A Little Heaven Amid the Pines
The following article is reprinted with permission from Our State magazine.
Southern Pines elder statesman Norris Hodgkins Jr. stands by a window watching the sun sink into a sea of longleaf pines. Suddenly the 84-year-old smiles, looking at a landscape that was once, in fact, the bottom of a sandy prehistoric ocean.
“From up here, there’s quite an illusion,” he says. “All you can see to the horizon is pine trees. Yet hidden beneath them is one of the most vibrant and unique towns anywhere. Its history is remarkable. Thanks to those pines, people come here from all over the world to ride horses or play golf, and many find they simply don’t want to ever leave. I’m sure you know the famous local saying.”
Anyone who gets a little sand in their shoes will eventually come back and put down roots.
Of course, I knew it. I first heard it in the late 1960s. At the time, as a boy, I was growing up in Greensboro, when my father took me down a pine-girdled, country road to play golf at the venerable Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club. With its stately houses and well-ordered streets, not to mention a handsome red-brick downtown bisected by a railroad with a fancy train depot, Southern Pines looked more like a postcard of a classic New England town than a country town in a pine-tree wilderness.
Those first exposures to Southern Pines fueled my emerging wanderlust. When I grew older, I landed in a similar-looking town on the coast of Maine, where I produced a family and wrote eight books and lived quite contentedly, until I felt a powerful pang to come home again.
An unexpected chance to move to Southern Pines came in 2005. The local, award-winning newspaper, The Pilot, invited me to come back and serve as a writer-in-residence to cover the 2005 U.S. Open Golf Championship at neighboring Pinehurst. I didn’t wait to be asked a second time. Although Pinehurst is the world-class shrine of the game, Southern Pines is the working town that owned a piece of my heart. Less than a week into my time back, an old friend bumped into me and reminded me of the saying.
Hodgkins has his own version of this story. He came here to stay with his maternal grandmother after a fire claimed his childhood home in Ellsworth, Maine. That was 1935, and he was 8 years old. He stayed to attend local schools and moved on to Duke University, where he earned a degree in banking and finance.
After college and service in the United States Navy, Hodgkins came home to Southern Pines to run the local bank and serve on the Town Council, and he eventually became mayor. During his tenure, he guided the town through some of its most productive years and peacefully through the crucible of civil rights.
Just days before I visited Hodgkins and his wife, Elizabeth, in their lovely apartment on top of the historic Pine Needles Inn, Hodgkins was inducted into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. It’s the highest civilian service honor the state can bestow on a citizen. To locals like me, he is rightly considered the Patriarch of the Pines.
“I guess we’re both proof of that old saying’s validity,” he says with a gentle laugh. “But we’re just two of many. There’s always been something magical about this place that drew interesting people here. It’s as true today as it was a hundred years ago. Pinehurst always seems to get the publicity, but Southern Pines is really the spiritual heart of the Sandhills — the reason most people came here to begin with.”
Place of Refuge
Indeed, given the town’s proximity to Pinehurst — the Home of American Golf, with its celebrated resort and fabled No. 2 golf course that has played host to several major championships and every golf legend you can name — one might conclude that Southern Pines plays something of a second fiddle.
To some extent you would be right. But the simple truth remains: Without Southern Pines, there wouldn’t have been a world-famous Pinehurst in the first place.
The evidence of this fact is as close as a faded hand-drawn map hanging on the wall of the town’s water department, located in the charming building that used to be the town library on Broad Street. The map, dating to 1883, depicts dozens of concentric house lots surrounded by images of white-tailed deer, gracious manor houses, anglers, and nature-walkers enjoying the splendors of an unspoiled Southern wilderness. The town was named Vineland, and as its legend summarizes, it was built to be a winter home for invalids and a place of refuge for those who wished to escape the dreadful Northern blizzard.
The fellow credited with introducing the Sandhills region to the world was an enterprising, self-made hustler named John Tyrant Patrick, North Carolina’s first commissioner of immigration. His job was to woo out-of-state residents to remote areas of the state during the tough economic years following the Civil War.
Appearing in newspapers and commercial fliers across the Northeast, Vineland was in the heart of a region devastated by wholesale destruction of mighty longleaf forests at the hands of the state’s leading export industry — tar pitch and turpentine.
Undeterred by the bleak, sandy terrain, Patrick peddled at least as much romance as reality. He convinced the Seaboard Air Line Railway to extend its services to Hamlet and then chose a ridge where one of the few original forests of longleaf trees survived as the site for his town. He soon changed the name to a more poetic Southern Pines, claiming the “rare and healing ozone” emitted by these ultra-slow-growing monarchs of the Southern forest could cure “any respiratory ailment.” Patrick’s new health resort was located only halfway between New York and Florida, the perfect hopping-off-spot for weather-weary Yankees.
By 1890, half a dozen hotels — all prominently including some iteration of “pine” in their names — sprung up like garrison barracks to serve the influx of congested travelers. One of those travelers was a chap with weak lungs named James Walker Tufts, the wealthy founder of the Arctic Soda Fountain Company, who came to investigate the claims of a miraculous cure in 1894.
He soon purchased 600 acres of sandy wasteland four miles west of Southern Pines and immediately set about creating his own version of health Utopia in the pines. For his part, Tufts settled on the name Pinehurst. By the time Annie Oakley, John Philip Sousa and others made Pinehurst their preferred winter home, Southern Pines was the primary commercial center and de facto capital of the Carolina Sandhills.
