Orange County has too many assets to cover adequately in a short article, so we compiled a few highlightssome well known, some not-so-known.


Lots of cool things happened here first, including:

  • The nation’s first public institution of higher learning, the University of North Carolina
  • The first black mayor of a predominately white Southern town since Reconstruction, Chapel Hill’s Howard Lee
  • North Carolina’s first openly gay mayor, Carrboro’s Mike Nelson
  • North Carolina’s first domestic partner ordinance, in Carrboro
  • The first domestic partner registries in the state, Carrboro in 1994 and Chapel Hill in 1995


It’s no secret we love our food here. You can pick up fresh, local ingredients almost any day at one of our six farmers’ markets (three in Chapel Hill, two in Hillsborough and the granddaddy of ’em all in Carrboro). Stock up on fancy gourmet ingredients at the nationally renowned Southern Season. Need a jolt? There are two local coffee roasters, Joe Van Gogh (Hillsborough) and Carrboro Coffee Roasters, a slew of craft breweries and even a distillery. We have our own famous dairy, too: Maple View Farms. Orange County is home to the Piedmont Food Processing Center, where local foodpreneurs prepare their goods. Our restaurants are a destination, led by James Beard-winners Andrea Reusing of Lantern; Bill Smith and Gene Hamer of Crook’s Corner; and semi-finalist Aaron Vandemark of Hillsborough’s Panciuto. [See also “Get yer beer here” and “Eating Orange“]


Our progressive bona fides are strong. Orange was one of the first counties in the nation to have a social justice goal. In 2008 county commissioners adopted social justice principles, including sustainability, environmental justice and elimination of oppression, to guide their decision-making. From the Hillsborough gallows to Dan K. Moore’s wall and the Occupy Movement, political activism has always been a part of life in Orange. We are one of two North Carolina counties George McGovern carried in the 1972 presidential election, and no Republican has carried the county since Herbert Hoover did in 1928. More recently, 79 percent of the electorate voted against Amendment One, the only county to vote against the amendment by a higher margin than it voted for President Obama. This liberal cred makes the anti-aircraft guns on the lawn of the NROTC building on the UNC campus ironic landmarks. Despite their decidedly hawkish presence in a generally anti-war town, they’re far less controversial than Silent Sam, the statue to Confederate war dead that adorns the campus’ northern flank. [See also “Activism on the Hill“]


We’ve never met a festival we didn’t like. Orange County hosts several, including Hillsborough’s Hog Day (May), which celebrates all things pig (hog calling, anyone?) and James Hogg, a Colonial-era merchant and UNC trustee. Chapel Hill hosts Festifall, which draws 1,500 people annually. But Carrboro’s cornered the market on festivities, with the nationally renowned Comedy Arts Festival (February) and fêtes devoted to poetry (October), film (November) and vinyl and CDs (April). The annual Carrboro Music Festival (September) draws thousands. [See also “The art of living” and “Hark the sound“]

Natural resources

We are truly the heart of the Goodliest Land. The N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill has one of the largest selections of carnivorous plants in the Southeast, and the Davie Poplar, on the UNC campus, is 300 to 375 years old. Hillsborough’s Montrose Gardens have been charming visitors since the 19th century (also notable, Ayr Mount’s gardens and Poet’s Walk). Anglers love University Lake, Cane Creek Reservoir and Lake Orange. Hikers dig Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area. [See also “Out with the kids“]

Cultural resources

We have a multitude of cultural assets. A sampling: UNC gives us the Rare Book, North Carolina and Southern Historical collections, among the best in the nation, and PlayMakers Repertory Company. We also have Deep Dish Theatre, The ArtsCenter and Sacrificial Poets. Our architecture is notable, with certified historical structures in Hillsborough and at UNC. Of course, most know us for the musicians who’ve called the area homeblues pioneer Libba Cotten, bandleader Kay Kaiser, troubadours like James Taylor and Tift Merritt, and Ben Folds Five and Superchunkand the labels (Yep Roc, Merge, etc.) and clubs like Cat’s Cradle that have supported them. And then there’s our literary heritage, from Thomas Wolfe and Daphne Athas to Lee Smith to Daniel Wallace and beyond. Oh, and galleries galore. Orange County also boasts cultural diversity, including descendents of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, a growing Spanish-speaking population and a small community of Burmese people. [See also, “Sports before basketball,” “What’s so right (write) about Orange,” “The mingling of cultures,” “The art of living” and “Hark the sound“]


Other schools have been playing round ball longer, but ask almost anyone and they’ll point to Tobacco Road as the center of the college hoops universe. We, of course, prefer a lighter shade of blue. Learn more about the rich history of Carolina’s road to becoming the third-winningest Division I team and its role in the gameincluding legendary coach, innovator and integrator Dean Smithat the Carolina Basketball Museum. Another sport popular in the O.C.: soccer. Back in the 1970s, soccer wasn’t the juggernaut it is today. But when Rainbow Soccer kicked off, kids all over Orange County were immediately hooked on the beautiful game. Later, one of Rainbow’s original coaches, Anson Dorrance, became the UNC women’s soccer coach, racking up 21 national championships. Just north of Hillsborough lies the famous Historic Occoneechee Speedway race track where several NASCAR greats got their starts, including five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. [See also “Sports before basketball“]


Government and higher education have been major drivers of the Orange County economy since colonial times, but a century ago Carrboro was famous for the manufacture of railroad ties and textiles. Today, the county’s home to several unique long-term businesses, like Fitch Lumber Co. (100-plus years) in Carrboro, Sutton’s (90 years) and Wentworth & Sloan (68 years) in Chapel Hill, and Dual Supply (60 years) and the Hillsborough Antiques Mall (40-plus years). We’re also the headquarters of several major enterprises, including sex toy purveyor PHE and soccer and lacrosse equipment wholesaler Eurosport (Hillsborough); running outfitter Fleet Feet and sustainable business certifier B-Labs (Carrboro); and TSI Healthcare (Chapel Hill). And the arts are big business, too. The 2010 Arts & Economic Prosperity IV national economic impact study estimated that Orange County’s nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $85.4 million in annual economic activity, including 3,352 full-time equivalent jobs and $8 million in local and state government revenues. [See also “Get yer beer here,” “The art of living” and “Hark the sound“]

Kristen Caroline Smith and Margot Carmichael Lester are proud Orange County natives.