sheer amount of fried catfish they serve on the plate. Not phased by such gestures, I reaffirmed my position to order the catfish that “melts in your mouth.”
There weren’t any exaggerations on our waitress’s part; the platters were tall orders stacked with meat. Served on trays, the dishes were all of ample size, allowing the opportunity to mix and match with sauces and sides to my heart’s desire. And our concierge’s glowing review of the catfish wasn’t an exaggeration either; the catfish at Willy’s was the best dish I tasted on the Highway 64 trip. The pieces broke off easily and quite literally felt like they were melting in my mouth. There was no overpowering fishy taste nor an overwhelming fried feeling. It was succulent fish that was also mild enough to be completed by any of the sauces provided. My favorite was their BBQ sauce that had a perfect blend of tangy and sweet that brought out much flavor with the dish. The sides all were excellent; the coleslaw, potato salad and fried okra all exceeded expectations. The coleslaw especially complemented the catfish very well. But the side that stood out were the squash bites, which provided a unique perspective on cornmeal that benefited from the squash flavor.
Before we explored the Franklin Pumpkin Festival, we wanted to warm up with coffee. Crabtree General Store and Coffee Vault was just the place for that. It was an old-fashioned, yet modernized general store, reflecting the small-town feel of Franklin. Friendly cashiers welcomed us with a smile, and the coffee aroma filled the store. Crabtree General sold every type of coffee drink from cappuccinos to green tea chai lattes at their fully coffee bar. Their coffee beans were imported from Black Mountain. Tucked away there was a tiny Wifi lounge where we sipped our coffees and talked about our plan to conquer the festival.
Once we finished our drinks, we walked around, looking at all sorts of wonderful, random, and unique items that cluttered the store. There were barrels spilling over with old-fashioned candy like colored taffy, crystal rock candy, giant gummy bears, and both mini and supersized jawbreakers. Creams and lip balm from J.R. Watkins and Burt’s Bees lined a shelf, along with local jams and jellies. Hung up on the wall were “Home” shirts, the t-shirts with the state of NC printed on the front. There was a whole toy section with Melissa and Doug stuffed animals, puzzles, board games, wooden trains, and model cars. Another section displayed cute wine glasses with funny sayings like, “It’s wine o’ clock somewhere” and “I tend to wine a lot,” in addition to other home décor items.
As we were looking around, a woman with curly, short blond hair wearing a glittery pumpkin asked how we were doing and if we were enjoying the festival. Much to our surprise, she was Karen Crabtree, co-owner of the General Store with her husband and three grown sons. The Crabtree family opened the store in 2015, and although the store had been open for less than a year, it has made a name for itself as a community gathering spot. Mrs. Crabtree grew up in Franklin, and after moving away for college, was drawn back to the small town to reconnect with relatives, bringing her own family, too. She was glad to come back home because she “enjoys the sense of family that Franklin offers.” After telling her about our Highway 64 trip, we thanked her and went outside.
The wrap around patio of Crabtree General overlooked the town, providing a panoramic view of the festival. White rocking chairs added to its southern, homey charm. At a table selling General Store logo t-shirts and hoodies, we were offered samples of an assortment of apple, pumpkin and banana butters. We taste tested all three and couldn’t pick our favorite. The butters were only the first of many delicious festival foods we tried that day. We left the store warmed from the coffee and ready to explore Franklin’s annual Pumpkin Fest.
Armed with hot chocolate clutched between my cold hands, I was ready to explore Franklin’s Pumpkin Fest. The streets were crowded with rows upon rows of booths that offered handmade crafts from soaps to aprons. A few minutes into roaming the aisles, Sam, Dani, and I were attracted to the jewelry stand, Designs by Janette. Christian was not nearly as interested.
A variety of necklaces made from14k gold, sterling silver, brass, and copper hung from nails in a wooden box, evoking a simple, rustic vibe. The pieces were simple, yet caught the eye with their intricate detailing. Small pendants adorned each paper-thin chain: a bird woven into its nest, a tree entangled by its branches, and a simple bar inscribed with a word, BADASS (and yes, it fittingly was in all caps). The juxtaposition between the powerful, confident statement and the delicate design made the piece unique.
