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JCVB Blog

The Johnston County Visitors Bureau BLOG is published weekly with news and feature articles on visiting the county.

67th Annual Benson Mule Days® Celebration set for September 21-25

67th Annual Benson Mule Days® Celebration set for September 21-25

Last week we did a round-up of Fall festivals and activities coming to JoCo as the weather gets cooler. This week we'll be focusing in on one of those events that is just a few weeks away.

The town of Benson, North Carolina celebrates Benson Mule Days® the 4th Saturday of September each year. This year it will take place September 21st through the 25th.  Mule Days was also recognized by the Southeast Tourism Society this year as a September 2016 Top 20 Event. The festival is considered one of the largest festivals in North Carolina and will kick-off with a carnival, trolley rides, and concert Thursday night.

This festival, which draws approximately 50,000 people, is full of family fun and activities for everyone young and old. The weekend is packed with rodeos, a mule pulling contest, arts and crafts, vendors, street dances, carnival rides, camping, parades, bluegrass shows and more.

The parade alone attracts about 20,000 people and takes place Saturday, September 24th at 10:00a.m. The parade will feature bands, floats, antique tractors, and hundreds of horses, mules, and buggies. Following the parade visitors can make their way to the Singing Grove Park where a Bluegrass show is being presented.

Visit the arts and crafts vendors as well as food and commercial vendors.  It is always fun to walk into the local businesses which offer a variety of products in our area.  There are three rodeos, the first of which begins on Friday night followed by a Saturday night performance.  On Sunday there is a Youth Rodeo.

As a rural community, Benson, North Carolina has long been known for its farm heritage.  The trading of mules was one of the town’s main occupations. The memories and a love for tradition led Nowell Smith and Willis McLamb to discuss with Lewis Lawrence, the first manager of the newly formed Benson Chamber of Commerce, the possibility of setting aside a day to celebrate the mule. In 1950, the Benson Area Chamber of Commerce agreed to sponsor the first Mule Days. The festival continues to be a spectacle that garners international attention. Visitors come from as far away as Alaska, Germany, and California to see and also participate in Mule Days.

For a complete schedule of this 67-year-old event visit www.bensonmuledays.com, call (919) 894-3825, or e-mail the Benson Chamber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Stroll Around Historic Smithfield

Stroll Around Historic Smithfield

Historic Downtown Smithfield now has a walking tour that highlights historical buildings, houses, and monuments. The Johnston County Visitors Bureau has designed and printed a brochure regarding the walking tour in partnership with the Johnston County Heritage Center. The brochure includes a map of the downtown area with each stop numbered. In addition, the Heritage Center has provided notes on the historical relevancy of each site. Points of interest like parking, visitor information, dining options, and the Ava Gardner Museum are also pictured on the map.

According to Heritage Center Director Todd Johnson, “taking the Historic Smithfield Walking Tour is not only a healthy activity but will teach you about our town’s history going back to colonial times.”

Johnson mentions that Smithfield offers a wide variety of architectural styles such as Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Second Empire, Colonial Revival, and Gothic Revival. There are several buildings on the tour that have stood since the Civil War, and each one has its own story to tell.

The purpose of creating guides like this one is to showcase the stories and heritage of historical towns like Smithfield. The walking tour adds to the options of things visitors to Smithfield can do and encourages them to discover local businesses along the way like shops and restaurants.

With Fall approaching and the evenings cooling off, visitors and locals alike can explore the walking route for themselves. The walking tour offers a chance to discover something about Smithfield that wasn’t known before. For example, the portion of the Smithfield courthouse facing Market Street was constructed in 1921, but the land that it stands on has been occupied by courthouses since the late 1700s. That’s more than 3 centuries of law and order in one location.

To learn more about these fascinating places or to pick up a brochure for a self-guided tour, please drop by the Heritage Center, 241 E. Market Street, anytime between 9:00AM and 5:00PM, Monday through Saturday. You can also download an electronic version of the walking tour guide on the Johnston County Visitors Bureau website.

If you’ve got friends or family coming into town, or you’re looking for an activity to go with your next office or corporate event, you can also inquire about guided tours of the historic walking route. To schedule a guided tour, call the Johnston County Heritage Center at 919-934-2836, or send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..   

