Best-Kept Secrets: Racing, wrestling and rivers in Richmond County

Richmond County’s story is one of booms and busts.

Nestled in the Sandhills along the South Carolina border, the area saw plenty of wealth in the 1800s as families grew cotton and kept slaves. Then came the Civil War, and the region’s economy and culture shifted away from being focused solely on agriculture.

Textile mills dominated the local economy for much of the 20th century. But most of the mills closed, and those jobs that provided steady paychecks for so many families were gone.

Meanwhile, the town of Hamlet emerged as a major railroad destination, a halfway point between New York and Miami. Then the trains stopped coming through so regularly, and the restaurants and saloons closed.

Rockingham, the county seat, hit a sort of North Carolina jackpot in 1965 when NASCAR came to town. For decades, the then-North Carolina Motor Speedway drew thousands of racing fans, who would camp out near the track for days at a time.

As NASCAR restructured its marketing, opening bigger venues across the country, Rockingham lost its footing with the sport. NASCAR hosted its last race in its top series there in 2004, a major blow to the region.

The speedway doesn’t get much use these days, although a dragstrip across U.S. 1 regularly hosts smaller events and the monthly lawnmower races in nearby Ellerbe evoke the spirit of old-time stock car racing.

Now, Richmond County is awaiting its next boom. That might come in the form of tourism, as the county promotes itself as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Hitchcock Creek, Hinson Lake and the Pee Dee River offer opportunities for paddling, and the area’s natural beauty is ideal for hiking. Local leaders are considering the possibility of partnering with surrounding counties to create trails for biking.

Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.


Convenience Corner

It might not look like much, but locals can’t seem to get enough of this place. They crowd into the side of a gas station and place their orders at the counter for bacon-and-egg biscuits, cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Some people even call in their orders ahead of time. But don’t expect a traditional dining experience with your breakfast sandwich. Convenience Corner doesn’t have tables and chairs, so customers get their food from the friendly fry cooks and head out. Hey, there’s no shame in scarfing down a fried chicken, egg and cheese biscuit in your car. John Garner opened the eatery in 1978. He’s 70 now, but he said he still goes to work every day. Hours are 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. 801 Marlboro St., Hamlet, 910-582-2724.

Hitchcock Creek Greenway

Rockingham is trying to become a destination for outdoor lovers who want to tube lazily down Hitchcock Creek or paddle more challenging stretches of the Pee Dee River. The area also is ideal for fishing and hiking. But that hasn’t always been the case. The century-old Steeles Mill Dam blocked the creek, preventing fish from migrating. American Rivers, a group that works to protect and restore rivers across the country, partnered with Rockingham and other groups in 2009 to remove the dam. The restoration project resulted in a water trail ideal for paddling. Ambitious folks could travel a total of 14 miles along the creek and river, which would take several hours. The first legs of the trip are good for beginners, while the river is tougher to navigate in spots. Those who don’t want to get on the water can hike a nearly 2-mile gravel trail that’s canopied by oak and pine trees. Along the way, take a moment to soak in the history of the place. Remnants of the old mill remain, a reminder of North Carolina’s economic driver for so long. Access the creek and trail from Steele Street in Rockingham.


The Rankin Museum

of American Heritage

Wrestler Andre the Giant wore really big shoes. Seriously, those things are enormous. Check them out for yourself at the museum in Ellerbe, where Andre Roussimoff lived for years and raised Texas longhorns before his death in 1993. Last month, the museum debuted an exhibit in honor of the big man, complete with his size 26 wrestling boots and a yellow over-the-shoulder unitard he wore, perhaps in an attempt to intimidate Hulk Hogan. Stand next to a life-size photo of Andre, who was 7-foot-4. The museum offers more than a trip down wrestling memory lane. There’s a taxidermied jaguar, polar bear, leopard and plenty more animals from around the world. The late P.R. Rankin, who worked as a local doctor for years, loved to travel the globe to hunt big game. He would send his catches back home and donated his collection for display. Kids can dig for the teeth of megalodons and wooly mammoths or use pictures to create a food chain. Exhibits also feature pottery from the 1800s and items from the Civil War. A replica of a rural medical office from the early 1900s features an old wheelchair and exam table. The museum is open every day except Wednesday. 131 W. Church St., Ellerbe., 910-652-6378.

Mama Noi’s Pizza & Hot Sub

No matter what you’re craving for dinner, a restaurant on Ellerbe’s main drag probably has it. Mama Noi’s features American favorites – pizza, wings and burgers – but also Hibachi plates, Chinese food, Italian fare and subs. Chicken nuggets for the kiddos also are available. Owner Kone Daoheuang said customers want variety, and that’s what she gives them. She said her aunt, Mama Noi, came from Laos and worked for a restaurant before eventually opening her own place. The eatery, which draws a crowd for lunch and dinner, features a special sauce, but the recipe remains a secret. Let’s just say it adds some zing to sandwiches. While there are plenty of choices, Daoheuang said a traditional dish is the most popular – the steak sub. 2076 Main St., Ellerbe. Hours vary. 910-652-2496.


Ellerbe Lions Club Lawn Mower Racing

Bring your John Deere and drive in circles. Or just watch other people race lawnmowers around a track. One Saturday a month for much of the year, the local Lions Club hosts lawnmower races. The events typically draw a crowd of about 200 people, said organizer Wayne Taylor. Maybe racing is just so engrained in Richmond County’s DNA. Or maybe it’s simply good entertainment to watch people crash into each other on souped-up mowers. On a good night, Taylor said, up to 40 people race in varying age groups. And they get some speed, up to 70 mph. At halftime, kids hop on Power Wheels to race. For those who would rather see cars, the Rockingham Dragway regularly hosts races. It’s not NASCAR, but the events still have that big-race feel, with plenty of space available for campers. Lawmower racing: 306 Millstone Road, Ellerbe, Rockingham Dragway: 2153 U.S. 1 North, Rockingham, 910-582-3400,

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