By Kelly McCall Branson
Featured Photo: Renovated Businesses in Historic Downtown Garner; Photo by Wileydoc/Shutterstock.com
As we continue exploring the many cities, towns and villages that make up the greater Triangle, this issue, we’ll head south from downtown Raleigh and take a look at two towns with a long history in the area — two towns now enjoying a boom in popularity as the Triangle continues to spread its wings. Nudging up to downtown Raleigh, Garner, and just a little further to the south and east, Clayton. Two once quiet little rural towns, have become hot spots for new neighborhoods. And as more and more folks come to live in these southern Triangle towns, more and more businesses and services are following, with great dining and shopping options, recreational and cultural opportunities and health and wellness facilities coming online all the time.
Before English settlers arrived, the area now known as Garner was inhabited by Tuscarora and Sioux Indians. As early as the 1750s, there were documented English residents and a church in the area. But the town, like many North Carolina towns, got its start as a railroad stop. In 1847, North Carolina state leaders designated Garner as the location of a new station of the North Carolina Railroad that ran between Goldsboro and Charlotte. Prior to that, this area in the St. Mary’s Township of North Carolina was primarily agricultural, growing mainly tobacco and cotton.
Evidence of Civil War skirmishes in the Garner area can still be seen in the carefully preserved bullet holes in Bethel Church (now New Bethel Baptist Church) and the “Samuel Dupree” house, which the Union Army used as a makeshift hospital. Union soldiers also camped on the Dupree farm.
It wasn’t until 1878, after the railroad purchased a “wood and water” stop in what is now downtown Garner, that Garner’s Station, named for its founder H.C. Garner, would have its first post office. Garner’s Station was officially incorporated in 1883. The village prospered, with two general stores and nearly 250 residents, until 1891, when, for reasons unknown, its charter was revoked.
With the building of a railroad depot in 1905, the town was reincorporated as Garner. The depot was central to delivering mail, carrying passengers once a day to Raleigh, and establishing Garner as a local market and shipping point for cotton.
Now boasting a population of just over 31,000, Garner has seen a boom in new-home construction in recent years. Just four miles south of downtown Raleigh and with easy access to I-40, Garner offers convenience to the bigger city’s offerings as well as a relatively easy commute to Raleigh International Airport and RTP (soon to be made even easier with the completion of the I-540 Loop).
People looking for maybe a little more bang for their buck, a little more room to spread out or a little more small-town charm are driving the development of new neighborhoods in and around Garner, like Oak Manor, an upcoming community by Meritage Homes. Here residents can choose from homes ranging from just over 1,400 to just under 3,000 square feet and enjoy a community clubhouse, swimming pool and walking trails.
With hundreds of acres of award-winning parkland, Garner has plenty of opportunities for recreation. Lake Benson Park is a 64-acre park offering picnic shelters, playgrounds, trails, boat rentals and fishing. It is home to Town-wide special events like Spring Eggstravaganza, Independence Day Celebration and Friday Family Flicks and Camping. Garner Veterans Memorial, with its spectacular earth castings by renowned artist Thomas Sayre, is also located in the park.
Opened in 2021, the new 40,000-square-foot Garner Recreation Center, in downtown Garner, includes three basketball courts, an art studio, a class fitness room, a multipurpose room, an elevated indoor track and exercise equipment. There is also an outdoor multipurpose field and walking trail.
The Garner Sports League (GSL) offers softball and baseball programs from ¾ T-ball up to the competitive traveling baseball team, the Garner Generals. Play golf at Garner Country Club and Eagle Ridge and Pine Hollow Golf Club. Or get your adrenalin pumping at RushHour Karting, an indoor high-speed go-karting track where you can also engage in some rock climbing and axe throwing.
Visit the Garner History Museum at the Depot, housed in the historic 1900 railroad depot to learn about Garner’s past in a structure so integral to its history.
The Garner Performing Arts Center, a restored 471-seat auditorium in the Historic District of Downtown Garner, hosts Broadway Voices, The Towne Players of Garner and It’s Showtime! Series as well as performances by local, regional and national touring acts. Or listen to live bluegrass, jazz and acoustic music at Lorraine’s Coffee House.
In addition to the charming Mom-and-Pop businesses in historic Downtown Garner, as Garner grows, commercial development has followed, with centers like Middle Creek Commons, White Oak Crossing and Aversboro Square adding myriad options for shopping, dining and services. For the quintessential Southern country breakfast visit Big Ed’s Restaurant Garner, or for Southern cooking any time, Angie’s Restaurant.
When it comes to healthcare, The WakeMed Healthplex Garner offers a 24/7 emergency department with advanced imaging and labs as well as specialists in cardiology, orthopedics, urology and more. Rex Wellness Center of Garner features indoor pools, workout equipment, exercise classes, personal training, nutritional counseling and massages.
