An Ode to Hillsborough

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By Katie Murray | Photography By Donn Young


One month after I started my job as director of the Orange County Arts Commission in 2016, I agreed to be part of a float in the Hillsborough Handmade Parade. I had no idea what it was, but I heard the word “handmade” and I love a parade, so, of course I agreed. What I discovered was hundreds of people of all types dressed up as enormous, crazy critter puppets parading down Churton Street dancing, laughing, playing and basically having the best time ever. It was weird and wonderful. I realized I had found my place.

Hillsborough is weird in the best sense of the word. It’s a compliment meaning unique, authentic, different and something not easily replicated. These words describe Hillsborough, especially downtown, and I’ve often wondered why. 

Is it the unique mix of people? The town is certainly a portrait of a community in transition, featuring an interesting mix of farmers, young families, artists, tattooed hipsters and many, many writers. Or maybe it’s the historic Southern charm. Hillsborough has been called “a museum without walls,” and for good reason. You can’t walk a block downtown without running into a historic site or marker. 

I think these things contribute to its unique vibe, but my theory? It’s the overflowing and encouraged creativity – not just “the arts” in the classic sense, but the wonderful weirdness present everywhere you look. It’s the handmade scarves hanging on a tree in front of the fire station downtown for folks to take if they’re cold. It’s the public art, both official and not so official, along the Riverwalk. There was the “castle made of sticks” by world renowned Hillsborough artist Patrick Dougherty, but there’s also tree stump hobbit houses made by unknown renegade artists. It’s even in the graffiti, which is some of the most positive graffiti that’s ever been graffitied (if that’s a word). Judging by #hillsboroughnc Instagram posts, I share two favorites with many other people: “All things are difficult before they are easy” and “Harder than you think is a beautiful thing.” 

A participant in the Hillsborough Handmade Parade

The business community is further proof creativity is supported in Hillsborough. A quick walk down Churton Street proves my point. You’ll see Carlisle & Linny Vintage Jewelry, Hillsborough Yarn Shop, Melissa Designer Jewelry, not to mention six galleries within a three-block radius. You’ll see artist-designed outdoor seating areas filled with people enjoying seriously creative (and yummy) food at places like Panciuto and The Wooden Nickel. You’ll find one of only two independently owned bookstores in Orange County, Purple Crow Books, featuring a large section of North Carolina writers, including the many who call this “writer’s haven” home.

The weirdness continues in West Hillsborough, or what my family calls “Steve’s Perfect World,” because it has everything my husband loves: good beer and music, dogs, barbecue and ice cream – all in a perfect row. You can get your beer and church at the same time during Beer & Hymns Sundays at Nash Street Tavern, or see local live musicians perform most other nights. Next door, Paws at the Corner hosts events like “West Fest Dog Beer Floats and Pupcakes.” Next is Whit’s Frozen Custard and then Hillsborough BBQ Company, which are not weird at all. In fact, they offer some of the best ice cream and barbecue money can buy (in our house, we’re tough critics of each). But I digress … back to the weird. 

Hillsborough didn’t become an artsy community by chance. Support for the creators, or the people who make a community an enjoyable place to live, doesn’t just happen. Especially with the rapid growth we’re experiencing in the Triangle, it’s tempting for community leaders to sacrifice local character and sell to the highest bidder. But it is somehow different here. The mayor, Tom Stevens, is an accomplished artist and owner of a downtown gallery. The town’s public space manager, Stephanie Trueblood, earned her undergraduate degree in public art and her desire to keep Hillsborough authentic and beautiful is demonstrated in every aspect of her work. The town council and local boards also get it. Each year they contribute significant public funds to support the work of the Hillsborough Arts Council. Without the arts council, the community wouldn’t enjoy some of the most original, not to mention wildly successful, events this former festival planner has ever had the privilege of being a part of, including the Handmade Parade, Last Fridays Art Walk and the magical Solstice Lantern Walk each December.

Indeed, this is a magical little town. As a self-identified weirdo, I feel fortunate to have stumbled into this job in this community. I love it so much I almost hesitate telling people about it because I’m afraid the secret will get out. But I think it’s too late … creativity is contagious and in this expanding metropolis of clear-cut forests and fabricated communities, people are desperate for something that is different, unique and true. 

So here’s to Hillsborough, the writer’s haven, the museum without walls … may it stay forever weird.

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