By Kelly McCall Branson
Featured Photo: Encore at Wendell Falls; Photo Courtesy of David Weekley Homes
As more and more people flock to the Triangle and land here becomes ever more scarce, eyes are turning to Wake County’s last “frontier” — its eastern side and the once sleepy little towns of Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon. Greenspace, affordability, a young population and easy access to the greater Triangle have made this area the fastest growing not only in the Triangle, but in all of North Carolina. And new-home builders are answering this unprecedented demand with an abundance of new neighborhoods underway and on the drawing board, offering an array of living options, from apartments to townhomes to starter homes and estate homes.
Before the English arrived, buffalo were plentiful in this area, and the Tuscarora Indians hunted and lived here. Around 1730, adventurous woodsman, John Hinton set out from home and settled in what would become Knightdale, constructing the first dwelling built by a white man here. Hinton played a key role in the first battle of the American Revolution fought on North Carolina soil, the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. Three of Hinton’s plantations in the Knightdale area are still intact: The Oaks, Midway and Beaver Dam.
After the Civil War, tobacco was the main cash crop for this largely agricultural area. Like most towns in North Carolina, it was the railroad that made the town. Landowner Henry Haywood Knight donated the land that would become a depot for the Norfolk and Southern Railroad Company. And as the need for more railroad workers grew, Norfolk and Southern moved many families here. A number of the older homes in Knightdale were built for these railroad workers and their families. The railroad stationmaster’s house still exists today along the tracks on Railroad Street.
Truly right in Raleigh’s backyard, Knightdale is just nine miles east of downtown. But it isn’t just a bedroom community for its urban neighbor. With a population just over 19,000, Knightdale has more than tripled in size just since the year 2000. And it boasts one of the youngest populations in the Triangle, with a median age of 36. These thousands of new residents have attracted all kinds of commercial, retail and entertainment development.
You’ll find big-box stores like Kohl’s, Target, Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Home Depot, as well as locally owned shops and myriad services — banking, dry cleaning, veterinarians, nail and hair salons — just to name a few. An array of health care providers, from primary care to specialists also make their home in Knightdale.
If it’s an evening out you’re craving, make your way to the historic downtown and grab a local brew at Oak City Brewing’s taphouse and beer garden. Also downtown, Prime Barbeque has perfected their classic barbeque technique. Can’t make up your mind what you’re in the mood for? Visit Craften Food Hall for pizza, pasta, Mexican, Venezuelan, burgers or craft beer — and enjoy some live entertainment while you’re there.
There’s plenty to do without ever leaving Knightdale. On Saturday mornings, from May to October the Knightdale Farmers Market is at Knightdale Station, with live entertainment and food truck rodeos, along with the locally grown fruits and vegetables. The town of Knightdale hosts an Outdoor Movie Night Series every spring and fall. At the Market at Knightdale Station Park, on the second Saturday of the month, from May to October, local vendors sell their products at the park’s amphitheater.
For outdoor enthusiasts, there’s Knightdale Community Park with four lighted ball fields, two basketball courts and six tennis courts. Knightdale Environmental Education Park offers a walking trail, picnic shelters, environmental sculptures and observation overlooks. Harper Park boasts tennis and pickleball courts, picnic shelters and a playground. And there’s also the Splash Pad for summertime fun.
Public schools in Knightdale are part of the award-winning Wake County Public School System. And the private Thales Academy has a pre-K through 8 campus in Knightdale.
But it is surely its neighborhoods that are the real reason so many people are moving to Knightdale. Glenmere, marketed by The Jim Allen Group, is located right in the geographic center of Knightdale and offers that small-town feel with up-to-the-minute amenities like a junior Olympic-sized pool with splash zone, a fireplace pavilion and a planned greenway trail to the Neuse River.
When area residents were looking for a name for their little community, the schoolteacher, M.A. Griffin, a huge fan of the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes suggested Wendell. And so it was named, but when the train came to town, porters would call out: WEN-DELL, with emphasis on both syllables. And it stuck.
The little town of Wendell is now the fastest growing town in all of North Carolina. Its population has more than doubled since 2010, with over 12,000 people now calling Wendell home.
This up-and-coming town got its start in the 1850s when nearby Granville County tobacco farmers were hit with the devastating Granville County Wilt and moved into eastern Wake County looking for fertile land to begin planting again.
Many of the original brick buildings still stand in Wendell, and its downtown is a designated location on the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed, downtown retains its old-fashioned, small-town charm. Take your pick of bakeries, casual eateries, coffee shops, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques, and more.
But right along with this small-town charm, Wendell offers innovative, state-of-the-art neighborhoods like the huge master planned community, Wendell Falls. This 1,100-acre community — “where small-town community meets big-city urbanity” — will eventually offer more than 3,500 homes, from apartments to estate homes as well as over two million square feet of retail and commercial space.
