Wilson County is the shining epitome of small-town, southern life and days gone by. A leisurely drive throughout the county will spotlight small towns (many are railroad communities) with 1920s- and 1930s-style downtown building facades and water towers. You’ll discover this tucked-away county about halfway between New York and Florida, just east of I-95.
Wilson County and the county seat of Wilson were named for the prominent 19th century Eastern North Carolina legislator, Colonel Louis D. Wilson. It is said that he died of fever while on leave from the State senate during the Mexican–American War of 1848.
In the early 21st century, Wilson was ranked as 18th in size among North Carolina’s 500-plus municipalities. From 1990 to 2010, the city population increased by more than 40%, primarily due to construction of new subdivisions that attracted many new residents. This has been accompanied by new retail and shopping construction, primarily in the northwestern parts of the city.
Once a center of tobacco cultivation, the city of Wilson was widely known as “The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market” in the 19th century. In the 21st century, Wilson enjoys a diverse economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, commercial, and service businesses.
The history of the city of Wilson began with a community that formed around Toisnot Primitive Baptist Church, built in the early 1800s. The community was originally called Toisnot. In 1836, the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad Co. began building a Wilmington-to-Weldon line. The railway reached the community in 1839, and by 1840 Toisnot had both north and south service, which stimulated community growth at the time.
Of fame from the county is Julius Peppers, nicknamed “The Freak Of Nature,” an American football outside linebacker/defensive end for the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League. He was born in Wilson, North Carolina, and raised in nearby Bailey, NC. He played both college football and basketball for the University of North Carolina and was recognized as a football All-American. He has also played professionally for the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, and Chicago Bears.
Stroll through the downtown streets and note the historic architecture and building murals.
Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park
In Wilson, you can’t help but marvel at the amazing Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park (301 Goldsboro St.), celebrated with the annual Whirligig Festival the first full weekend of November each year. The small city of Wilson boasts the largest collection of whirligigs anywhere in the world. And they can credit the entire collection to the crafty hands of Wilson County native Vollis Simpson (from Lucama). There is ample parking surrounding the park, which is free to peruse–and you may see local crafters exhibiting their works for sale on any given weekend. (Bring cash, as some exhibitors may not have credit card capabilities.)
In addition to the 2-acre Whirligig Park, you’ll also find more of Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs at the Wilson Rose Garden, Wilson Visitors Center, Wilson Botanical Gardens, and throughout several downtown areas as well as museums across the United States and the globe, including Raleigh, Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, and California plus Russia, London, and Canada.
Wilson Botanical Gardens
Travel down the road to the Wilson Botanical Gardens (1806 SW Goldsboro St.). Peruse through the garden’s paths and tunnels year-round to view the changing environment with each season. You’ll find culinary and medicinal herb gardens, tropical and carnivorous plants, and native and heritage plants dotted with children’s play areas, a STEM learning garden, and garden art throughout the property. Admission is free, and feel free to picnic here.
Memberships are welcome, which support the garden’s upkeep and maintenance as well as grant special access to events and plant sales throughout the year plus local nursery discounts.
Freeman Round House & African-American Museum
Don’t leave Wilson without touring this lovely property (1202 E. Nash Street), an amazing contribution to Wilson’s native architecture. The site was opened as a museum on September 30, 2001. The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House is a house and museum featuring the artifacts and culture of African-American history in the Wilson area.
The house was built in 1946 by Freeman (born in 1882) using whatever he could get his hands on, including bottles and tree saplings–even string! Born the son of a former slave, he was educated at the Tuskegee Normal School in Alabama before returning to the area to help construct homes for soldiers returning from World War II.
You’ll find stone benches, bronze bear sculptures (Freeman loved his bears.), and even a dinosaur sculpture on the property as well as an on-site museum building with more artifacts and African-American history. Admission is free. Check for hours, as they are listed differently in different publications.
Wilson Rose Garden
Not far from downtown Wilson, the Wilson Rose Garden (1800 Herring Ave.) offers more than 1,200 rose bushes and more than 100 varieties. New varieties are added each year. Take time to stroll through the gardens and sculptures, including another whirligig, and snap a photo of the nearby Rose Garden water tower. Plan a picnic if you like, or use the space for a wedding or reception. You can purchase an engraved brick to honor someone for a $100 contribution. Admission is free.
Other sites of interest while in Wilson, NC:
City of Wilson Fleming Stadium (seats about 4,000 fans) and NC Baseball Museum (300 Stadium St.)
Imagination Station (224 Nash St. NE, the former Federal Post Office and Courthouse building built in 1927 of limestone veneer on brick in the Beaux Art architectural style)
NC Museum of Coastal Plain (top floor of Imagination Station building)
The Kennedy Theatre at Barton College (800 Vance St. NE)
Boone’s Antiques (2014 US-301)
Parker’s Barbecue (2514 US-301) — Good old-fashioned Southern BBQ and chicken (Dine in or get in the take-out line on the back side. Call-in your order ahead of time for faster pickup.)
Boyette Brothers Sweet Potatoes Farm
Stop by this farm for a tour and a few sweet potatoes to bring home (when in season).
This small community outside of Wilson was home to Vollis Simpson, creator of the whirligigs in Wilson’s central park. Wilson created and installed all of the whirligigs on his property. The city of Wilson eventually bought the collection from him and created the community display you see today.
By the way, the story of the naming of this community surrounds three women (Lucy, Carrie, and Mary), honored by Josephus Daniels, who named the town in 1883 after the three women, who may have been his romantic interests or simply friends.
Tobacco Farm Life Museum
In this small town bordering Wilson and Johnston Counties, you’ll find the quaint Tobacco Farm Life Museum (709 N. Church St.) complete with a guided tour and time-honored gift shop.
Next tour… Lincoln County!