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Take a Creative Tour of Shelby, NC
Uptown Shelby Strikes a Chordby Amanda Lea on December 29, 2021
Walkable, historic, charming, inspired. Shelby checks all the boxes for a creative day of play. Lace up your walking boots and don your cozy coat to enjoy the sights and sounds of Shelby’s tree-lined streets.
Less than an hour from uptown Charlotte, Shelby sits along Hwy. 74 between Kings Mountain and Forest City. The county seat of Cleveland County, Shelby continues to foster its deep historic roots while embracing opportunities for community growth.
Barbecue, Bureaucracy and Banjos
You may know this Cleveland County town for its unspoken rivalry between two family-run barbecue restaurants: Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge and Alston Bridges Barbecue. Whichever you prefer, there’s more to Shelby than its legendary ‘cue.
Incorporated in 1843 and named for Colonel Isaac Shelby, a Revolutionary War hero at the nearby Battle of Kings Mountain, Shelby was a political powerhouse that controlled North Carolina government in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The “Shelby Dynasty” consisted of political leaders including brothers James and Edwin Yates Webb, O. Max Gardner and Clyde R. Hoey. From legislation to landmarks, these leaders shaped the life and landscape of Shelby. (You may recognize the first two surnames from nearby Gardner-Webb University.)
You can visit the final resting places of Hoey and Gardner at Shelby’s Sunset Cemetery, along with other noteworthy figures including country music star Don Gibson. (More on him in a bit).
The juxtaposition between governmental presence and musical influence is illustrated in the 1907 county courthouse building presiding over the center of uptown. In 2014, the courthouse was transformed into the Earl Scruggs Center: Music and Stories from the American South. (The courthouse relocated in 1974 to the Law Enforcement Center a few blocks away, where it remains today.)
The center celebrates Cleveland County native Earl Scruggs, who popularized the three-finger banjo picking style — known as “Scruggs style” — which has become a defining characteristic of bluegrass music. Visiting the center is a two-for-one experience: appreciate the Neo-Classical Revival architecture of the old county courthouse and interact with exhibits dedicated to the bluegrass legend.
The size of the uptown district is a manageable walk, so you can cover a lot of ground in one visit. Park in one of the free street parking spaces, or snag a spot in one of the free public lots. (If you’d rather explore on two wheels, bike racks are available throughout the uptown area.) Then lace up your walking boots and choose your own adventure.
Something Old, Something Blue
It’s fun to imagine the stories the bricks and boards of Shelby’s historic buildings could tell. One of those stories would be about the R.E. Campbell building on North Lafayette Street. In 1927, Campbell and his partner, J. Ogburn Lutz, completed Campbell’s Department Store. Among the tallest buildings in uptown Shelby at the time, the 30,000-square-foot, five-story building was a full-service general store selling everything from groceries and farm supplies to clothing and caskets. (Talk about a one-stop shop.)
The department store closed its doors in 1950, and the building remained in the same family for decades. It was a furniture store for 25 years and then sat dormant for 12 years.
In 2014, Cliff and Angela Franklin purchased the building and invested in the renovation and restoration of the structure with the help of Travis and Stacey Walker who own Greenbrook Design. The Franklins are the first family outside the Campbells to own the building, and they treasure each architectural element as if they built it themselves. The painted window openings on the building’s brick exterior will immediately pique your curiosity. (At least, it did mine.) Angela explained that she and a design intern hand painted the panels with a mountain sunset landscape to add pops of color.
But the creative discoveries don’t stop there. Walk into Greenbrook Design on the first floor, and you’ll be greeted with an expertly orchestrated showroom (currently adorned for the holidays). A stately wooden staircase leads to the mezzanine, occupied by the Greenbrook Design team.
As the restoration process continued to take shape, the Franklins decided to use the basement and second and third floors as an event space, dubbed Uptown Indigo. The second floor is a breathtaking ballroom with an Instagram-worthy bathroom. (Angela hand poured a marbleized blue paint treatment on each of the tiles in the bathroom). The top floor is a bar and lounge space cleverly deemed “Steeples” for the number of churches you can see from the windows. The original floors, tin ceilings and exposed brick walls are a designer’s dream. Throw in the stunning mountain views from the rooftop terrace, and you may never want to leave.
History buffs can dig deeper into more stories like the Campbell building. Download the Central Shelby Historic District walking map and venture out to discover the stories between the cracks of these longstanding landmarks. (Many of the historic buildings also have plaques that shed a little light on the structure’s past.)
Rekindle your Creativity
Take a moment to tap out a tune on the well-loved keys of a repurposed piano. Angela, who is an active member of the Uptown Shelby Association, spearheaded a program to donate used pianos for community members to enjoy. One of those pianos is hand-painted by Angela and tucked in the entryway next to Pfeiffer Cafe & Confections.
Cinephiles will appreciate the fun fact that much of the District 12 scenes for The Hunger Games were filmed on the edge of uptown Shelby. (Most of the sets used in production have been torn down and much of the filming took place in a secured private warehouse complex. But it’s fun to say you’ve been there, right?)
