ROSE HILL, N.C. (AP) – It’s fitting , and symbolic, that U.S. 117 and Interstate 40 run almost exactly parallel to each other in Duplin County for a good stretch.
In many ways, the agriculture-dominated county and its small towns and communities are simultaneously traveling different routes and directions: one route deeply rooted in agriculture (notably swine and poultry) and another trying to map out a new economy.
Established in 1932 as a route from Wilmington to Wilson, the mostly two-lane U.S. 117 carried travelers through a host of small towns in Eastern North Carolina, most of them in Duplin County. When the final stretch of I-40 into Wilmington was completed in 1990, folks from Raleigh had a quick route to the beach, but familiar Duplin towns — Calypso, Faison, Warsaw and Magnolia, each with their own unique history and character — suddenly were on a road less traveled.
Interstate 40 may be busier these days, but make no mistake – U.S. 117 still lies at the heart of Duplin County.
Bottling new opportunities
The county’s biggest player in its new economy is Duplin Winery, located in the town of Rose Hill, which lies 50 miles north of Wilmington.
Like most of the towns along the county’s U.S. 117/I-40 corridor, Rose Hill grew up around the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, serving as a shipping depot for naval stores — the pine-based turpentine, pitch, rosin and tar industry that once dominated parts of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain.
Rose Hill later became a poultry town, with the chicken and turkey industry represented from egg to store, including feed mills.
But more recently, Rose Hill has been putting new wine in its old “wineskins” of animal-based agriculture. The town is also putting money-spending visitors in chairs and at tables — especially at Duplin Winery.
When the Fussel family got into the wine business in the early 1970s, they were just growing grapes; the sweet muscadines, which thrive in hot, humid and sandy Duplin County, were sold to a New York winery. In 1976, the family began making wine and later it started showing up on grocery shelves.
Eventually, however, folks with a taste for sweet wines began showing up in Rose Hill to visit the winery. And they kept coming.
Dave Fussell, who runs Duplin Winery with his brother Jonathan Fussell, said the location in the heart of Rose Hill draws 60,000 visitors a year. That’s not bad for a town of a little over 1,600 people and dominated by large industrial facilities connected with poultry and swine operations.
Growing up in Rose Hill, the Fussell brothers know that although I-40 has not transformed the area, it has certainly opened opportunities. The interstate is dotted with Duplin Winery signs and the Fussells are doing everything they can to get people to stop — even if it’s just for a short while on the way to Wilmington or the beach.
Amanda Justice, executive director of Duplin County Tourism, is very straightforward about what she is working with: Duplin County is not trying to be something it’s not.
“We are not Charlotte or Raleigh or Wilmington. We’re not going to have people come and stay a week,” she said. “But if they will spend a day, I’m a happy camper.”
I-40 was supposed to bring growth
There once were bigger dreams for the I-40 corridor between Raleigh and Wilmington.
In an interesting twist in the story of the long-sought-after highway, the Wilmington family that fought for years for its completion has deep roots in Rose Hill.
Rose Hill native Gene Merritt and his sons Gene Jr. and John organized I-40 Inc. and spent a decade writing the governor’s office, passing out bumper stickers and dogging politicians to promote the project.
Part of the vision was that the interstate would bring prosperity and growth to places like Duplin County. In the late 1970s, Gov. Jim Hunt initiated his “balanced growth” initiative, with the explicit goal of rural areas not missing out on the growth unfolding in the state’s urban areas.
“That partially drove the route for I-40,” John Merritt said recently. “I’m not sure that vision 40 years later has come to fruition.”
The reality is, as Justice recognizes, is Duplin County is comfortable with what it is. There’s no indication that the county wants the kind of growth seen in other once-sleepy counties like Johnston, Pender and Brunswick.
Even if the county had wanted that level of growth, I-40 alone likely would not have been able to deliver it. There have been plenty of obstacles. The growth of the swine and poultry industry has created jobs and brought a certain amount of prosperity to Duplin County, but there have been major concerns about the side effects — notably environmental concerns and quality of life issues directly related to the odor problem caused by industrial farming.
Meanwhile, devastating hurricane-related flooding from the Northeast Cape Fear and other rivers and streams has shown the low-lying I-40 to be an especially vulnerable highway.
‘Uncork. Unwind. Unplug’
There’s no question that agriculture still reigns in Duplin County — specifically large-scale swine and poultry operations and related businesses, such as feed mills. With 1.9 million hogs, it’s the top pork-producing county in the nation, followed very closely by neighboring Sampson.
(In state rankings, North Carolina’s 8.9 million hogs is dwarfed by Iowa’s 22.7 million.)
On the other hand, Duplin Winery is the oldest winery in North Carolina and the largest in the Southeast. Although the wine industry pales in comparison to the agriculture presence in Duplin, promoters of the area are certainly pushing it along with a relaxed, get-away-from-the-rat-race experience. The tourism’s website is uncorkduplin.com with the slogan “Uncork. Unwind. Unplug.” integrated into an image of a grape bunch.
Even though grapes and wine figure prominently in this new vine of the Duplin economy, Dave Fussell knows that he’s also selling an experience and ultimately good old-fashioned Southern hospitality in a rustic environment — something perhaps unique for folks living in the cities of increasingly urban North Carolina.
Wineries and tourism will always play second fiddle to agriculture in Duplin County’s economy and culture, but there seems to be momentum in making it at least have a bigger share. Duplin Winery has a bistro and a wedding chapel and regularly hosts special events, such as candlelight dinners and shows. The nearby Country Squire also has expanded its offerings over the years and provides a unique destination in the countryside.
For the Fussells and their 150 employees, it’s a lot of hard work but they sound sincerely appreciative of the folks who are willing to take that quick exit off I-40 to stop by.
“We want to create a little magic for them,” Dave Fussell said.
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