When I conversationally mentioned this juxtaposition to the lady overseeing the stand, I discovered that she not only was the Janette of Designs by Janette, but also appreciated that I had picked up on the contrast in her piece. “I draw inspiration from the juxtaposition of the natural and man-made world with the combination of organic and geometric lines,” she said. Among her most popular pieces include her Tree of Life design and Bird’s Nest necklaces and earrings. Framed by a rectangular border, the Tree of Life emerges from the intertwining wires that twist into sprawling branches. To add texture to the Bird’s Nest pieces, the eggs are made of freshwater pearls or aquamarine.
Growing up in Michigan, Janette loved art and the creativity involved. Today as a North Carolina artisan specializing in metal work, she employs wire-wrapping and metal-smithing techniques to create “elegant, lightweight, and feminine jewelry.” She participates in numerous art shows, festivals, and craft fairs throughout North Carolina. Last weekend she had set up her stand in Cashiers, NC for Art for a Cause. Before pursuing her career as a professional artist, Janette taught art class to elementary and middle schools in North Carolina for five years. She smiled at me, explaining, “While I enjoyed working with youth, a career as a professional artist was calling.”
After learning from numerous how-to books on jewelry making, she dedicated herself as a self-taught jewelry artist and started her company, Designs by Janette, in 2011. In addition to handcrafted jewelry, she creates oil and acrylic paintings, photographs, and prints. Her art is displayed in galleries across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Michigan. When I asked her about selling her art in multiple states, she replied, “My love of travel and exploring the outdoors serves as a constant inspiration and is reflected in my work.”
To create her beautiful one-of-a-kind designs, Janette starts at the beginning. “My creative process begins with the raw materials in my hand. My ideas go directly from my head to my hands with typically no sketch in between. I solder the wire, hammer the pieces and continue by adding gemstones or textures with the rolling mill. Each piece is completed by being filed and polished,” she described. Her designs center on reshaping recycled materials, metals and natural stones into wearable art. Many of her jewelry are inlaid with precious and semi-precious metals with natural and faceted gemstones. The malleable metal and wire undergoes hot- and cold-forging processes to be fashioned into her wire-wrapped creations.
After talking to this self-starting businesswoman about her labor of love, I couldn’t leave without a souvenir. I admired a pair of Tree of Life earrings and examined a Bird Nest necklace, but it wasn’t until my gaze turned toward the bar necklace stamped with “BADASS” that I truly smiled. That word doesn’t represent me at all – so naturally, I had to have it.
Janette swiped my debit card using her iPhone card reader, and started to put my necklace in a fancy box with her logo on it. “Wait!” I said, gesturing for it. “I want to wear it now, please.” She smiled and placed the delicate necklace in my palm. I thanked her and walked out of her stand to find my other Mountain group members, who were looking at handmade soaps next door. With the necklace fastened around my neck, I could feel the slight pressure of the bar every time I inhaled the crisp mountain air, making me grin as I was reminded of what I could be – or perhaps what I am: BADASS.
Who doesn’t love puppies? In Franklin, we attended the annual Pumpkin Festival on Main Street. Our favorite sections of the festival were hosted by the Humane Society of Franklin and they had puppies. These puppies were tiny with little pink noses. They were named after the seven dwarves from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Our group fell absolutely head over heels in love with Happy, the tiny black and white spotted puppy. Sam even cried when she held him.
Happy and his siblings were only a few weeks old and snuggled in blankets as they were passed around between the squealing children (and group of 20- to-21-year-old college students researching Highway 64). We debated stealing Happy, who apparently had been adopted earlier that day. The tiny little ball of fur was perfect (as all puppies are), and we wanted to take him back to Elon with us.
Alas, we could not steal the puppy, or any of his siblings. We walked away, teary-eyed and looking longingly over our shoulders back to the children petting the small animals. We wanted to rejoin them, surrounded by snuggly puppies, but we had research to do. We returned to the crowd of the festival to see what we would find next.
Funnel cake, pumpkin bread, fresh local honey, and frog legs were all available for purchasing and eating at the 20th Annual Franklin Pumpkin Festival. This festival is famous for the pumpkin roll, where residents and visitors buy a pumpkin to enter in a race to see what pumpkin can get down the hill in one piece the fastest.
There is so much to do during this festival. Various local organizations and businesses set up under tents lining the streets. People walk around with their children and dogs, both often dressed in costumes. Hot beverages are sold at the general store, which is where we stopped before venturing into the crowd. There were food trucks, local baked goods, and artisan dips and butters sold in various booths. One man was selling honey from his personal bees. Sam and Molly bought honey sticks and I decided to try a quick taste of the sourwood honey, which wasn’t actually sour. Local craftsmen displayed their wares in their tents. There were hand knit scarves, hand-made jewelry, pottery, paintings, and more.