Clayton River Walk; Photo by Wileydoc/Shutterstock.com
Sarah Stallings’ Stagecoach Stop
There were English inhabitants in the town of Clayton, located in western Johnston County, in the early 1700s. It got its start as a stagecoach stop on the route from Hillsborough to New Bern, known as Stalling’s Station, where the widow Sarah Stallings offered travelers food and lodging. That stagecoach rout became the route for the North Carolina Railroad, and a depot was located at Stalling’s Station.
The settlement consisted mostly of small stores that served the rural area. The town established its first post office in Gulley’s Store in1845 and was renamed Clayton in 1856 and officially incorporated in 1869.
At the close of the Civil War, when the State of North Carolina and the City of Raleigh surrendered to Union General Tecumseh Sherman, it occurred on the railroad tracks in Clayton near the O’Neil Street crossing.
By the end of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century, Johnston County became one of the leading cotton producing counties in the state, and the thriving Clayton Cotton Market was known as “the biggest little cotton market in the Carolinas.” Clayton was so wealthy and successful a town in the 1920s, that some local historians described it as “the richest town per capita” in the United States.
But it’s probably Clayton’s proximity to all that the greater Triangle has to offer that is driving its current success. Just 20 minutes from Raleigh and with easy access to I-40, I-95 and US 70, most of the Triangle is not much more than 30 minutes away.
As a Main Street America Affiliate, The Town of Clayton is part of a national network of more than 1,200 neighborhoods and communities who share both a commitment to creating high-quality places and to building stronger communities through preservation-based economic development.
Indeed, Clayton’s downtown is the bustling hub of the community, with the Saturday Farm and Community Market in Horne Square, Johnston County’s first (legal) brewery, rooftop dining, live jazz, performing arts, and annual arts and music festivals. The Town Square is home to the Clayton Town Square Concert Series, Movie Nights, The Shindig and the Christmas Village and Tree Lighting. In 2012, the parking lot of an old hardware store was transformed into the Main Street Community Garden.
The annual Clayton Sculpture Trail is an outdoor public art trail with permanent locations throughout town. Now in its eighth year, this year’s Sculpture Trail features works by artists from North Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Massachusetts and New York.
Johnston County is known for its many murals, and Clayton boasts quite a few. Look for the Jim Brown Mural, which tells the story of Clayton, and the Clayton Center Mural, called a “Clayton patchwork” and depicting icons of Clayton history. The bright Tractor & Sunflower mural graces the offices of Joshua Davis, General Contractor and on the side of the Signage of Clayton building, you’ll find the “Not a Banksy” mural.
A decade ago, the community came together to preserve an old school, transforming it into the Clayton Center, a cultural hub for the community with a 600-seat theater that has played host to such performers as Doc Watson, Kathy Mattea, Colin Hay, Ricky Skaggs, or the Harlem Gospel Choir.
There are plenty of outdoor and recreational opportunities in Clayton, but perhaps their crown jewel is the extensive network of Greenway trails. Connecting to the North Carolina Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) and the East Coast Greenway (thousands of miles running East and West in North Carolina and North and South from Maine to Florida), Sam’s Branch Greenway brings these two trails straight into downtown Clayton — with the added bonus of public art along the trail. The Clayton River Walk on the Neuse is a beautiful 4-mile, 10-foot wide paved trail that begins at the Wake County/Johnston County line and parallels the Neuse River under Covered Bridge Road.
The renowned Raleigh Chef, Scott Crawford opened his latest restaurant, Crawford Cookshop in downtown Clayton in 2021. Jones Café, a family-owned downtown restaurant since 1958, is known for “the best hot dogs this side of heaven.”
And like Garner, new neighborhoods are popping up all around Clayton. Flowers Plantation, a 3,000-acre community just east of Clayton is a whole community within a community. This 3,000-acre planned development will include more than 7,000 homesites when completed, with homes ranging from the $300 thousands to the high $600 thousands. A collection of neighborhoods include apartments, townhomes, single-family homes and multiple 55+ neighborhoods.
Within Flowers Plantation, the new East Triangle YMCA features three swimming pools, a full fitness center, kids’ club, sauna, tennis, pickleball and basketball. Four private lakes and more than 100 acres of wildlife preserve and buffers are the setting for some 20 miles of trails. Commercial development is integral to Flowers Plantation; Flowers Crossroads offers myriad shopping (with a Harris Teeter and a Publix), dining and services, including UNC Primary Care and Urgent Care.
Robuck Homes is also building a new community nearby — Baylee Ridge will offer ½ to 2-acre homesites with flexible plans including first floor masters and multi-generational living.
As the Triangle continues to boom, and the cities and towns around it likewise grow, places like Garner and Clayton are a reminder that, you can enjoy all that the greater Triangle has to offer, but still have a hometown, with its own unique history and identity, to come home to.