The letters “OBX” adorn many a back bumper, at least among vehicles in the eastern half of the country, particularly concentrated among the states along the Eastern Seaboard. (And typically cares at the level of Volvos and Subarus…or pricier.) It’s safe for me to wager that most people in these eastern states—loosely equating to the Thirteen Colonies, plus a couple others—know what the letters stand for. But the familiarity drops off quickly after that, and while most Midwesterners have seen the bumper sticker, they don’t necessarily know what it means. It’s cryptic; probably deliberately so. It’s a bit of a shibboleth: those who recognize “OBX” know it as an emergent vacation destination that was still sleepy in the 1980s. By now, it’s established, though hardly as much as places to the south like Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Savannah, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine. For those who skipped past the title, is it clear by now what I’m referencing? For the other two-thirds of the country (and most of the rest of the world), it’s the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Long an area of cultural (and agricultural) importance, the Outer Banks didn’t achieve a great deal of mainstream commercial cachet until the end of the 20th century. Prior to that point, this 200-mile network of barrier islands and peninsulas, comprising nearly all of the North Carolina Coast, enjoyed their highest profile as the site of some great American firsts: Virginia Dare, the first child of English heritage born on English territory in the Americas, entered this world in 1587 in Roanoke Colony, on a like-named island poised between the Outer Banks and what eventually became North Carolina mainland. Over three centuries later but just five miles to the north, Wilbur and Orville Wright pioneered their first attempt at a flying machine along the wind-swept spit in the Outer Banks known as Kill Devil Hills, right next to the Town of Kitty Hawk.
Populous and urbanized as the state of North Carolina may be today, the Outer Banks didn’t yield any cities nearly approaching the size of Charleston in South Carolina or Savannah in Georgia, both already prominent prior to the American Revolution. Coastal North Carolina’s biggest contender is Wilmington, a city founded about ten miles from the coast along the Cape Fear River, which didn’t achieve salience as a city of 100,000 until the 2010 Census. North Carolina’s coast, and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that protects the Outer Banks, largely consisted of villages whose economies depended upon fishing and boatbuilding. Prone to severe hurricanes and coastal erosion, the geographic constraints simply precluded the Outer Banks from spawning large cities, and the relative scarcity of access bridges didn’t help. The summer season is also shorter than South Carolina or Florida.
But the lure of the beach was too great, as was the cultural distinction that emerged from these relatively isolated communities. North Carolina has enjoyed some of the highest population growth of any state in the last forty years; meanwhile, its beaches still benefit from a more favorable climate than those of the Northeast. New Yorkers and Philadelphians who can’t wait for the warm weather to hit the Jersey shore or Delaware beaches can drive a few hours further south and find a huge beachfront that’s reasonably comfortable in May or October. And, since virtually all of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore consists of barrier islands that are no more than a mile wide from beach to lagoon, the geography promotes a certain embedded scarcity and exclusivity that isn’t present in the accessible open lands of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.* By the 1990s, tourism in the Outer Banks surged, prompting the construction of opulent vacation homes complemented by widespread commercialization: restaurants, boutique shops, and recreational options catering primarily to an upper-middle income demographic. The Outer Banks are fancier than the more established Myrtle Beach.
[*In fairness, the combination of the Intracoastal Waterway and Waccamaw River create two intersecting channels with separate estuaries, which carves out a strip of land akin to an island upon which Myrtle Beach rests. But it is partially manmade—much of the Intracoastal Waterway consists of canals—and the resulting “island” is generally wider than a typical barrier island, while the waterway is much narrower than a lagoon. So Myrtle Beach captures a much vaster beachfront space that encourages more aggressive and high-intensity real estate development: high-rise condos and mega-hotels, the likes of which are quite rare in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.)
The point of interest in this blog, however, is not just the Outer Banks themselves, but shifting a bit to the west, to the other side of those lagoons and the Intracoastal Waterway—the land three miles in from the shore, and then many miles further as one travels westward. The interior coastal plain. The Inner Banks. Yes, real estate marketers have tried to brand this area “IBX”, and eventually they’ll no doubt make the ibex the region’s mascot. Almost immediately upon crossing one of the bridges that separate those barrier islands from the mainland, visitors notice the socioeconomic conditions take a nosedive. OBX is manicured, selective, and more than a little bit bourgeois. The coastal plains in the eastern one-third of the Tarheel State (minus the actual shore) contain most of the poorest counties, a primarily agrarian region historically dependent on tobacco, and, in the antebellum days, slavery. The economy in the coastal plans has lagged far behind a state known for its knowledge workers in the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) or the banking of Charlotte. Assessed land values in the Inner Banks are often one-eighth those on the Outer Banks just a few miles away.
But, if the economic fortunes of Columbia, North Carolina are any evidence, this disparity may be narrowing.
Let’s not confuse our Carolinas. Columbia is the capital and second largest city of South Carolina, but in North Carolina, it’s a town of just a few hundred; population has fluctuated somewhat dramatically over the last seventy years, though even at its 1950 peak it barely had more than 1,100. It’s the seat of government for Tyrrell County, which contains only 3,245 people according to the 2020 Census. It’s the least populous county in the state, a number all the more remarkable when one considers how heavily populated other parts of North Carolina are. But the Inner Banks are an extremely rural area just a forty-minute drive from the massive homes along the seashore of the Outer Banks. The above photo captures about 25% of Columbia’s main street; it consists of two blocks of commercial buildings, more or less both sides of the street.
