Our Towns: Vass & Carthage and the Road in Between
07 Feb 2022
Bucolic, revitalizing, locally grown communities
By Crissy Neville » Photos by Brandon Williams
While the highways of Moore County lead to the region's major markets — Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen — the byways are the thoroughfares connecting the cozier communities. Cases in point are Vass and Carthage, Sandhills sites where small size is a plus and small-town appeal an attractive amenity.
A mere 11.5 miles separate the two towns on Vass-Carthage Road (though some shave off some distance and travel 11.2 miles on the Union Church Road route instead). Either way, the miles or minutes — 14 to be exact — are a short piece compared to the worlds they are apart from the hustle and bustle of larger locales. Instead of Walmart and traffic jams, here you will find locally owned businesses and slow-paced life with progressive posture, linking olden times with new.
Vass's town motto even proclaims such: "Building Our Future, Preserving Our Past." Fleshing out these words is the Town of Vass Mayor Henry E. Callahan, in office since 1999 and a resident much longer than that — life long. With family lineage dating back to the town's founding in 1892, Mayor Callahan knows more than a little about this place called Vass.
He knows a lot.
"I have seen the whole cycle," he said, reflecting on the town's tenure. "Vass was a bustling place when I was a kid. We had a dime store, two hardware stores, an appliance shop, McCray's Grocery, a drug store with a soda fountain, a huge lumber business and more. The first job I ever had was as a 12-year-old at Pope's Store, putting together bicycles and little red wagons right before Christmas. Everyone felt safe; we all became friends and more like family as the years went by."
Even earlier history shows Vass as a stop on the Seaboard Railway, a station originally called Bynum known for its lumber, turpentine, and resin resources. The name changed from Bynum to Winder in 1877 to honor Seaboard Railroad general manager Major John C. Winder. The year 1892 would see the town's name change again, this time to Vass for Major William Worrell Vass, the then paymaster for the railway. Incorporated in 1907, the Southeastern Moore County town became a thriving community through the work of citizens like Angus Cameron, a town mayor, Vass Cotton Mill Company organizer, a civic leader and Vass' leading benefactor.
In the interim, since the railroad and cotton heydays and Mayor Callahan's youth, Vass had seen its share of business closings, inactivity and periods of neglect. "It's nice now and in recent years to see positive activity and community engagement," he said. The mayor calculates the town population close to 2,000 now due to annexation. "Vass is growing," he said, "and with excellent schools, an advantageous location with an easy commute to Fort Bragg and the Triangle and a contagious entrepreneurial spirit, it's easy to see why."
And yet, the town is always striving to improve, whether through infrastructure improvements, i.e., sidewalks and sewer or quality-of-life perks, parks, events and more. "We want Vass to be a destination instead of just a spot for people to live in and go somewhere else and enjoy themselves," Mayor Callahan said.
The same can be said of Carthage, the slightly bigger sister community of Vass with many similarities.
Besides the road that runs between them, the two towns share Union Pines High School, a Sandhills star that exceeded academic growth the last four out of five years and posted a higher-than-state four-year graduation rate at 94.2%. The UPHS Vikings are the community's pride and an example of excellence in Moore County.
Other award-winning schools in the Vass district include Vass-Lakeview Elementary and Crain's Creek Middle School. The Carthage attendance area includes Carthage Elementary, Sandhills Farm Life Elementary and New Century Middle. In other parts of the county, private and parochial schools provide educational choices for all citizens.
Like Vass, the refrain in Carthage resounds location, location, location.
Both communities are experiencing an explosion of residential growth with varied housing options — single-family housing, apartments and even downtown lofts — and new construction dotting the landscape.
The county seat of Moore County, famed for its courthouse and horse-and-buggy history, has seen an influx of military families moving in to be close to Fort Bragg. Commuters are also drawn to Carthage due to its location near US HWYS 24/27, 15/501 and 1. Add to those career people, retirees, families with children and folks of all ages who appreciate a good thing when they see it. That's according to Major Jimmy Chalflinch, who views the nearly 3,000 citizens in his town as "good, solid people who like Carthage's small-town charm."
A Field of Dreams proverb is herein apropos. "If you build it, they will come."
"You've got to have residential growth to get commercial growth," said Major Chalflinch. And of the businesses owners that have chosen to invest in these hometowns — lifelong for some and newfound for others — both mayors have nothing short of gratitude and praise.
For example, Kasi Caddell and business partner Mollie Jolly operate the popular Crossroads Coffee Co. at 133 Main Street in the heart of historic old town Vass. In a beautifully restored property, the coffee shop serves all-day breakfast, lunch, desserts and hot and cold coffee drinks, teas, smoothies and more in their full-service coffee and espresso bar. Here, community comes with coffee, fellowship with food.