Amenities at Wendell Falls include 10+ miles of trails, multiple parks and playgrounds, a saltwater pool and water park, outdoor fit pods, a 24/7 fitness center. Their signature restaurant, the Farmhouse Cafe features seasonal dishes from local vendors and has won the AIA’s highest design award for architecture.
Last summer, the active adult community, Encore at Wendell Falls by David Weekley Homes opened to great success. With its ranch homes (with an option for a second floor) incorporating universal design principles, and landscape packages, this neighborhood is designed for the 55+ crowd looking for low-maintenance living.
Encore offers their own lifestyle director to facilitate all kinds of get-togethers. From a walking club to game nights and coffee chats, there are also planned outings. “So many of our residents have moved here to be closer to family,” says Lauren Elder, lead sales consultant for Encore. “This is a great way to make new friends and to have everything convenient to where you work, play and socialize.”
Wendell has lots to offer the outdoor enthusiast too. Wendell Park features three ball fields, an ADA playground, disc golf course, dog park and volleyball court. And the town’s parks and recreation department hosts youth and adult sports leagues, martial arts classes, summer camps, arts and crafts programs, and more.
Turnipseed Nature Preserve is a 265-acre park and is designated as a WakeNature Preserve. Its Boulder Trail features granite outcroppings. Robertson Millpond Preserve is a hidden 85-acre refuge for nature lovers, canoeists and kayakers — a bald cypress blackwater swamp.
After your hike or bike or softball game, enjoy a cold beer at Bearded Bee Brewing Company’s taproom and beer garden. Their mission is to brew great beer using local ingredients and supporting the honeybee. Or take a tour (and have a taste) at Oaklee Distilling Co.
From May through November, on the first Thursday of the month, visit the Wendell Market for fresh fruits and vegetables and other local goods. And there are annual events like Wendell Wonderful and Spring Fling to enjoy.
The easternmost town in Wake County, Zebulon is its second fastest growing town. With a population just over 8,000, Zebulon still has its friendly, small-town vibe.
In 1907, the land where Zebulon now sits was home to a one-room school and three houses nestled within a thick pine forest, with a population of 483. The town was named for the Civil War governor, Zebulon B. Vance. Until it closed in the crash of 1929, the Tobacco Market was its biggest employer.
Nowadays Zebulon might be best known as the home of the Single-A Carolina Mudcats minor league baseball team (an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers). A summer afternoon at Five County Stadium with Muddy the Mudcat is one to be remembered.
But there’s more to Zebulon than baseball. “I think Zebulon is just one of the Triangle’s best-kept secrets,” says William Smith, with The Jim Allen Group. “It’s just a little over 20 minutes from Raleigh and just a phenomenal opportunity to own a home for some of the most reasonable prices you’ll find in Wake County.”
Barrington, a Jim Allen Group project in Zebulon, is a new 900-homesite community featuring townhomes, carriage homes and single-family homes, with amenities like a clubhouse and swimming pool and much more to come. Their townhomes range from 1,600 to 1,750 square feet and offer ground floor master bedrooms and vaulted ceilings in end units. “This is such a great price point,” says Smith, “we are selling these town homes as fast as we release them.”
Zebulon offers great spaces to get outdoors. The 47-acre Zebulon Community Park includes picnic shelters, a playground, walking trails, baseball/softball fields, basketball courts and an 18-hole disc golf course that hosts the Dogwood Crosstown Classic, where pros and amateurs vie for trophies. Whitley Park has picnic shelters, playgrounds, tennis courts a concert pavilion.
Five-acre Little River Park has picnic areas and hiking trails and white sandy beaches along the Little River.
And, much like neighboring Knightdale and Wendell, as more and more folks move to Zebulon, the neighborhood shopping and services, schools and healthcare facilities are following. Zebulon is home to three Wake County schools, one charter school and one private school, as well as Wake Tech’s Eastern Wake Education Center. WakeMed operates the Zebulon/Wendell Outpatient and Skilled Nursing Facility, a satellite facility for the hospital’s primary location in Raleigh.
If you’re looking to wet your whistle, Zebulon definitely has you covered. Olde Raleigh Distillery is a family-owned distillery crafting small-batch bourbons. Lick Life Spirits distills bourbon, corn whiskey, and traditional moonshine flavors such as Peach and Apple Pie. The Cave at Mythic Brewing’s taproom serves up craft beer, wine and ciders.
The family-owned McLean’s Ole Time Café has been serving old-fashioned country cooking in Zebulon since 1956.
Wake County’s east side and its up-and-coming towns are just another example of what makes the Triangle a place it seems like everyone wants to live.