'The most beautiful place:' The friendly faces of 'little' Washington

The "Original Washington" sits along the Tar and Pamlico Rivers and is known for its beautiful sunsets on the water, its idyllic charm, and the friendly faces of the people who live and work there.

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This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

When people hear "Washington" they often think of the state in the Pacific Northwest or the capital of our country, but did you know that North Carolina has a Washington of its own?

The first city to be named for Gen. George Washington, the "Original Washington" sits along the Tar and Pamlico Rivers and is known for its beautiful sunsets on the water, its idyllic charm, and the friendly faces of the people who live and work there.

"My grandmother's family moved here when she was younger," said Meg Howdy, a "little" Washington native. "It is a small community and it's all about the people. It's absolutely gorgeous being on the river."

Located just an hour from the beach and with cities like Raleigh just a couple of hours away, Howdy said that you get everything you could want in a hometown, without the traffic and craziness of a metropolitan area. She said the "it takes a village" mentality is truly a way of life in Washington.

Howdy left her "village" for college, venturing to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but returned to Washington after graduation, because as she puts it — she missed home.

"I absolutely loved my experience there [at UNC], but I missed home, I missed the water, [and] I missed being able to be with family and friends and have those connections," Howdy explained. "Sometimes it's difficult when you're in a larger city."

That family friendly small town feel is one of the reasons why Rebecca Clark moved to Washington with her husband in 2008. A self-described "rolling stone" who traveled frequently and had lived overseas, she made a resolution to set down roots in her new home on the riverfront.

"In the past when I'd moved to a town, I knew we weren't going to be staying there, so I really didn't get that involved. But when we moved here to Washington I was like, 'OK, I'm going to start getting involved with things here and make myself a part of the community,'" she said.

Clark is on several boards and helped start an off-leash dog park. With two 80-pound poodles, Clark wanted to help make Washington a more dog-friendly place. Additionally, she co-owns Cups & Cones, an ice cream and coffee shop on Water Street with a river view.

"We're just super friendly. We're very diverse. We're accepting of all lifestyles," she said. "So for us, that's created a unique environment and a unique opportunity for visitors."

Another role Clark has taken upon herself is that of Martha Washington — the former first lady. She got the idea after she and her husband realized that Washington didn't have a mascot like other towns.

"I actually made some costumes for George and Martha Washington. And in the beginning, my late husband and I, he would be George and I would be Martha, and we would just go to events," she recounted. "People love it. People love to have their picture taken, and kids, especially, just think it's the greatest thing in the world."

Even for those who aren't long-time locals like Howdy, Washington is a welcoming place to call home. For Val Jackson, community connections helped her and her husband find a permanent location for their bakery — which is now one of the most popular sweet stops in town.

"We started in the farmer's market, and when that closed down we were looking for a place of our own. We came across Debra Torrence at the Turnage Theatre, and she offered us the space to rent," said Jackson. "When we started the business in the farmer's market, people just loved it, and they just kept coming back. I love Washington for that, because even when the street was all torn up and COVID hit, that sense of community never stopped. We all give each other advice on certain things and help each other out, and it's just wonderful."

In addition to baked goods like cakes, cupcakes and pies, Val's Gourmet Baked Goods also sells locally produced goods like jams, jellies, honey and more — although they're best-known for their cheesecakes. Additionally, all the art on the walls of the bakery is for sale, most of it done by local artists and a few done by Jackson herself.

For Jackson, witnessing the tight-knit community of Washington has been one of her favorite parts of her business journey.

"If someone's looking in here for something that I don't have, we'll send them down to the street to the Flying Pig Provisions, and the people down there will do the same for us," said Jackson. "That's what I love about this place — that type of community."

Children play at Havens Gardens Park on the Pamlico River in Washington, N.C. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

Like Jackson, resident Rob Sands wasn't born or raised in Washington, but after making the move to town, he wasted no time getting involved in the unique community. Sands moved to Washington in 2016 after he and his wife drove through it on their way to Charleston.

