There are hundreds of small towns scattered across North Carolina, but none quite like Love Valley, population 91, about an hour north of Charlotte.
Here, the preferred method of transportation is on horseback. You can’t drive on main street, but there are hitching rails lining both sides. And they don’t measure the size of an event here by the number of people in town.
“Our busiest days are Easter and Halloween, and we probably have around 4,000 horses,” explains Tori Barker, granddaughter of Love Valley’s founder, Andy Barker. She says he had always wanted to live in an old Western Cowboy town, and Love Valley is the realization of his lifelong dream. Tori Barker says it goes back to when he told his fourth-grade teacher he wanted to be a cowboy when he grew up.
She says, “The teacher politely informed him that you can’t be a cowboy, because there aren’t any cowboy towns. And I guess his life’s goal was to prove that lady wrong.”
Andy Barker grew up in the Steel Creek community… in what is now southwest Charlotte. He married his high school sweetheart, Ellenora Spratt. They had two children and settled on her family’s farm. Barker worked as a contractor, but that itch to be a real cowboy never went away. Then, in the early 1950s, he fell in love with some property at the foot of the Brushy mountains in Iredell County.
“He found this green open pasture up here, where nobody was, and he started out camping, just camping up here,” his 91-year old widow Ellenora recalls.
It wasn’t long before he bought the land, sold the house in Steel Creek, and moved the family---and their horses---to what would become Love Valley.
The Barkers were in their thirties, the children were 2 and 6, and they didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing for the first two years, but Barker worked to build his Western town. And word quickly spread.
Ellenora Barker says, “everybody had to come up to see what Andy Barker was doing…and it wasn’t long before they started moving up here, buying land. And he just kept right on with his town.”
Love Valley was incorporated in 1963 and the charter mandates all building on main street keep a western-style façade. Today, Main Street includes shops, a dance hall, and a rodeo arena. Ellenora eventually got a proper kitchen, too, and her home soon filled with visitors. Congressmen, ambassadors, and other dignitaries came to see the town. Even Vice President Lyndon Johnson rode Love Valley horses during his visit to Statesville in 1962, though he didn’t make it to Love Valley itself.
“It was something different," she explains. "People in this community never heard of all the horse shows and a crowd of people coming, and how a man from out of town started bringing all these people in here. They didn’t know what to think.”
Barker named streets after these visitors. And as the family grew to include grandchildren, they got streets named for them as well.
Andy Barker passed away in 2011 at age 87. His granddaughter, Tori, grew up in Raleigh, but she spent summers in Love Valley. She says she always knew she wanted to move back. The time came in 2005.
“My grandfather had a really massive heart attack," she says, "and he just told me that it was time for me to move here, and that was what I did. I think he entrusted me and his entire family to make sure that his dream stayed alive for not just this generation, but for generations to come.”
Today, she’s on the town council and runs a store on Love Valley’s Main Street.
If you want to take a carriage ride around Love Valley, you call up Jethro Weight.
“Yeah, we’ll hook ya up…well, not literally like the horse is, but we can make you a nice day out of it,” he says.
Jethro and his horse, Miss Kitty, gave us a ride. Two thousand acres are crisscrossed with miles of trails. All of it is privately owned, but the trails are open to the public. Most people come for the horseback riding, but mountain bikers and hikers are welcome too.
We passed Phil Martin and his 12 year old daughter, who drove over from Catawba to rent horses for the afternoon.
“We’ve been hearing about Love Valley for 25 years," he explains from , "so we decided to come up and see what it’s all about….so far it’s a lot of fun.”
On Main Street, you can visit the blacksmith, the leather working shop, the general store, and of course, the cowboy hat shop. And there’s the hardware store where Andy Barker greeted visitors for decades.
The town expects a big crowd on the July 4th of July. There’ll be the annual parade, and it just so happens to be Andy Barker’s birthday.
More information about Love Valley is at townoflovevalley.com
WFAE's “There & Back” is exploring places you can visit in a day trip from the Charlotte region. Got an idea for where we should go? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.