14 Fantastic Things To Do In Historic Shelby, North Carolina
Visit the land of rhythm and roots. Only 45 minutes west of Charlotte, Shelby is a different world. It’s where North Carolina’s Piedmont rises into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Creativity reigns here. Two music legends were born in Cleveland County: Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson. Whether you are a fan of music, history, art, or food, Shelby, North Carolina, has something you’ll enjoy.
This was a comped trip, but all opinions are my own.
1. Earl Scruggs Center
Who can forget the banjo-picking theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies? The old Cleveland County Courthouse, circa 1907, is now Earl Scruggs Center in honor of a local boy who perfected a new way to play the banjo.
I started with a video about Earl Scruggs’ life, then a docent named Clyde Buckner showed me around. In the center of the museum, Earl Scruggs greets you. The statue is so lifelike you think he’s going to walk over and shake hands. Clyde explained they created the sculpture using real clothing and banjo. It was then covered in many coats of epoxy.
In 2002, Gibson made five commemorative banjos called “Earl.” The museum has number three. There’s a mirror behind the banjo to show his portrait on the back. The museum takes you through his career and that of his sons. Earl adapted his style and played with them for many years after he and Lester Flatt dissolved their partnership.
2. Don Gibson Theater
The theater is a shrine to Don Gibson, who wrote “Sweet Dreams,” “Oh Lonesome Me,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” among dozens of other hits. It’s a venue for music and live theater and movies.
In the lobby, there is a mini-museum from Don Gibson’s long career. Stan Lowery, the theater director, took us backstage to see the wall filled with autographs of Chubby Checker, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Lisa Marie Presley, and hundreds of other artists who played there. The theater began life as The State Theater on October 27, 1939, but decayed over the years. As a kid, Don Gibson sat here watching movies. He never dreamed one day they would name it in his honor and house artifacts of his life.
3. International Lineman’s Museum
While I’m thinking about music, remember Glen Campbell’s hit, “Wichita Lineman”? This museum preserves the history of real-life linemen and the electrical utility industry.
There are thousands of items dating as back to the 1880s. The most impressive exhibit for me is the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo “Kiss of Life.” Jacksonville Journal photographer, Rocco Morabito, took it in 1967 when he witnessed lineman Randall G. Champion receive a low-voltage shock while working on a power line. Champion was unconscious and hanging upside down by his safety belt. His partner, J.D. Thompson, climbed to Champion and saved his life by giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The museum is filled with signs from rural electric co-ops, demonstrations of pole raising, lineman tools, equipment, and even antique phones. There’s one exhibit with a copy of Glen Campbell’s album and guitar. The museum has a variety of antique trucks, but they were not on display when we visited. Even if you have no urge to become a lineman, this museum is fantastic.
4. Banker’s House
The Banker’s House got its name because it has been owned by bankers since its construction in 1874. Its Second Empire-style turret and mansard roof are enough to draw you in, but it tells the history of the families who have owned it as well. Caroline Jackson showed us around. The house is furnished as it was when the last family, George and Nancy Blanton and their three daughters, Nancy, Catherine, and Lydia, lived there. The girls were avid horsewomen. The barn is now the bar for events, but the stalls remain marked with names of the horses who occupied them.
5. Shelby City Park
Shelby City Park is home to the Carrousel and Rotary Special Train. The Carrousel began in 1919 and contains 29 original horses and three hand-carved new ones. It runs year-round. The organ plays authentic music for riders.
Shelby Rotary Train was purchased in 1952 and restored in 2000. The “Mickey Shull Izzi Depot” also serves as a rental venue. The train doesn’t run in winter, but for railfans it’s a summer delight.
6. Metcalfe Station
Metcalfe Station was once the stop for the railroad connecting Cleveland’s mills to major railways. When automobiles became popular, it was a gas station. The gravity-fed pumps from back when gas cost less than a quarter a gallon are still there. My favorite is the boxcar used when Shelby was a big railroad town.