US Highway 64 passes directly through Columbia, a thoroughfare that links both Roanoke Island and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore with larger inland communities like Tarboro, Rocky Mount, and ultimately Raleigh, the state’s booming capital. As a result of the highway’s trajectory, travelers between OBX and Raleigh must pass through IBX and tiny Columbia. And economic development advocates in and around Columbia have used this convenient location to prompt a reawakening in a town that, in 2020, had a median property value of $96,300.
What does this mean for a place the size of Columbia? Maybe not much, but when the main street consists of little more than a dozen or so 19th century buildings, it doesn’t take much. A carefully placed and smartly conceived mural on the side of one building is more than enough to endow the area with above-average visual interest.
It’s not a huge mural but a lovingly created one. And, given the overt smallness of everything else in Columbia, it’s well proportioned to the commercial buildings that comprise Main Street. But this mural has an added perquisite:
It fosters a spirit of viewer interaction. Find the hidden animals! Something to engage the kids. (I even like the presumably unintentional misspelling of “squirrel”; it makes the word rhyme with the county in which Columbia rests.)
It’s easy to dismiss an effort like this when murals on the side of buildings have become a predictable, almost clichéd beautification effort—as well as an attempt to hide the fact that, more often than not, they signify a blank wall that a since-demolished building previously concealed. But an ornate mural like this one in Columbia requires a commission; it is unlikely that the artist hired labored on this opus gratis. Also notice how the brickwork for the portion with the mural differs from the rest of the structure, where every sixth row of masonry protrudes. Most likely the sponsors of this mural sanded down the bricks to form a smooth surface—another added cost. These efforts are noteworthy not just because Columbia is small but because it is quite poor; if the DataUSA link cited above is accurate, nearly half the town’s population lives in poverty.
I’ve visited towns with double the incomes of Columbia that cannot claim nearly as tidy of a main street.
The paint job on the antiques store in the right of the photo is weathered but not slipshod. The yellow cottage on the left, a pet grooming store when I visited several years ago, is most likely a home converted to a business use, suggesting that the mix of commercial and resitnioal structures on Main Street is not sufficient to accommodate the businesses that seek to locate there.
Buildings are in good repair, and the first floors appear consistently occupied and active. It would take considerable investment to fashion a 19th century structure into an alfresco seating area like the one below:
But for my money’s worth, the best example that Outer Banks buzz might spill over to remote Columbia is an equally aged building not on the historic main street but instead on US Highway 64, the arterial that bisects the town.
Columbia’s revitalizing elixir may manifest itself in the form of fermented grapes. At the time of my visit, a married couple with clear real estate development savvy refurbished this old, sturdy industrial structure into a winery and gift shop, but with a localized spin that most certainly has the letters IBX stamped all over it. Their business, Vineyards on the Scuppernong, references a river that flows through Tyrrell County and forms the western border of Columbia, but more importantly it references a certain varietal of muscadine, a large and particularly spherical grape that I have tried multiple times. The skin of a scuppernong is much tougher and the fruit a lot less delicate than, say, a concord grape; it’s also a little bitter, though the inner pulp is very sweet. (The North Carolina-based supermarket Harris Teeter sells scuppernongs on rare occasion, even at locations well outside of NC.) Even someone as oenologically uninclined as me could tell after trying a scuppernong that it would make a good wine. Oenophiles should rejoice that North Carolina christened the scuppernong its official honorary fruit. What better place to sample the goods than Columbia, the single largest community abutting the banks of the Scuppernong River? US Highway 64 even earns the name “Scuppernong Drive” as it ruins through Columbia’s municipal boundaries.
The proprietors of Vineyards on the Scuppernong clearly saw an opportunity to transform a derelict structure on a high-profile stretch of highway in this blink-and-you-miss-it little town. They offered a reason to pull off the road and to sample the goods responsibly.
Their store featured other upmarket comestibles and gifts reflective of the demographic that rents out those big houses on the Outer Banks nearby.
And, given the pitched ceiling of the building, these proprietors owed it to themselves to make their business a wine loft.
Alas, readers might notice at this point that I have used past tense in all my references to Vineyards on the Scuppernong. These photos date from 2015, and the establishment is no more…at least as a gift shop in Columbia. They relocated their operations about forty miles east, to the comparatively massive town of Manteo (population 1,600 or about double that of Columbia), much closer to the bustle of the Outer Banks and thus higher visibility (and no doubt higher income density and greater property values). They relocated to Manteo in 2020. But their winemaking operations and vineyards are still there in Tyrrell County, along the banks of the Scuppernong.
In the meantime, this nicely rehabilitated industrial structure has a new tenant: Inner Banks Mercantile. Though the new tenant doesn’t yet have a domain of its own (at least at the time of this article), it’s got something more important: an overt reference to Inner Banks as a counterpart to Outer Banks, with an identity, and a super-sweet and heady grape all its own. May the Inner Banks continue on a revitalizing trajectory on par with the rest of the Tarheel State.