Food and pumpkins were not the only attraction on the streets of Franklin on this day. There was plenty of entertainment available. Music blasted from speakers at the gazebo on the green. There were bouncy houses at one end and pony rides at the other. Molly and I debated asking for a ride (each pony could hold about 180 pounds) but two children were waiting, and we needed to look like adults. There was also a dog costume contest, where local pups dressed in their Halloween best to win a trophy. My favorite was the Golden Retriever dressed as a lion. There was also a dachshund in a hotdog costume, a tiny Chihuahua dressed as Woody from Toy Story, and a Pitbull mix dressed as a dinosaur.
The pumpkin eating contest was our last stop during the Franklin Pumpkin Festival. There were two heats: a kid’s heat and an adult heat. The announcer handed ponchos out to each contestant (for cleanliness) and they piled mounds of whipped cream on top of each pie. The contestants had only a minute to eat as much pie as possible and then the pies were weighed to see who ate the most. The winner of each heat won $20. During the kid’s heat, there was a tie! The announcer pulled another $20 out his own wallet so they both could get the prize.
The Pumpkin Festival was everything that we hoped for and more. We wished we could have stayed longer, but Highway 64 was calling and we had to head on to Highlands for lunch.
When you’re driving along the winding roads of Highway 64, nestled between the lush trees of the mountains, it is easy to expect beauty around every corner. From breathtaking panoramas of treetops so vast that they seem to be never-ending broccoli crowns, to narrow canopied roads that only emit stripes of sunshine intermittently, the scenery never disappoints. It would seem easy to become blind to the beauty a couple hours into a trip, but the mountain region of Highway 64 never gets old. Every so often, however, you round the corner and are struck by a site so majestic that it momentarily makes the rest of the scenery seem (somewhat) more ordinary.
You’ll experience one of these unbelievable moments when you’re driving between Franklin and Highlands. The cascading waterfall of Bridal Veil Falls reveals itself to the passerby around a corner much like any other. Spouting out a large stream of water that falls over an arched section of the road, this approximately 50-foot-high waterfall provides a respite for drivers from the windy turns down the mountain. You just have to pull off to one side of the arch, park your car, and step out into the sprinkling beauty. You can walk all the way around the arch, behind the fall, and let yourself be misted and refreshed.
The walking path you’ll enjoy behind the waterfall used to be part of Highway 64 itself. This route required drivers to slow down before hitting the falls and cautiously drive behind them. The difficulty and danger that ensued diminished the outlook of the falls as a beautiful piece of scenery. During the winters, the snow and ice caused the falls to freeze over, which you could imagine would be a huge safety hazard. In Franklin, the Gem & Mineral Shop workers won’t hesitate to warn you that a lot of people have unfortunately fallen off the cliff around that area before the highway was reconstructed.
Bridal Veil Falls is one of the few places that you feel as if you’re among tourists in this mountain region of North Carolina, but not in a bad way. Cars are constantly pulling over, spilling out individuals, couples, families, and groups of friends with cameras at the ready. From newlyweds taking a pit stop along a honeymoon mountain trip, to vacationing families stopping off to let their kids traipse through the water, Bridal Veil Falls is an enjoyable attraction for everyone.
If this part of Highway 64 is not on your itinerary, it is worth taking a detour just to see Bridal Veil Falls. And while you’re at it, stop for half a day in Franklin to wander around the shops and eat some of the delicious food the downtown has to offer. Or, stop in Highlands for a nice meal at one of the local restaurants or inns. The vistas in this part of the mountain region will certainly make the drive to Bridal Veil Falls almost as enjoyable as the destination.
From the friendly, conversational shop owners to the business models of many stores, it is clear that Franklin is more than just a small town—it is a community. Most of the antique and consignment stores actually benefit one of the local non-profit organizations, as explained by the woman who volunteered at an antique store attached to the Franklin Historical Museum. This antique store has four separate rooms full of items whose profits go directly to the museum to fund the acquisition of items and the museum’s upkeep. This business model is not abnormal in Franklin, as it is necessary to compensate for the large wealth-gap in the town. Even the vegetables growing on the plant outside the antique store are for the community to share. It is impossible to visit Franklin and not feel that tangible sense of community.