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Clues and codes: Cary mural hides 173 years of secrets to town's past

Most locals have walked past the slowly fading mural at the corner of Harrison and Chatham -- but do you know about its secrets?
Posted 2023-05-24T14:02:43+00:00 - Updated 2023-05-24T14:32:55+00:00
Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

Most locals have walked past the slowly fading mural at the corner of Harrison and Chatham. Painted by a woman who grew up in Cary more than 70 years ago, the mural serves as a historic document of the town's most iconic faces, places and memories.

Some of the people and places should look familiar: There along the top of the mural are many historic buildings still standing along or near Academy Street today – the Pink House, the former Cary High School, the Page-Walker hotel.

Eagle-eyed viewers can also spy Ralph Ashworth, founder of Ashworth Drugs, mixing a prescription, and Nancy Jones, who owned the oldest remaining home in Cary.

The mural also holds ghosts of historic places that are long-gone – like the iconic white Kildaire Farms barn, whose namesake survives only on modern day street signs.

Despite all the familiar sights, several of the faces aren't readily recognizable to everyone who walks past.

Countless times, you'll find passersby pointing and asking: "Who's that man?"

'Who is that?' A closer look at Easter eggs hidden in the Cary mural

Long-time Cary resident Val Fox painted her 'Cary: Then & Now' mural in the early 2000s as a 'pictorial history' dating back to 1850. While she painted many prominent historic people, she also hid a few personal 'Easter eggs' depicting a history of her hometown that's much closer to her heart.

Let's start with the most obvious faces, the ones people often notice first.

Samuel Fenton Cary: The namesake of Cary

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

The giant head floating over the old-timey train station is none other than Cary's namesake: Samuel Fenton Cary.

Samuel Fenton Cary was a major leader in the temperance movement to prohibit alcoholic beverages who served as an inspiration to Frank Page, the 'father of Cary.' When he visited Cary by train, he was destined to meet Page, who owned the railroad hotel now known as the Page-Walker Arts & History Center (also depicted in the mural).

When Cary was incorporated only a few months after their meeting, Page, the town's first mayor, pushed to named the new town after the temperance leader who had made such an impact on him.

In case you're wondering, yes, Fenton is also named after this early temperance leader.

Who's that at the train station?

The train station depicted at the far right-hand side of the mural represents Cary's earliest history as a thriving railroad town. Eli Yates, whose name survives today at the historic Yates Mill, provided land for the North Carolina Railroad to build through the area in the 1850s. When Frank Page arrived in Cary in 1854, he bought up land adjacent to the railroad tracks, where he built his homestead and a beautiful brick hotel.

Page opened a dry goods store and a post office, serving as Cary's first postmaster. He also donated land for an all-important railroad station.

Between Yates and Page, the town of Cary was put on the map as a railroad town.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

The woman seen sitting down at the train station is Nancy Jones, whose home also played a major role in the town's transportation history. The Jones House, built in 1803 before the founding of Cary, was a stagecoach stop and tavern where many government officials stayed during their travels through North Carolina.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

Also seen standing by the railroad station is Dr. Templeton, holding a doctor's bag and dressed in his military uniform. The traveling doctor was well-known and beloved for his care in the early days of Cary.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

The mural shows how important transportation was in those early days of Cary. A stagecoach carrying a woman and child in vintage dresses can be seen riding alongside the old-timey Southern train.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

Just behind them, a horse and wagon is parked alongside the Page-Walker hotel – a nod to the hotel's history, and possibly a reminder of the ghostly legend of the phantom horse that haunts that land.

Historic buildings hidden in plain sight

Fox painted many of Cary's historic buildings along the top of the mural.

If you've driven down Kildaire Farm Road, you may have wondered, "Was there ever really a farm out here?"

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

The Kildaire Farm was once an iconic and important part of Cary's economy and culture. The family owned the well-known Pine State Creamery and surpassed 4,000 acres throughout the mid-1900s.

The farm once stood down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere; however, as Cary grew and developers began expanding residential areas, neighborhoods began to enclose the farm – and the barn was eventually torn down.

Then & Now: Cary mural hides secrets to town's past

Fox's mural also depicts the beloved Pink House, owned by Shiela Ogle. The home is an eye-catching part of downtown Cary, lovingly restored and protected by Ogle. Built in the 1830s, it was abandoned and run-down for a number of years before being rescued, restored and painted pink.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

The Cary Arts Center, originally known as Cary High School, should also be familiar to viewers. The school opened in 1896 as a private boarding school.

Secrets hidden in the Cary mural

Fox painted some of her own personal touches and memories into the timeline of Cary's history.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

For example, the artist herself can be seen in her younger years, joyfully riding a brown horse through the fields.

Hidden amid a classroom scene is a painting of the 'best teacher in Cary,' according to Fox. Her name was Miss Cathey, and she was Fox's step-mother.

Fox hid many people she knew and loved throughout the mural. You may not recognize them, but the women on the stagecoach are meant to be the daughter and wife of Loyd Sorrell, who formerly owned the building on which the mural is painted. Today, the building is LaFarm Bakery, but when Fox painted the mural, it was Sorrell's paint and hardware store.

A mystery football player with jersey number 63 has long been a point of contention and interest for locals – several of whom claim that player was them! Fox says the player is meant to be Loyd Sorrell himself – but perhaps any local player 63 can see themselves in the mural.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

Ralph Ashworth and his son can also be seen in the mural. Ashworth's drugstore was significant as one of the only pharmacies to serve Cary for decades, and he still owns the nostalgic soda fountain, serving up hotdogs many remember from their childhoods.

Fox also painted a marching bans parading in front of a gazebo by the old Cary High – likely meant to represent her memories of Cary Band Day, a tradition that has lasted for decades.

Another face you may not recognize is Jerrell Spencer, who is standing beside a 'Full Service' gas pump and wearing a nametag that says 'Cricket.' According to Fox, the Cricket was a service station she frequented in Cary – from an era when 'Full Service' was far more common.

Cary Then & Now: Mural hides secrets to town's history

Fox also included multiple dogs and goats running along the bottom of the mural – a memory, she writes, of all the critters and animals that filled her childhood and once roamed the country roads of Cary.

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