"We just kind of fell in love with the town when we first drove through it, and we kept coming back. And eventually we bought a cottage there," said Sands.

Sands, who is an anthropologist, said they were enamored with the waterfront and the historic nature of the town. As a man who has spent a career studying people and places, he was in the midst of trying to build a nonprofit that served at-risk veterans and facilitated historic preservation.

"[It's] kind of a unique combination for a nonprofit to follow," Sands admitted. "But Washington certainly helped me crystallize that … I started putting together this nonprofit that Washington sort of would be the fulcrum for."

The heavy concentration of veterans in North Carolina, particularly those who are at-need or at-risk, and Washington's historic district offered Sands the unique opportunity he'd been looking for.

In 2016, Sands started the Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to serve at-risk populations, such as veterans, while building and sustaining community through preserving history. In 2017, he purchased a historic home and barn on 3rd Street, and is in the process of developing it into the Rose Haven Center of Healing.

"It's a center for helping female veterans who are having reintegration issues. The 1892 farmhouse will be a reintegration home for female veterans," Sands explained. "They'll live in the house and they'll have a program. It's not a treatment center and it's not a counseling center, but it's a community reintegration home. This is kind of their last stage before they integrate back into a big community."

The property includes the house itself, as well as a barn and garden. Wellness and resilience aspects of the center revolve around their four pillars: nature, creative expression, movement and building community. In incorporating these elements into the lives of those they help, the center aims to improve things like nutrition and mental health, as well.

More than half of the board of directors for Pamlico Rose is made up of Washington residents, many of whom transplanted themselves to the area just like Sands.

"There's a very local flavor to what we are doing," Sands proudly pointed out.

A large part of the work that Pamlico Rose does includes different programs and events that encourage all aspects of their four pillars, through the center itself and beyond.

"We have our gardening program. Everything that we grow in the produce part of our gardens we provide to at-risk populations like women veterans. We have a woodworking program we just started where we're taking all the reclaimed wood that we have from the house and turning it into flash art as well as furniture and coasters and things like that. Everything we make through that program we sell, then use the proceeds to further grow," said Sand. "Prior to COVID we were running retreats, but more recently we've ended up doing a lot of stuff virtually. For example, we have a virtual art gallery, we do a podcast, and we create a lot of videos. We're trying to stay current in what we do and support the population that we are designed to serve through that."

The organization also works with a number of partner organizations around eastern North Carolina that help provide food and resources to homeless veterans and food-insecure veterans.

For Sands, the pandemic has only emphasized the importance of their work.

"If you were at risk of things like homelessness, food insecurity or unemployment before COVID, then that has likely only accelerated over the past year. We've done a lot in trying to reach out to veterans who have been affected and provide monetary support and programmatic support," said Sands. "Since the center is getting more and more complete, there are a lot of things we'll be able to do in the future."

For example, the center has received a number of grants which they plan to use in renovating the property's barn into a community center for women veterans to gather. From generating awareness to helping distribute supplies, the support from community volunteers has been a valuable part of their progress.

While "little" Washington is growing and bringing in new developments and worthwhile projects, its quaintness, uniqueness and welcoming, collaborative nature seems to be what seals the deal for most people — including residents Clark and Sands.

"It's hard not to drive by what we're doing and wonder what's going on, so that's created a lot of interest and motivated some people to get more involved," said Sands. "We're only three blocks from the river and from downtown, and that's something really unique about Washington."

"People will move here because people will say hello to them on the street. And you think, 'Wow, people don't do that.' They really do," said Howdy. "They want somewhere where they can raise their children and where you're raising them in a safe environment, where everybody is looking out for each other. You really know the people that you live and work with. They become more than just that guy that you waved to down the street. They really become your friends and family because it is all about community; and that quaint, small town feel is something that's important to us, and we get to do it in the most beautiful place."

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.


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