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State Annual Singing Convention Celebrates 96th Year

State Annual Singing Convention Celebrates 96th Year

An Event that is 96 Going on 100


According to their website, "The State Annual Singing Convention, which brings thousands of people to Benson each year, began modestly in a tobacco warehouse in 1921. About 200 people listened to two choirs that day. Since that time, the State Annual Singing Convention has grown and become one of the largest and oldest gospel sings in the United States."

The picture below (left) is an old black and white photo capturing the early days of this almost 100 year old event that attracts participants and spectators from all over the southeast. This year's convention, nicknamed the Benson Sing, is expecting over 50 amateur, semi-professional and professional competitors. The other picture below (right) is what the singing grove will look like when you attend the event this year - sitting on almost 96 years of musical history.

                                      
You can visit the Benson Museum of Local History to learn all about the long history of the singing convention, including more information about its founders. But here's some interesting facts to get you started:

•    S. P. Honeycutt, J. B. Raynor, T. C. Miller, J. V. Barefoot, and J. H. Rose were the 1921 founding fathers of the “sing.”  When the old warehouse on Market Street was destroyed by fire in 1922 and the group had to find a new place to meet, Mrs. Catherine Benson, Honeycutt’s mother-in-law, donated an oak-shaded grove in the middle of town and the site became the permanent home of the State Singing Convention.

•    In the first year of the sing Trinity Church Choir, lead by O.H. Barefoot, and the New Zealand Choir, led by Noah Blackman, tied in the competition.  In the tie-breaker, the Silver Loving Cup was awarded to the New Zealand Choir by the judges.

•    In 1943, during World War II, the organizers decided to cancel the competition.  However, after notices were placed around the state in area newspapers and sent to area churches over 3,000 people showed up on the fourth weekend in June. Organizers proceeded with the competition to entertain the faithful followers of the Sing.


BYOLC - Bring Your Own Lawn Chair


The Ninety-sixth State Annual Singing Convention will be held Friday, June 24th through Sunday, June 26th in the Singing Grove, a beautiful city park at 400 East Main Street in Benson, North Carolina. No admission is charged, and people are encouraged to bring a lawn chair to sit and enjoy the music.  On Friday, the following groups will each present thirty minute concerts starting at 7pm: Full Reliance, The Hinshaw Trio, Journey ‘N Faith, Divine Intention, Heaven’s Grace, and Maranatha Singers.

On Saturday The Inspirations will be featured in a special concert at 7pm with The Hickory Grove Quartet opening at 6:30pm. A household name in any musical genre, the Inspirations are models of consistency in the Southern Gospel Music field. They originated in 1964 when Martin Cook, a chemistry teacher at Swain County High in Bryson City, NC, and a few of his students and friends held nightly singing sessions in the basement of his home, purely for fun. A few of them decided to take their act on the road a few years later and immediately took Southern Gospel Music by storm. The Inspirations have remained at the forefront of the genre since, while achieving tremendous popularity and success. They make up a four-part harmony quartet with an unmistakable sound, striking the medium of traditional Southern Gospel and country.



As customary, informal (round robin) singing begins at 10am on Saturday and Sunday and continues daily with only two exceptions: (1) during group competition (2) during the special concerts by The Inspirations and The Hickory Grove Quartet on Saturday night.  All groups are welcome and encouraged to sing in the contests.  People are welcome to come out and watch at any time. On Saturday and Sunday competing junior and senior groups including duets, trios, quartets, families, and church choirs begin at 2 pm.


Sing Your Heart Out - How to Participate


If you're interested in participating instead of spectating, groups singing in Saturday’s competition are asked to fill out a registration form in the office in the Singing Grove by 1pm on Saturday.  Groups singing in Sunday’s competition are asked to fill out a registration form in the office by 1pm on Sunday.  There is no on-line registration this year.  Please call, fax, or email if you have questions - contact information below.  There are NO SOLOS due to time restraints.  There is no entry fee to compete in the contests.

The State Annual Singing Convention, Inc. website, www.gospelsingingconvention.org, has important information for 2016. You can also visit them on Facebook at State Annual Singing Convention – Benson Sing.  Please call (919)-894-4389, or send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for additional information.

If you're interested in more summer events, shows, and concerts in the Johnston County area, visit johnstoncountyevents.com.

