Horses, Vineyards, and the Blues; a Visit to the Old Railroad Town of Tryon

Tryon, North Carolina proudly calls itself the “Friendliest Town in the South” and in two separate places I was told “if you need anything, just sing out!”

Even before Tryon was chartered and incorporated in 1885, it was a refuge for the arts and artisans, a favourite of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and other celebrities like actor Kenneth Lackey of the Three Stooges and actor William Gillette of Sherlock Holmes.

Tryon was popular for vineyards and wine production which was hindered by Prohibition in the 1920s, but now you can visit Overmountain Vineyards, Mountain Brook Vineyards, Parker-Binns Vineyard, Russian Chapel Hills Winery, Green Creek Winery, and many others in the Tryon area. 

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Tryon’s Mascot is this white toy horse with a red saddle and bridle. Though Tryon proper has less than two square miles, it is a world-famous hub for Equestrians. 

In the early 1920s, the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club formed and its famous Block House Steeplechase was built twenty years later. Since then clubs like the Tryon Hounds, the Carolina Carriage Club, the Foothills Riding Club, Blue Ridge Hunter Jumper Association, Foothills Equestrian Trails Association, and Foothills Equestrian Nature Center have formed, each hosting events that draw international fans. 

I found only one bear statue in Tryon and it seems to be the low-key Vice Mascot, an ancient-souled totem overseeing the town center with dedication. 

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Most significantly to me, Tryon is the birthplace of  Eunice Kathleen Waymon. Known to the world as Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul” had a voice that is synonymous to both the civil rights movement and simmering heartache.

My pick for this entry is one of her lesser-known songs, “Plain Gold Ring.” 

Nina Simone Plaza is in the center of town just across from the cinema.  Officially called the Eunice Waymon Nina Simone Memorial Project, the park is part of a greater collective known as the Nina Simone Project

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Waymon was born here in Tryon back in 1933 and was a self-taught piano prodigy by age three. Her community recognized her extraordinary talent and pooled together to fund her music training in New York and New Jersey.

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Her professional career as Nina Simone began in the early 1950s and she recorded more than 40 albums up until the mid-70s, fusing her own style of classical, jazz, blues, soul, gospel, and other genres. 

Simone used her platform and her energy to power to the Civil Rights Movement and to speak of her own experiences with racism and discrimination. 

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Currently, sad as it is still relevant, there is a small altar in the park with flowers, tokens, and handwritten notes calling for justice and support for black lives and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dear Nina, Black Lives Mattered then, and they matter now…

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Simone’s old clapboard home still stands at 30 East Livingston Street, just outside the town center. The image below is shared from National Trust for Historic Preservation:

National Trust for Historic Preservation

In Tryon’s early days, it was a Cherokee territory called Xuala, estimated to be occupied by tribes as early as 8,000 BC.

North Carolina’s then-Governor William Tryon was able to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokee that established peace during the French and Indian War. 

There is a small monument just behind Nina Simone Plaza to commemorate this treaty. 

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Tryon is part of Polk County which also holds the towns of Saluda, Flat Rock, and Columbus, plus the Cooper’s Gap, Green Creek, and White Oak communities.

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Many of Tryon’s buildings are from the very late 1800s and are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tryon was a railroad town in its humble beginnings, and was the connecting stop between Asheville and Spartanburg.

While in operation, it had the steepest grade of any railroad, known as the Saluda Grade, but it has not carried any passengers since the late 1960s.

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Supporting its title as an art community, Tryon is the home of the Tryon Fine Arts Center, the Tryon Arts and Crafts School, Tryon Toymakers & Woodcarvers Museum, a concert association / orchestra, the Tryon Little Theater for plays and dance performances, and the Tryon Theatre cinema.

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One of my first observations of Tryon is how pristine and manicured it is. Right away, I saw people sweeping sidewalks and tending gardens. These people are volunteers and members of Tryon’s Garden club that also manages the grounds of the nearby Pearson’s Falls

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There is an added layer to this beautiful little town. Well-kept railroad tracks run parallel to and above the main drag Trade Street, and behind it are some more pre-1900s buildings. 

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You can learn more about the history of this town in the Tryon Historical Museum.

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Tryon has several large outdoor social areas and landscaped patios with fountains and comfy seating. I arrived early morning and the whole town felt like a Sunday picnic.

People were masked and distanced, of course, but they seemed free to sit in whichever plot of foliage or bench or sidewalk they pleased. 

I kept seeing people lean out of doors to yell hello to friends, and many of them took their dogs wherever they went. 

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I was stopped twice and asked directions by other visitors. After helping one lady she said “you have a really beautiful town, and you are all so nice!” I thanked her and wished her a nice day, decidedly not outing myself as a non-local. 

Tryon has a bustling coffeehouse culture and the Tryon Coffeehouse Co-op was cozy and full of local art. I felt a sharp pang of nostalgia for a time when the city I live in used to have coffeehouses.

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Today’s special was the zucchini cinnamon crunch muffin, so I took one to go. (Update: I devoured it later that night and wished I had bought more!)

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I was saving my appetite for brunch at Cafe La Gaule where I had a Croque Madame with Béchamel and ham between toast, a fried egg on top, crisp rosemary potatoes, and fruit. 

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Unlike other French-style cafes I have visited, the staff and many customers were actually speaking French to each other; animated and deep conversations, casually alternated between southern-drawled English conversations with children and other customers. 

People seem to congregate here specifically to celebrate French culture and cuisine, versus the cafe just being a token cultural place to bring tourism. 

The pastries were gorgeous and smelled fantastic. I did not partake since I already had that muffin in my bag for later, but just look at them!

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A small time capsule is on display in the breezeway connecting Cafe Le Gaule to the business next door. It features the work of Hansel Mieth, a German immigrant who became a LIFE Magazine photographer and took over 175 images of Tryon in 1939.

It was a treat to see early Tryon captured in greyscale. 

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If shopping is on your list, there are several boutiques filled with local art, gifts, decor, and more. Check out this link for a list of shops. 

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At the northernmost part of downtown, I came across Tryon Fine Books, with the mission statement of “Providing delight to adventurous browsers, discerning readers, and collectors of fine books.”

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Owner Harry Goodheart boasts an impressive collection of signed first editions, collectibles, local subjects such as equestrian and civil war history, and many other specialties. 

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I could easily spend hours, or days, here if I had the time, but I was committed to seeing the rest of Polk County on this trip. 

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In southern Tryon where it crosses into Columbus, pay a visit to Old Mill Market Square’s Architectural Warehouse. This is one of the largest antique and collectible structures I have seen, and I plan to revisit it next time I am passing through. 

If you mean to, and even if you don’t, you could end up in South Carolina within seconds, as lower Polk county sits on the state borders.

If you are planning to head north to see the rest of Polk County from here, be sure to take the Pacolet Scenic Bypass route through Flat Rock Village and Saluda.

This serene ten mile stretch is lined with trees, full of mountain views, and has a few small waterfalls that will leave you awestruck. It runs along the Pacolet River and connects to Pearsons Falls.

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Bonus: One of my favourite modern singers, Kimbra, recorded this cover of “Plain Gold Ring” that sends shivers straight through me every time:

Follow me to Flat Rock and Saluda, and don’t forget to subscribe!

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One thought on “Horses, Vineyards, and the Blues; a Visit to the Old Railroad Town of Tryon

  1. Pingback: All the World is Green; a Visit to Saluda, Flat Rock, and Carl Sandburg’s Home | Fernweh

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