Walking through downtown Hillsborough is like stepping through decades of American history. Founded in 1754 along the Great Indian Trading Path, the town boasts more than 100 homes and buildings built in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1766, the town was officially named after William Hill, earl of Hillsborough (Ireland) and British secretary of state for the colonies from 1768 to 1772.
Hillsborough has a history as a microcosm of American rebellion, spanning the political spectrum. Before the Revolutionary War, the Regulators demonstrated an inkling of what was to come: resistance to British taxes. What started as protests and riots eventually gave way to a two hour battle culminating in their defeat. But many of the Regulators would become loyalists and many of the anti-Regulators would become Patriots. In the 1860s, the town would join the Confederacy yet played a significant role in the surrender that would end the Civil War.
Today, Hillsborough is known as a liberal enclave that attracts artists and writers. Signs expressing rebellion against the current administration’s political positions abound. Still, the 2015 rally for Confederate symbols and the 2016 bombing of the GOP headquarters seems to perfectly encapsulate the current political mood of the country, something the town has done since its inception.
But the day we visited the town of 6,720, the vibe was a pleasant one. The day after Black Friday has become known as Small Business Saturday and Hillsborough was celebrating the occasion in style. Balloons and sandwich boards invited passersby to explore the galleries and shops. Cup of Joe served up much-needed caffeine while the tables outside the Wooden Nickel pub were packed with patrons enjoying the 60+ degree weather.
A cover band played outside the Old Courthouse, forcing the brain to deal with the cognitive dissonance that stems from hearing “Play that funky music white boy” while gazing at the house where one of North Carolina’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence once lived.
The Nash-Hooper house is just down the street from the site where North Carolina delegates gathered in 1788 to consider the brand new United States Constitution. In the end, the Old North State became the only one to not ratify or reject the document. This indecision paved the way for the Bill of Rights. That site today hosts the Orange County Historical Museum. (North Carolina delegates would later ratify the amended Constitution in Fayetteville.)
Just south of downtown lies the Eno River and a well-planned, well-constructed 1.8 mile long Riverwalk. The mixture of pavement and boardwalk weaves through trees and fields, passes under the Churton Street bridge and connects two parks. The greenway was constructed from 2009-2014 and is part of North Carolina’s Mountain-to-Sea trail.
A popular attraction along the trail is a large sculpture called Stickwork ‘A Sight to Behold’ by Patrick Dougherty. 190 volunteers helped collect sapling and construct the sculpture. It entrances both young and old with its twisting, vine-like branches and the nooks and crannies give it a TARDIS-esque bigger-on-the-inside feel. And while visitors are encouraged to walk inside, climbing is, of course, not allowed as it is public art.
Half a mile from Dougherty’s sculpture resides the Occaneechi Indian Village Replica Site. Before Europeans arrived, the area now known as Hillsborough was once home to three Native American villages, estimated around 1000 to 1710 CE. Originally, the Occaneechi site had huts and a sweat lodge, but the site was not maintained and eventually torn down. This past spring, a wooden palisade replica was re-installed thanks to a partnership between the tribe, the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, the town of Hillsborough and Orange County.
There is so much more to explore in Hillsborough, but the low winter sun was receding behind the tree line, so we decided to drive home. Perhaps in the spring or summer when the light is bright and lasts longer, we’ll return to explore more of what the Orange County town has to offer.
Want to make the trip from a longer distance or a in a car with less range? Hillsborough has 5 EV chargers right in the downtown historic district. Check PlugShare for more info.
|Vehicle||Tesla Model S|
|Energy Usage||16.4kWh — 299Wh/mile|
|Entertainment||Science Friday: To the Batcave!|
About Hillsborough – Town of Hillsborough website
Nash-Hooper House – NCpedia.org
“New Occaneechi village begins taking shape in Hillsborough” – News & Observer, March 10, 2017
Patrick Dougherty – Stickwork in Hillsborough:”A Sight to Behold” – HillsboroughArtCouncil.org
“Hundreds rally in Hillsborough for Confederate symbols” – News & Observer, August 8, 2015