By Kelly McCall Branson
Featured Photo: Koka Booth Amphitheatre on Symphony Lake; Photo by Wileydoc/Shutterstock.com
Just west of Raleigh’s city limits, the town of Cary has enjoyed a reputation for outstanding quality of life for decades. Since the 1960s, the town has seen steady — sometimes explosive — growth, from a small crossroads to a burgeoning bedroom community to its now mid-metro-sized population of more than 180,000.
Cary’s proximity to Raleigh, the Research Triangle Park, RDU Airport and Durham, along with its reputation for great schools, myriad housing options, its diversity and exceptional recreational and cultural opportunities make it one of the most coveted addresses in the state.
And as Cary has expanded, so has its neighbor to the west, Morrisville. From fewer than 10,000 residents in 2000, Morrisville has grown to a population of more than 34,000 today. And along with all of these new residents have come plenty of new options for dining and shopping, learning and play.
In the 1750s, John Bradford opened an inn at what would become the town of Cary, giving the area its first European name, Bradford’s Ordinary. After the Revolutionary War, the community was on the road between Raleigh and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and much of the land was owned by two men named Jones — Jones of White Plains Plantation in eastern Cary and Jones of Crabtree in western Cary. High House Road is named for Fanning Jones’s house, built in the 1700s, two-stories tall, sitting atop a hill.
In 1854, lumberman Frank Page and his wife Kate Raboteau Page purchased 300 acres of land straddling the railroad tracks where Cary’s town hall sits today. The area was unofficially called Page’s Siding, Page’s Turnout, Page’s Station and Page’s Tavern.
Frank became the town’s first postmaster and named the community Cary because of his admiration for Samuel Fenton Cary, head of the Sons of Temperance, who had just delivered an inspiring oration in Raleigh. Accordingly, Cary’s 1871 Incorporation papers prohibited the sale of whiskey in the town’s boundary and its surrounding 2 square miles. Later, “vinous, spirituous or malt liquors, cider or peach brandies” were also banned. Cary’s prohibition laws remained in place until 1964.
In 1870, the Cary Academy, a private boarding school was opened on Page’s land at the end of Academy Street. This would later become Cary High School and in 1907, with its transfer to the state, would become the first public high school in North Carolina. A new brick building was erected at the site in 1913 and now houses the Cary Arts Center.
In 1879, Robert Harrison opened a café and store at the corner of Academy and Chatham Streets. Uncle Bob’s Corner was a popular hangout for locals, especially the kids at Cary High School. In 1931, a pharmacy and soda fountain was built on the downtown site, to be taken over by the Ashworth family in 1957. You can still get your prescriptions filled and enjoy a hot dog and a homemade orangeade at Ashworth’s Pharmacy today.
Cary remained largely agricultural through the first half of the 20th century. From the 1920s to the ‘70s, the Kilgore family raised dairy cattle to produce milk for their Pine State Creamery on more than 1,000 acres along what is now Kildaire Farm Road, in addition to beef cattle and more than 30,000 egg-laying hens.
Fred G. Bond Metro Park; Photo by Wileydoc/Shutterstock.com
But it was the development of Research Triangle Park in the 1960s that brought real growth and defined today’s Cary. Historian Jordan R. Bauer said, “The sleepy town of Cary…was the ideal place for an emerging class of scientific and technical workers.” Indeed, the close proximity of three major research universities provided an ample supply of highly educated graduates and was no doubt instrumental in luring IBM to establish offices in RTP in 1969 and later SAS Institute, one of the largest privately held software companies in the world, to make its home in Cary.
Between 1960 and 1970, the population of Cary doubled and then tripled in the 1970s and doubled again in both the ‘80s and ‘90s. More than two thirds of the adult population hold college degrees, and the median household income tops $113,000, one of the highest in the state. Big-tech companies, Epic Games and Siemens have headquarters in Cary as well as other major employers like Kellogg’s, Verizon and Deloitte.
And all of the high-paying jobs these companies have brought to this area have translated to high demand for world-class lifestyles — from top-notch options for neighborhoods and homes, to schools to recreation, dining, shopping and cultural elevation. Money magazine named Cary the hottest town in the East and one of six Hottest Towns in America, and Cary continually ranks as one of the safest cities in the country.
The explosive growth Cary has experienced over the past 75 years has meant lots of new people moving here from lots of different places; 19% of its townspeople were born in another country. With a diversity score of 95 out of 100, Cary is far more internationally diverse than most other American cities. This cultural richness is reflected in the abundance of ethnic restaurants to explore and many of the town’s annual events — the dragon boat races of Asia Fest, the Indian Diwali festival of lights, the Middle Eastern EID Festival, the Taste of China Festival, the Ritmo Latino Festival and Sabor y Cultura,
Cary is also diverse when it comes to the age of its population; School-age children comprise nearly a quarter of its population, yet people of retirement age are the fastest-growing group in the town. Which translates to a housing inventory that’s just as diverse, from apartment living to starter homes, to new urbanist neighborhoods to estate homes, to golf-course living and 55+ communities.
For the younger set, there are Wake County’s award-winning schools, including the Wake NCSU STEM Early College High School, which has a 100% graduation rate. And there are the top-ranked charter schools: Triangle Math and Science Academy and Cardinal Charter Academy. There are also a variety of private schools like Cary Academy, Heartwood Montessori and Cary Christian School.
