LIVING PRESENTLY IN THE PAST
Fuquay-Varina looks ahead while celebrating its centennial year
by Darcie Dearth
Nestled in the southernmost tip of Wake County lies Fuquay-Varina, a town that’s embracing growth and positive change while holding strong to its historical roots. This quaint, rural community recently has focused its energies on linking revitalization efforts with historical preservation — an effort that has yielded visible progress and a renewed community spirit.
“I think that here in Fuquay-Varina, the people still cherish their history, the revitalization of the area, and are concerned about their downtown areas,” says Mayor John Byrne.
“Historical preservation is certainly alive and well, and caring about the past is alive and well,” he adds. “Those types of things are what people cherish about Fuquay-Varina — the history, the preservation, the sense of place.”
In fact, the mayor and his wife have a direct hand in preserving a chapter in their town’s past. They reside in and operate the Fuquay Mineral Spring Inn and Garden, a designated historical landmark residence established in 1927.
“We’ve had people from 30 foreign countries and all 50 states,” Byrne says of the treasure.
A bit of history
Fuquay-Varina has evolved through an unusual history, transforming its name several times before settling on its hyphenated moniker. The area originally was settled by Frenchman William Fuquay, who purchased land in the town then known as Sippihaw. Fuquay established a successful family plantation there, which he passed down to future generations.
Several decades later in 1858, his great-grandson, Stephen, tapped into a flowing spring while plowing the family’s fields. The water initially was used for drinking, but Stephen became convinced that the flowing mineral water contained healing powers. Word of his claim spread, and eventually curious people from throughout the state flocked there in an attempt to cure their ailments.
In the meantime, J.D. Ballentine, a fellow Sippihaw resident, was returning from service in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As was common during these times, women wrote to the troops to boost their morale. A particular woman, Virginia Avery — penning her name as “Varina” — had written to Ballentine. When he returned, they met, fell in love and were married — but her pen name stuck.
In 1880, Ballentine eventually became postmaster of Sippihaw’s post office, which he lovingly named Varina. Soon after, a general store and other businesses emerged, and with them a small surrounding community grew to call itself Varina.
At the turn of the century, the nearby Fuquay Mineral Springs’ popularity climbed, with many tourists traveling from Raleigh by rail. Small hotels and restaurants catered to the steady stream of visitors who traveled to the springs for rest and relaxation. At this time, the growing tobacco industry fueled business and trade in both towns.
The bustling town of Sippihaw was appropriately renamed Fuquay Springs in 1902, and was officially incorporated in 1909. However, the new Fuquay Springs town limits overlapped the business district of nearby Varina. The new boundary lines prompted Varina to grow into its own once again, later establishing a separate post office and bank.
When tourism to the springs began to decline during the 1920s, both Fuquay Springs and Varina had successfully established themselves as local trading posts. Eventually, the two towns, realizing their shared vision in a business and community sense, came together in 1963.
Growing into its own
Today, Fuquay-Varina is balancing a growth pattern that places the municipality as the third-largest urban service area in Wake County. With a town of almost 15,000 residents in 2007, its average annual growth rate stands at 5.67 percent, well above the county’s average of 3 percent.
The Fuquay-Varina Revitalization Association is charged with addressing this growth through economic development within the context of historical preservation.
“We do that within the North Carolina Main Street community program,” says Susan Weis, executive director.
“We are one of 56 communities designated by the North Carolina Department of Commerce,” she adds. “It’s such an honor.”
The designation entitles the town to access the expertise and resources that provide technical assistance for downtown revitalization projects. Recently, small but impactful facade grants have helped contribute to a changing outward appearance.
“One of the things revitalization has done is bring the two communities together,” Weis explains.
She says the town is working toward a center-city plan to address design and zoning standards that will determine development five, 10, and 20 years down the road.
“All in all, it’s a slow process, but I think that there is a visible difference and a community spirit difference that’s very tangible,” Weis says.
Small business, big impact
When choosing a location for her business, Donna Friery looked in other areas but kept coming back to Fuquay-Varina because she enjoyed its historical nature. She owns and operates My Back Porch, a popular consignment shop located in Fuquay’s historic downtown area. The store’s building was erected in 1910.
“When you step into our store, it is like stepping back in time,” says Friery, who’s also chair of the Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce.
Fuquay-Varina is one of only two towns in the state with two downtown areas, Friery notes. Both complexes — known locally as the Varina side and the Fuquay side — house family-owned restaurants and unique shops.
“A lot of small businesses are seeing positive aspects of opening their businesses in this area,” she says, citing lower building expenses and costs of living.
“We really felt that with the growth and everything, that it was going to be a really good place,” says Trish Verzera, co-owner of Padoodles children’s boutique, which is located in the historical Varina side of town.
“A lot of individually owned businesses are coming to the area and opening up, as well as some bigger chains,” she adds.
Verzera says she enjoys running her business at Varina Station, a downtown complex, because it caters specifically to specialty stores.
“The nice thing about the area is that you can park your car and walk around for a good 45 minutes to an hour and just walk through the stores,” she says.
When choosing a location for Salon Bliss in May, co-owners Angelina Corroo and Tyler Fleming decided on busy Highway 55 halfway between Fuquay-Varina High School and Holly Springs.
“Once we started working on the salon in March, I was truly amazed at how business-friendly the town is,” Corroo says.
“The chamber has been truly amazing helping to get our business off the ground.”
Despite a boom in population within the last decade, consensus among many residents is that the town has successfully established a growing yet livable community while maintaining the hometown atmosphere of a charming Southern town.
“I think that’s what grabbed our hearts,” says Joan Malmstone, a Fuquay-Varina resident.
“We moved here mainly for our son and to be around our grandchildren, hoping we would like it here, and we just fell in love with it.”
Malmstone adds that she and her husband plan to build a smaller house in town that suits their current needs as they scale down.
“There’s nowhere else we’d rather be.”
To learn more about the town, visit www.fuquay-varina.com or fuquay-varinadowntown.com.
Darcie Dearth is a freelance writer based in Apex.
Celebrating 100 years
This year marks a centennial milestone for the community of Fuquay-Varina. Celebrations have carried on throughout the year, including a traditional birthday party and Fourth of July celebration. A Centennial Gala will be held in October.
“This is how a small town is celebrating,” says Shirley Simmons, co-chair of the Fuquay-Varina Centennial Commission.
In keeping with revitalization and historical preservation, the town also has established a museum complex, which is open to the public on selected dates. The Centennial Museum, Post Office Museum, and Ballentine School House Museum all contain collections of memorabilia and artifacts that narrate the community’s first 100 years.