7 things to do in Johnston County NC: Civil War history to Ava Gardner Museum

by Jan 16, 2023North Carolina

Johnston County Ava Gardner Museum Mural

The things to do in Johnston County, North Carolina (JoCo) are numerous. Tour Civil War history, visit local farms, learn about native daughter Ava Gardner, explore local woods and parks, or just hang out and relax. And don’t forget the delicious barbecue, red hot dogs, and whiskey.

Sliced in half by Interstate 95, Johnston County in North Carolina offers much more than meets the eye, I found. Racing through on the interstate, you see only billboards, chain stores and fast food joints. Oh, but there’s more: Civil War history buffs and Ava Gardner fans will find must-visit sites. And the county also offers farm-fresh local products and a relaxed place to hang out just outside of Raleigh. You just need to hop off I-95 and take it slower.

Before you start to explore the best things to do in Johnston County, however, you need to get in with the insiders: Call it JoCo. Johnson County is just too cumbersome, don’t you agree?

Civil War History at Bentonville Battlefield

Bentonville Harper House Johnston County

Civil War history is a big theme in the JoCo area just southeast of Raleigh. Being from the West, I can’t say Civil War history had been at top of my list but learning something new was. And the Bentonville Battlefield site in Johnston County taught me a few things! That’s where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought, right there in JoCo.

The Battle of Bentonville was the south’s last major offensive and the largest battle in North Carolina – a huge Union victory. Although it only lasted for three days, it involved 60,000 Union troops and 20,000 Confederate troops and took place across 6,000 acres of farmland. It happened just three weeks before Robert E. Lee surrendered.

Johnston County Bentonville Civil War Driving Tour

Detailed signage along the Bentonville Battlefield driving tour helps in learning about what happened here in 1865. Or take in educational stops on a walk in the woods.

There is something for all levels of history buffs, all levels of ability, and all ages. You can drive the signed route. and let your mind imagine soldiers in blue or gray shooting at each other across the fields. You can tour the visitor center filled with history, artifacts and timelines that will broaden your horizons. You can get a look inside the Harper House on a guided tour. Or how about an easy hike on trails to see old trenches from 1865 – there you are, in the middle of a battlefield. Bring a picnic, too, since the grounds offer tables and shade.

Bentonville Harper House Museum Johnston County North Carolina

Inside the Harper House at Bentonville, you can tour rooms made up to replicate the Civil War era, with guides explaining it all.

The Harper House was the farmhouse of the Harper family that served as a field hospital during the offensive and for weeks afterward for recuperating soldiers. The state, in its move to expand access to this history, acquired the building in 1957, along with 40 acres of the site. Since the Bentonville Battlefield site opened in 1964, the history park has grown and now includes 2,300 acres, according to education coordinator Colby Lipscomb.

Johnston County North Carolina Civil War History Bentonville

The old Civil War trenches and battles are marked on the walk in the woods. Yes, they may only look like depressions in the ground, but let your mind go to imagine the raging battle.

The trails are a refreshing gander into the trees where you can see old trenches from the war, albeit many are covered with downed trees or partly filled with leaves. Still, to read the signage and imagine the deadly battle that took place there allows you to experience the important battle up close.

Find it: In Four Oaks, this North Carolina Civil War history site is south of Smithfield and I-95 and east of I-40.

Civil War Trails

Civil War History Johnston County North Carolina

Some may take offense to the Confederate flag flying, but the goal of the history site at Bentonville is to tell all sides of the story. Here, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston is represented during the battle.

To find even more history not only in Johnston County but across North Carolina, there are a couple of byways and driving routes you can follow:

You can take the state’s so-called Blue-Gray Scenic Byway in Johnston County as it winds its way through North Carolina. You can follow the path of General Sherman as he marched from Bentonville to Goldsboro after the Battle of Bentonville in 1865.

Find it: Start at the Interstate 95 at exit 90, head out US 701, then onto Devils Racetrack Road.

You can also follow Civil War Trails across North Carolina and in the county. The association is a group of historians that came together in 1994 to help tell stories of the past, especially in smaller towns.