7. Public Art
Shelby is filled with public art. Many buildings feature murals, like Newgrass Brewing, where Earl Scruggs is painted. Bobby Bell, a local Black football star, is portrayed in his football-playing days and his wiser years. Perhaps he’s smiling because a town that once wouldn’t let him play football at the local school now recognized his achievements. Don Gibson takes up the side of the Don Gibson Theater. All around town, there are hand-painted disks of his music.
8. Cleveland County Arts Council
We found more art in a pottery display at Cleveland County Arts Council. When I visited they were doing an event called “Treasures of the Earth” featuring over 25 artists. The pottery is for sale and ranges from jewelry to large vases. They host several events annually.
9. Uptown Shelby
Uptown Shelby is a walkable place to enjoy boutique shops, galleries, and dining. There are no chains. Instead, you find more art at Buffalo Creek Gallery, a co-op gallery. There’s a large chunk of history, too. This was Smith’s Drug Store where Black high school students staged a sit-in in February 1960. There’s a marker on the North Carolina Civil Rights Trail out front. When I visited, there was a recreated counter commemorating the sit-in in the gallery’s window. Dragonfly Wine and Beer Market takes you down memory lane with life-sized cutouts of stars of the silver screen like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, the Three Stooges, and more. Then there is Miss Molly’s for ladies’ clothes. And of course, there are lots of restaurants.
10. Antique Market Of Shelby
The antique market is four floors of antiques ranging from Depression glass to oriental furniture. I found a heavenly silver ring with six different semi-precious stones that I couldn’t resist. Since it is home to many dealers, you will find some treasure here.
The Foothills Farmers Market is comprised of over 100 approved vendors from a 50-mile radius of Cleveland County selling a variety of local produce, locally raised meat, cheeses, baked goods, plants, prepared foods, handmade artisan crafts, and more.
12. Newgrass Brewing Co.
A renovated Hudson’s Department Store dating from 1946 to 1948 is the home of Shelby’s first craft brewery. You can sip a craft beer or try one of their hard-seltzer cocktails while you dine on tasty bar food.
13. Shelby Café
Shelby Café is where I got my first taste of livermush, a local favorite that originated from German settlers who traveled south through the Appalachian Mountains in the 1700s. You may be turned off by the name, but if you like liver, you’ll find it delicious.
14. Red Bridges Barbeque
Red and Lyttle Bridges began Red Bridges Barbeque in 1946. It’s still a must-try in Shelby. We met their granddaughter, Natalie Ramsey, who carries on the family tradition of cooking pork over hickory all night long to produce the best barbeque ever. Their BBQ plate with barbecue pork, barbecue slaw, baked beans, French fries, and hushpuppies was delicious, but more than I could eat.
Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard And Winery
This is one of my favorite wineries. It’s in Lawndale, just minutes outside Shelby. Ann and Charles Edwards began producing wine in 2003 after being inspired by a visit to California wine country. The property has a century-old farmhouse, a beautifully restored mule barn, the original milk house where the Edwards make wine, and the tasting facility. My favorite is Buffalo Creek Blush. They use the Baker family name in respect for the family’s 100 years of ownership of this property. It’s pet friendly and you may meet Bee, one of the family pets.
The Hunt House
For a perfect place to stay, The Hunt House – built by Dr. Robert Lee Hunt in 1926 – offers a mix of historic lodging and modern comfort. It’s owned by the great-grandson of Dr. Hunt. You’ll see a handwritten book of family history in the parlor. There are five bedrooms, five bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a delightful enclosed back porch and front porch complete with rocking chairs. You have the run of the house, and there are plenty of food items to make a delicious breakfast. I was the only guest and felt like it was my personal home. The house is furnished with antiques except for the kitchen and the baths. The room I stayed in, called Sally’s Room, was spacious and had a delightful soaking tub plus a separate shower. There’s an 18-hole disc golf course and walking trail on the property behind the house.