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Honoring the Legend and the Lady that was Ava Gardner

Honoring the Legend and the Lady that was Ava Gardner

This morning I stood by the side of the road on the sloping lawns of Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery to bear witness with around 2 dozen other people. I stood in the cold sunshine and watched as the historical marker of Ava Gardner was revealed by her remaining friends and family. It was a beautiful ceremony in which the Director of the Ava Gardner Museum, Ava's great niece, and Ava's nephew all offered words on who Ava was and what she meHistoric Markerans to her home county of Johnston.

For those of you who don't know, public figures of historical significance must be deceased for 25 years before the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources will erect a roadside plaque in their honor. Ava passed away in 1990, exactly 25 years ago. But she would be 93 today; her birthday is in fact Christmas Eve. Ava's marker, as you can see from the picture, rests 100 yards away from her gravestone.

This week there have been 2 events related to the dedication of this historic marker. Both involving the Ava Gardner Museum, Ava's family, and also Ava's long-time companion and housekeeper Carmen Vargas. A private dedication took place at The Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC on Wednesday the 18th of November. Following his performance at the theatre that night, Ava's step-son Frank Sinatra Jr. was kind enough to join guests in honoring Ava and to say a few kind and passionate words. By his own admission he interacted with Ava very rarely, but she once showed him a great kindness at a difficult time in his life; something she did not have to do and something he reminisced he will never forget.

I thought about Frank Sinatra Jr.'s words as I stood in front of the marker this morning at the public dedication ceremony listening to those friends and family members who knew Ava discuss their memories of her. It seems to me that every time I hear somebody talk about Ava Gardner, someoAva Posed in a Field ne who knew her, it is never about how big of a star she was... it is always about how big of a person she was. Her genuineness. Her love for her corgis. Her zest for life. Her early and passionate involvement in civil rights.

On paper Ava Gardner is still one of the biggest stars Hollywood has ever known. She remains ranked by the American Film Institute as the 25th most popular screen actress of all time. She is Johnston County's Cinderella story. A girl from Grabtown that became a star. Her legacy remains alive in Smithfield, NC where her museum brings in people from all around the world and where a plaque now marks her final resting place so that fans (old and new) can pay their respects.

But Ava Gardner was more than a star. She is more than her story. Being present at both dedication ceremonies was like watching Ava come off the paper, like watching her come alive again. To be able to see Ava through the eyes of the people who love her, who spent time with her, who knew first-hand her kindness and humor and spirit. It was an honor. To understand how humble she was. How fierce and feisty. To be awed by the unapologetic way she lived her life. It makes her seem all the more real. Because she was a real person.

In the years and decades to come there will pass a time when no one will be here to speak for her. To recount first-hand who she was. How proudly southern and proudly JoCo she was. All we will have is the historic marker and the Ava Gardner Museum. They will remain her legacy. A legacy worth protecting to anyone else who calls themselves a lover of Johnston County, a fan of Ava Gardner, or a believer in unapologetic living and southern hospitality.

I encourage you to visit Ava's museum. To go by her grave and her brand new historic marker. Spend some time with one of the most beautiful women the world has ever seen. Who soared to great heights, and kept her (bare)feet firmly planted in the Johnston County soil.

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A Soldier's Walk Home

A Soldier's Walk Home

A Soldier's Walk Home

In 1865, as the Civil War came to a close, Union and Confederate soldiers were faced with the reality of returning home. Many were simply released from service in the area where their unit had last been stationed. And others, like Washington Duke, a Confederate sailor, were prisoners released by the Union Army. All facing the possibility of getting home the only way available to them, walking.

The Journey Back

The Civil War was a brother’s war that divided families and communities, and once over still left behind the seemingly impossible task of healing a nation. Historian and re-enactor Philip Brown will make the walk from New Bern to Durham as Duke did then, but not as Washington Duke. According to Brown, he will be representing all soldiers returning home from any war. He will make the 166-mile journey on foot along the back roads of rural NC in Civil War era clothing and shoes.   

Brown loves re-enacting and history, and is interested in how people interact with history. He completed a master’s degree in Public History at UNG-Greensboro in April, and earned a B.A. degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in Peace, War, and Defense and American History. Soon after the 13-day walk, the Charlotte native will start working at Gettysburg National Military Park in late May.