Crossroads is in the 1900s-era retail strip known as Main Street Commons purchased and renovated a few years back by entrepreneurs Beth and Daniel Dent, a couple with local ties whose meticulous attention to historical detail — installing punched tin ceilings here, exposing old brick there — has since attracted several business owners as tenants of the time-honored space. Today, a short stroll past the coffee shop lands you at Lucy's Bridal Always Formally Dressed for your formalwear needs, while ARTWorks Vass can help with all things art, from classes and sales to art exhibitions and retreats.
Kasi and her husband, Scott Caddell, natives of Vass and Carthage, also own and co-own several properties on Seaboard Street. For the Caddells, investing in the community is a family affair.
Scott owns and operates Caddell Plumbing, a family business since 1977. Small cattle farm owners and the parents of four, the couple also own and run Vass Hardware and Mercantile at 138 Seaboard Street. Continuing the family tradition are the Caddell kids. In December, oldest daughter Amy opened Bronde Salon and Extension Bar with business partner Kaylee Thomas at 146 Seaboard Street. Son B Caddell can be found working at the hardware store when not in high school.
Of Vass' business development, Kasi said, "Everyone wants a small-town feel, but growth is needed to run a business, and it's nice when you can have the businesses you need right here without a drive into a further away town."
The Caddells and other business-savvy citizens, like longtime Vass resident, veteran and new restauranteur Darrell Yates of the circa 2020 HomeGrown restaurant at the corner of US-1 Business and Main Street, are among the ranks putting a new face on the portrait that is Vass.
Speaking of art, in strolling the streets of Carthage, you will find building facades of the finest. The Carthage Mural Project beautifies the town and celebrates its history through public art. Grab a cup of Joe at Buggy Town Coffee on South McNeill Street to jumpstart your tour.
The first mural at 104 McReynolds Street celebrates the Tyson & Jones Buggy Company to which Carthage was home from 1850-1929. A little-known town fact is that company partner William T. Jones was born a slave, described in census records as "a mulatto gentleman," but as a freed man became the well-known, well-respected and wealthy owner of the biggest business in town. More about buggies prevails at May's annual Carthage Buggy Festival, The Old Buggy Inn bed-and-breakfast and Carthage Historical Museum.
The second mural at 205 Monroe Street, titled "Flying for France," pays homage to Carthage WWI I hero James Rogers McConnell who flew for France (before the U.S. joined the war) and was killed in action. The third mural at 104 N. McNeil Street forever encapsulates the period "When Tobacco Was King," while a fourth on Monroe Street gives tribute to the old no-longer-standing Carthage water tower. If you are walking on a Sunday afternoon, meander into the Town of Carthage Historical Museum open from 2 to 5 pm.
And because, as Oscar Wilde said, "life imitates art," Carthage locals are experiencing a bit of déjà vu downtown. Like Vass, Carthage's past glory days saw city streets teeming with merchants and merchandise, customers and community. A new, similar history is unfolding, and today's citizenry is writing
Town Planner Kathy Liles is one of the authors of the Carthage sequel. Not only does she serve the town through her profession, but her passion for handiwork and crafts is also on full display at her new downtown business, Unique NC, located at 8 Courthouse Square, diagonal to the historic 1922 courthouse in the town's central traffic circle. Multiple artists sell and exhibit a wide assortment of fiber and wood arts and handmade crafts inside the Unique NC gift store, including Liles, whose specialty
A few doors down at 14 Courthouse Square, the new kid on the block is Eliza Quinn, Vintiques, Décor & Handmade, which opened on January 14. Owner/operator Erin Rembert has lived in Carthage for seven years, settling here with her family after her husband retired from the military. Of being part of Carthage's downtown revitalization, she said, "It is important to me to invest in the community where my kids go to school and family lives. I like seeing people come downtown and want my store, Eliza Quinn, to be the heartbeat of the community." Check out the shop for vintage furniture, home décor, gift items, handicrafts, candles, timeless treasures for children and more.
People also flock to other parts of Carthage, like Gilliam-McConnell airfield, not for transportation but barbecue from The Pik-N-Pig. Owned and operated by the mother and son team of Janie and Ashley Sheppard, the restaurant succumbed to fire last May. Work to rebuild the famed house of barbecue fare has been ongoing, with the reopening expected soon. Another town favorite is Ederville, one of the nation's largest privately-owned tractor and steam-engine collections and host to a public, three-day train and tractor festival each November. If farm life is more your style, after some ‘cue from Stubb’s & Son on 15-501, head to Highlanders Farm on Highway 22 in Carthage, where the Blue family of growers offer strawberries, tomatoes, melons and more seasonally and ice cream — great any 'ole time!
Vass and Carthage are Sandhills institutions, worthy of past praise and full of future promise.