See a show at the Don Gibson Theater, an art deco gem named after the American songwriter and country music star who was born in Shelby in 1928. Gibson was nicknamed “The Sad Poet” for his songs that often lamented loneliness and lost love. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2010. The theater originally opened its doors in 1939 and continues to host concerts and comedians in the 400-seat venue.
For more Don Gibson fun, spot the record album sculptures by local and national artists installed around town as part of LP Shelby, a public arts project sponsored by the Don Gibson American Music Foundation. Each sculpture features one of Gibson’s hits plus an audio component, inviting visitors to hear a sampling of Gibson’s music while viewing the artwork.
Other public art installations to check out in the uptown district include:
- The brilliant mural by Cecil (C.J.) Norris (@cj_norrisart) and Casey Quinn (@caseyquinnart) on the half-wall in the alleyway beside The Cleveland County Arts Council.
- Soak up the scenes in the mural commissioned by the Shelby Breakfast Rotary Club at the corner of Marion and North Dale Streets. (Artist unknown.)
- The spirited depiction of football hall of famer Bobby Bell by Scott Nurkin of The Mural Shop in Chapel Hill, NC. The mural is beside the Chamber on Warren Street.
- Nurkin is also responsible for the mural of Don Gibson on the building that houses Miss Molly’s Boutique (the previous residence of Don’s wife, Mrs. Bobbi Gibson.)
Visit the Foothills Farmers Market year-round each Saturday morning at the Bobby Bell Pavilion. Vendors line the open-air space to share their fresh produce, eggs, plants, nut butters, teas and more.
Do a little treasure hunting at one of the local gift shops and boutiques. Here are a few ideas to get you started: Victoria-Stephen Specialty Gifts, Morgan Chandler Boutique, Poppy and Harper Boutique, A. Griffin Pottery, RollOver Pets, Antique Market Of Shelby and WorkShop Vintage Market.
Newgrass Brewing Co., Cleveland County’s first (and only) brewery offers live entertainment and a fun outdoor patio situation that features a black-and-white mural of Earl Scruggs created by Scott Nurkin. Burgers and tacos are popular picks. But try the “Kalesadilla” for something different (a cheese quesadilla filled with sautéed kale and shallots).
Pop into LilyBean Coffee & Creamery Downtown for an approachable coffee house vibe with affordable beverages, an array of baked goods and a variety of Tony’s ice cream flavors. Grab a bag of freshly roasted LilyBean coffee to take home or give as a gift.
Any establishment that boasts drive-thru cupcakes is a “yes” for me. Sweet House Bakery is one of those places. Just across from the Bobby Bell Pavilion, you can almost taste the confections painted in the mural outside the building. Choose from cupcake flavors like Honey Bun or Cherry Lemon Sundrop, or order a few of the delicious cookies to go. (And by “to go” I mean, “to go in your mouth as you walk out the door.”)
Dragonfly Wine Market offers wine and beer tastings and a selection of cigars in a laid-back, pub-like environment. Enjoy live music from local bands Wednesday through Saturday. And be sure to catch a glimpse of the playful mural on the side of the building by a local artist.
Try J-Bird’s Deli & Ales for a unique take on classic sandwiches. Try The Grinder or The Popeye and wash it down with a pint from the draft beer bar or choose a brew from the craft beer dispenser. (Don’t miss the weekly specials: J-Birds Daily Tap for $1 off a daily rotating draft beer tap, Thirsty Thursday for $3.50 pints, or Buck Saver Saturday for $1 off all drafts.)
Want to lunch like a local? Shelby Cafe is the place to go. Breakfast is available all day (the French toast special is a solid choice) or choose from one of the daily specials (meat and a veggie served with cornbread or a roll).
Another local favorite is Pfeiffer Cafe & Confections. Pair the cranberry-pecan chicken salad croissant with the fried dill chips, and have a seat by the window for prime people watching.
Take a Moment to Reflect
One of the newest additions to Shelby’s uptown landscape is the Fallen Heroes Memorial at Raper-Roark Park. The memorial honors local law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMS personnel who died in the line of duty. Benches surrounded by flower beds invite you to take a seat and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their community.
Uptown Shelby Photo Gallery
The beauty of Shelby’s uptown area must be seen to be appreciated. So, let these whet your appetite and get rolling!
Did We Miss One of Your Favorites?
If you have a favorite creative location in Shelby that we didn’t include in this story, let us know at email@example.com. Please send a description and a photo. We may add it to the story as a reader suggestion.
Be sure to check out the other creative excursions we’ve shared in this series:
- Creative Tour of Belmont
- Creative Tour of Matthews
- Creative Tour of University City
- Creative Tour of Mecklenburg County Public Art
- Creative Tour of Rock Hill’s Mural Mile
- Creative Tour of Boone, N.C.
- Creative Tour of Fort Mill & Indian Land
- Creative Tour of Pineville