According to Philip, "this walk takes a portion of North Carolina's history and spreads it across a large area of the state. The event is also designed to get people interested and engaged with history.  We are working with a subject and time period in North Carolina that has deep connections to things that we deal with today, especially the experience of civilians and soldiers in the aftermath of military conflicts."

The Schedule of Walking and Events

Listed below is the route and schedule that Philip will be following. He makes his way through Johnston County for a total of 5 days with various activities to mark the occasion of his journey and pay homage to the profound association that Johnston County has to the events of the Civil War.

A Soldier's Walk Home Map
May 10        New Bern, 3 p.m. Ceremonial opening at Academy Museum
May 11        New Bern, 9 a.m. Walk begins from Union Point
                  Cove City, 6 p.m. Ceremonies at Cove City Public Library
May 12        Kinston, 5 p.m. Federal check point activity, Harriet’s Chapel on Battlefield Site
                  Kinston, 7 p.m.  Reception with veteran’s and other guests - closed
May 13        Kinston, 8:30 a.m. Breakfast at CSS Neuse with officials - closed
                  Kinston, 10 a.m. Visit with 7th and 8th grade students at Arendall Parrot Academy
                  Kinston, 1 p.m. Visit with 4th grade students at Contentnea School
                  Kinston, 2:15 p.m. Tour of CSS Neuse II
                  Kinston, 2:45 p.m. Visit Military Walk of Honor
                  Kinston, 3:15 p.m. Visit Maplewood Cemetery-Mass Confederate Burial Site
                  Kinston, 4 p.m.  Visit Memorial Site of the Kinston Battlefield
                  Kinston, 7 p.m.  Dinner at Olivia’s – ticketed event for public
May 14        Seven Springs, 5 p.m. Cliffs of the Neuse State Park camping
May 15        Goldsboro, 2 p.m.  Goldsboro Bridge Battlefield camping
May 16        Princeton, 4 p.m. Wreath-laying at Veteran’s Memorial
May 17        Smithfield, 6 p.m.  Reception/Tour of Confederate Monument-Wreath-laying
May 18        Clayton, 4 p.m. Arrive at Smith-Compton House. 6 p.m. Veteran’s Ceremony
                  Clayton, 7 p.m.  Town Square program
May 19        Clayton, 8:30 a.m. Wreath placement at Clayton Yellow Jackets Monument
                  (veteran’s burial site)
May 19        Raleigh, 7 p.m. UDC hosted dinner (closed)
May 20        Raleigh, 11 a.m. Brown, re-enactors, including USCT, meet with school groups
May 21        Morrisville, 3:30 p.m. After School program. 6:30 p.m. Ceremonies, Ernie
                  Dollar speaks
May 22        Durham 6 p.m. Ceremony with dignitaries at American Tobacco Campus
May 23        Durham, 11 a.m. Arrive at Duke Homestead for Bullfest Program. Welcome
                  home, music, dance lessons, crafts

Feel free to attend any of the wreath-laying events you see listed on the schedule as they are open to the public. Wreath-laying ceremonies are happening in Princeton, Smithfield, and Clayton; please note that times listed in the schedule may vary slightly due to Philip's walking time each day. In addition, there will be a program at the Clayton Town Square on the evening of May 18th. The program includes a welcome speech by the mayor, a few appropriate musical performances, and even a speech from Philip himself.

For additional information, please call (919) 477-5498 or visit A Soldier’s Walk Home.

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Beer Wine & Shine Trail

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Travel around the county to four award-winning wineries, two breweries and get a taste of brandy along the way!  Receive a Free $30 coupon book when you complete the trail.

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Meeting Planners

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Johnston County offers conveniently located and affordable conference facilities for meetings, reunions, and unique destination weddings sites.  Why not select a historic home or horse farm for your next event?

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Group Tour Operators

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Groups have discovered exits along I-40 and I-95 for outlet shopping, music theatre, museums and heritage sites.  Call today for custom itinerary planning.

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Hotel Packages

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We have created several special hotel packages including a Girlfriends Getaway for outlet shopping, we know you need a break and great deals on shoes!  Click here to book your getaway today.

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FREE TRAINING

 

Check out what other travelers say about Johnston County, North Carolina on TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor
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