Around Easter in 1904, a Pennsylvania industrialist and sportsman named James Boyd stepped off the train to spend the night in Southern Pines with his family. He took a carriage ride to have a look at one of the last stands of original longleaf trees. Both sportsman and naturalist, he quietly purchased 2,000 acres and set about constructing his winter home he named Weymouth, after his favorite estate in England. He had no idea the transformation he enacted.
One Family’s Creation
Then, as now, the Boyds of Weymouth underscored virtually every aspect of Southern Pines life. They not only paved the area’s first roads and underwrote the electrification of the town, they funded civic organization and municipal beautification projects that make the quaint downtown a showplace to this day.
Four years after the patriarch’s death in 1910, James Boyd’s grandsons, devoted fox hunters James (“Jim”) and Jackson, founded the Moore County Hounds, a private hunt club that remains one of the oldest and most active in the nation. In 1925, Princeton-educated Jim published “Drums,” a best-selling novel many critics still regard as the finest piece of fiction set in the Revolutionary War. Its success made the Weymouth home a frequent destination for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe and travelers from Manhattan’s literary salons.
In 1941, Jim Boyd purchased the local newspaper, The Pilot, and transformed it into an award-winning, small-town newspaper. Following his death in 1944, his wife, Katharine, became the editor and immersed herself in philanthropy and running The Pilot for the next 24 years before passing it along to former newspaperman, state Poet Laureate Sam Ragan.
Among Katharine Boyd’s many gifts, she donated family land to create a state nature preserve, brought in the North Carolina Symphony to play for local school kids for free, endowed the Moore County Hospital, built a new wing on the town library, and gave land from the original estate to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina for a major retirement community.
Shortly before her death in 1974, Boyd insisted Weymouth House and its acreage be given to newly formed Sandhills Community College. When that plan proved unfeasible, a group called Friends of Weymouth formed and preserved the house as a sustaining center for the arts and provided the funding for the creation of the Katharine L. Boyd Library on the new SCC campus.
Downtown in the thriving Broad Street shopping district, with its graceful, century-old magnolias and restored train depot, visitors step into the Utilities Billing and Collections Office and see Tyrant’s original Vineland map. A breathtaking original oil painting by famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth for the original 1925 cover art for Jim Boyd’s “Drums” hangs beside the map.
Almost unimaginably, a pair of additional Wyeth gems — one of George Washington on his inaugural day, the other of a family fleeing by coach into the dusk — hang at opposite ends of the lofty room where locals pay their water bills.
“We might be the only municipal water company in the world with museum-quality artwork hanging on its wall,” a clerk named Gary Penrod says. Another display honors the annual hunt started by the Boyd brothers that continues with the annual Blessing of the Hounds and official opening of the season that takes place every Thanksgiving weekend, drawing thousands of horse lovers from across the nation.
Jim Boyd’s love of horses made Southern Pines one of the leading equestrian centers in the nation, inspiring a couple named Ginnie and Pappy Moss to put down roots here during the late 1930s. The Mosses trained horses and bought up pasture land for their own Mile-Away Farm, exactly that distance from the center of town.
The colorful pair — a natural-born showman from Durham and a free-spirited society belle from Georgia — joined ranks with the Boyds to create the Sandhills Corporation, aiming to preserve thousands of acres for riding and hunting. After Ginnie and Pappy inherited stewardship of the Moore County Hounds, they recruited horse lovers from all over the country to migrate to Southern Pines.
The town is now flanked by gorgeous horse farms and shared by hunters and event riders of every stripe, including Olympic equestrians. When the 60th running of the Stoneybrook Steeplechase — widely regarded as the outdoor social event of the year — takes place at the nearby Carolina Horse Park this month, many old-timers will raise their toddies in salute to the Mosses.
For those of us who prefer birdies to bridles, however, Southern Pines is also a paradise.
My own golfing life began when my father brought me on that trip here as a hot-headed, club-throwing teenager, introducing me to the refined aspects of the “higher game.” Donald Ross created Mid Pines in the early 1920s as a means of escape from the swelling crowds at Pinehurst.
The course and hotel remain blissfully unchanged since the day they opened. I like to call Mid Pines the Fenway Park of Golf, a gloriously modest window into the game’s golden past.
Just across historic Midland Road, which owns the distinction of being the first paved dual-lane road in North Carolina, sits Peggy Kirk Bell’s equally distinguished Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, which served as the host to three U.S. Women’s Open Championships in recent years.
Peggy and her husband, Warren “Bullet” Bell, purchased the woefully neglected Pine Needles course not long after they married in 1953. While Peggy went on to a distinguished career as one of the founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association with her good friend Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Bullet set about reviving the course and building a cozy retreat.
Peggy’s Golfaris for women, meanwhile, have introduced thousands of women to the game she so dearly loves. On any given warm afternoon, you can still find Dame Peggy of the Pines, as some of us respectfully call her, giving a lesson to an eager newcomer or simply working on her own game out on the range. Bell turned 90 this past winter. “Someday soon,” she declares in her unsinkable, upbeat style, “I’m going to get the hang of this crazy game.”
Meanwhile, a lovely tension between horse fancier and golf hack remains the unspoken code of sportsmanship here in the pines. It is the Sandhills’ version of the timeless town and gown debate.
As town patriarch Norris Hodgkins reminded me while standing by his top-floor window, “Like most things in Southern Pines, the past holds the key to the present and probably the future, too. It’s as true today as it ever was — the reason this place even exists.”
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