A wealth of writers sprang up south of the North Carolina/Virginia line in the Dan River Basin, emerging among tobacco fields and textile mills.
In her book “Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont,” from which much of this article was drawn, Georgann Eubanks guides readers through the haunts of many of the state’s most gifted poets and authors.
Among the writers with a connection to the Dan River Basin are Sherwood Anderson, William Andrews, Daniel W. Barefoot, Jerry Bledsoe, Lisa Cantrell, P.T. Deutermann, R.S. Gwynn, Alex Haley, Larry Leon Hamlin, T.R. Pearson, Reynolds Price, Moses Roper, Dawn Shamp, David Spear, G.C. Waldrep, and Manley Wade Wellman.
Eubanks recommends beginning in Madison, where photographer and former newspaper publisher David M. Spear documented a family of tenant farmers in a photo-book. Spear is the grandson of Sherwood Anderson, whose books about the Midwest and Southwest Virginia made him famous. Anderson’s son, Bob, ran the Madison newspaper from 1934 to 1963 before turning it over to Spear. In 1988, the Spear family established the Sherwood Anderson Foundation to support developing writers.
Houses in Madison’s two historic districts likely inspired Lisa Cantrell, who has been called “the family Stephen King,” when she wrote “The Manse,” one of her many horror novels.
East to Eden, Eubanks notes the Eden Drive-In, which has a deep connection to R.S. Gwynn, a poet, translator, and critic. Gwynn’s father ran the drive-in when he was growing up, and the outdoor theater became the subject of the titular poem “The Drive-In” from his first collection.
The Eden Historical Museum is managed by playwright Melissa Whitten and, along with the annual Charlie Poole Music Festival and Eden RiverFest, have tapped into the region’s rich heritage.
The nearby community of Spray is notable for business development by the Moreheads, a North Carolina family whose fortune was channeled in part to a prestigious undergraduate scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that has helped launch novelist and nonfiction writer James Reston Jr., New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki, poet Coleman Barks, environmental writer William deBuys, and historian Taylor Branch.
East, in Reidsville, is the intersection of Main Street and Morehead Avenue, which is home to “the monkey house,” a key location in T.R. Pearson’s comic novel “A Short History of a Small Place,” in which Reidsville is fictionalized as the town of Neely. Two other novels about Neely followed, including “Off for the Sweet Hereafter” and “The Last of How It Was.”
Jerry Bledsoe wrote about a true crime story that began in Louisville, Kentucky, before ending in Piedmont North Carolina, including Reidsville, in “Bitter Blood: A True Story of Southern Family Pride, Madness, and Multiple Murder.”
Reidsville also was home to Larry Leon Hamlin, who founded the National Black Theatre Festival in 1989 after previously establishing the North Carolina Black Repertory Company in Winston-Salem in 1979. It’s now home to P.T. Deutermann, who has set suspense novels in the state.
Caswell County, N.C.
Farther east, Caswell County was home to characters in Alex Haley’s landmark 1976 bestseller “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” And one of the most brutal accounts of slavery in the United States has Caswell County connections, as Moses Roper wrote in his 1848 “Narrative of My Escape from Slavery” that he was born there.
In Yanceyville, the Caswell County seat, you can find the county courthouse where state senator John Walter “Chicken” Stephens was murdered by a group of men that included a former sheriff and head of the local Ku Klux Klan. That killing was documented in several histories of the region, as well as Manley Wade Wellman’s 1954 “Dead and Gone: Classic Crimes of North Carolina” and Daniel Barefoot’s “Piedmont Phantoms.”
Farther east in Milton is the home of Thomas Day, subject of Mary E. Lyons’ 1994 “Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker.”
Roxboro, in Person County, was home to novelist Reynolds Price in the mid-30s, and he wrote that his first sustained memory was of a spring 1936 evening in the county that included stopping at the creamery for vanilla ice cream.
Roxboro also features in Dawn Shamp’s 2008 novel “On Account of Conspicuous Women,” which is about a quartet of women who promote women’s suffrage and the civil rights of Roxboro African Americans.