Places to Play
When it comes to play time, Cary has an amazing array of recreational opportunities for the young and the young at heart. The town boasts 30 public parks and natural areas, including the 310-acre Fred G. Bond Metro Park with an amphitheater, a community center, hiking trails, a lake with a boathouse, the Lazy Daze playground, picnic shelters, a senior center, a challenge rope course, two soccer fields, and seven fields for baseball and softball. The 142-acre Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve features a unique microclimate where visitors can hike three miles of trails and see Eastern Hemlocks, typically only found in the Appalachian Mountains. Cary Action Sports offers a challenging course to skaters, skateboarders, scooters and bicyclists.
The town of Cary also maintains more than 80 miles of greenway trails winding through the town and its parks, for hikers, runners and cyclists.
When it comes to organized sports, the facilities in Cary are truly off the charts. The 24-acre Cary Tennis Park is one of the most extensive public tennis facilities in the southeastern United States and features 32 courts, including a championship stadium. WakeMed Soccer Park has been the host site for the NCAA Division I men’s soccer tournament as well as NCFC Youth Recreation Soccer. Cary is also home of the USA Baseball National Training Complex which hosts the NCAA Division II College World Series and the National High School Invitational on its four baseball fields. The Triangle Aquatic Center features four pools and room for as many as 800 swimmers and coaches on deck.
For playtime of a different sort, Cary has more than 200 dining options. Lionel Vatinet and his James Beard-recognized La Farm Bakery is a cult favorite. Monsieur Vatinet even offers classes in making his world-class sourdough. For the ultimate in upscale dining, Heron’s at the Umstead Hotel and Spa is one of only 64 Forbes 5-star restaurants in the world.
Downtown’s Di Fara Pizza is the sister restaurant to the legendary Dominic DeMarco’s Brooklyn pizzeria of the same name. And Cary’s newest dining hotspot, the New Urbanist live-work-play district, Fenton has lured Raleigh celebrity chef, Scott Crawford to open (soon) Crawford Brothers Steakhouse, as well as renowned Durham restaurateur, Mike Lee to open two new spots — M Sushi and M Test Kitchen.
If your sense of adventure includes a taste for the cuisines of far-off lands, try Turkish Bosphorus, Southeast Asian kō•än, Chinese Taipei 101, Indian Nazara or any one of the small mom-and-pop restaurants scattered throughout Cary.
And of course you’ll find good old Southern fare at Dame’s Chicken and Waffles or Brew N Que (better known as Big Mike’s BBQ).
Musical tastes of every type can also be satisfied at one of Cary’s varied entertainment venues. Hear big-name artists under the stars at Koka Booth Amphitheatre. Nestled on seven acres along the banks of Symphony Lake, Koka Booth has played host to the likes of Pitbull, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Alabama Shakes, as well as the NC Symphony.
The Cary Arts Center presents visiting artists in its intimate space in the old Cary High School year round, and Bond Park holds outdoor concerts at the Boathouse in summer months. The Page-Walker Arts & History Center has summer concerts on the lawn and indoor events in the gallery during the rest of the year.
RDU International Airport; Photo by Sharkshock/Shutterstock.com
West to Morrisville
Named for Jeremiah Morris, who donated three acres for one of Wake County’s earliest train depots (in hopes that more people would move here), Morrisville was incorporated in 1875. By 1880, there were only 165 residents, and even as late as 1990, Morrisville claimed only 1,000 townspeople.
My how things have changed for this once sleepy little village. As the town of Cary has been fairly bursting at the seams, more and more people are looking west to neighboring Morrisville to meet the growing demands for new housing — its population soaring to more than 34,000 in 2023.
Morrisville is now headquarters to such companies as Oracle, Syneos Health, Fujifilm and Lenovo, and the high-paying jobs these companies offer make the town’s median household income one of the highest in the state.
The town was named among the top 10 places to live in the nation by Money magazine. Stacker recently ranked Morrisville number one on its list of the best places to live in North Carolina, and Niche recognized Morrisville as its best place to live and raise a family in North Carolina as well as number two on its list of North Carolina’s best suburbs for young professionals.
Some of the top high schools in the state are in Morrisville, which is no surprise since a whopping 70% of Morrisville residents have a college degree.
The town boasts one of the most diverse populations in the state, with people of Asian descent making up more than 40% of its residents — primarily people of Indian heritage. The largest Hindu temple in North America sits at the Morrisville/Cary border; the Sri Venkateswara Temple of North Carolina’s gateway tower stands at 87 feet.
This diverse demographic has also led Morrisville to be called the cricket capital of the U.S., with the Toyota Minor League Cricket Championship being held there in 2022, boasting the largest winning purse in American cricket history. The town has plans to build a multi-million-dollar stadium to attract even more tournaments.
The weeklong East Meets West festival each fall celebrates Morrisville’s rich culture with Bollywood movies, cricket matches and traditional food, art and music. Global cuisine is also on the menu in Morrisville with Indian delicacies at Fusion Nine and Middle Eastern fare at Neomonde.
In an effort to promote healthy living, Morrisville founded the Healthy Food Hub, home to a hands-on community garden, a recreational field and a Saturday farmers’ market with fresh produce and meats from local farmers and sustainably harvested fish from Triangle favorite Locals Seafood.
Morrisville is also home to six public parks and three community centers, along with the Morrisville Aquatics & Fitness Center and Triangle Rock Club, one of the largest rock-climbing gyms in the Southeast.
As Cary matures, Morrisville grows. And these neighboring communities offer their own unique character and lifestyle in the very center of the Research Triangle.