Ava Gardner Museum

Johnson County Ava Gardner Museum

If there is one person Johnston County is really proud of, it’s native daughter, actress and femme fatale of the ‘40s and ‘50s Ava Gardner. If you are fan – or just want to experience one really well-done museum – head to Smithfield to the Ava Gardner Museum.

This very sweet, very beautiful, very doting museum covers every last aspect of Gardner’s life, who would have been 100 in 2022. She was born near Smithfield, and the locals are pretty proud of this local-girl-makes-good – yup, the museum kind of glosses over the rough spots in her life, but that’s not why you came, right? It is a well-presented collection of clothes, personal stories and video clips. Watch all the clips and read all the signage, and you’ll spend a couple of hours there.

Find it: 325 E Market St, Smithfield

Farmlands and produce

Smith Farm Family Affair Johnston County

Three generations of Smiths (try) to line up for a family photo at the Smith farm, popular for its U-Pick strawberries and farm education programs. Myron (far left) and Sarah (far right) are the second generation, with third-gen son, Chris, and wife, Arleen (in the middle), moving into management. Now look at the camera!

Johnston County is actually known for its farms and U-Pick opportunities – imagine, there are more than 1,000 family farms covering nearly 185,000 acres. Wade into the fields for strawberries, blueberries, pumpkins, and more. Check out the seasons and head over to all the farms or a farmer’s market to cash in on farm-fresh goodies.

I was sadly there between seasons, but still got a tour of the fields at Smith’s Farm Market by third-generation manager Chris Smith. In strawberry season, I was told the lines are out the door at the Benson-based farm – not only to pick buckets of red gems, but also to indulge in some homemade ice cream, tour the produce market, or just wander the farm and talk to the animals. The farm has grown and advanced dramatically since its early days when second-gen Myron Smith (Chris’s father) grew up in the small farmhouse (that is now offices). Chris told me he remembers coming here after school – basically a kid’s summer job – but he added that he always thought this was what he would do. With Myron’s wife, Sarah, and Chris’s wife, Arleen, the Smith business is a family affair.

Smith Farm Johnston County Greenhouse

Chris introduced veggies and his trying greenhouse climbing tomatoes.

These days the farm is much more than a farm. It has grown to embrace agri-tourism and offers educational field trips for elementary schools to help teach them where food comes from. Chris also is experimenting with new growing techniques to expand production and has added vegetables to the mix. Smith’s has a pond with ducks, a small petting zoo, as well as an animal pen pal program for kids – the favorite being Raisin the donkey.

“When I think about JoCo, I definitely think about farming. People like to come here and just be outdoors,” he said. “I take pride in people coming to my family’s property and enjoying it.”

Find it: 443 Sanders Rd, Benson, near Interstate 40

Parks and trails

Things to do in Johnston County River Walk

The River Walk in Clayton along the Neuse River connects with other trails if you want to get off the popular paved route. (photo by Johnston County Visitors Bureau)

You may be racing between the big cities or to the shore in North Carolina, but in JoCo, you get to slow down a bit. How about a walk in the woods or along a river?

Howell Woods, on the grounds of the Johnston County Community College, is an environmental education center that is a natural habitat to offer recreation, such as walking, camping or fishing, but also educational programs. The goal as imagined by Rudolf Howell, who donated the 2,800 acres in 1994, was to foster environmental stewardship in an outdoor classroom.

If you prefer something a little more groomed, then head to the River Walk in Clayton. There, you find a four-mile paved trail that parallels the Neuse River and is part of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail. That trail is a work-in-progress but at last count it has more than 700 finished miles. You can also take in some of the outdoor art – permanent and temporary – on the Downtown Sculpture Trail in the town of Clayton.

You’ll want to eat and drink

Of course, you’ll need to find a little food and beverage between all these things to do in JoCo. How about checking out some of the best, award-winning barbecue in the state, classic red hot dogs, and some homespun whiskey and moonshine? Yup, that’s not a tall tale.

Whether you are heading to or from Florida on Interstate 95, heading south from Raleigh on Interstate 40, going to or from Raleigh or the Outer Banks, it’s as if all roads in North Carolina criss-cross through JoCo. Just get off the interstates to find some country life, pick some berries, or connect with Civil War history.

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