PERSON COUNTY, NC- In 1989, the movie Field of Dreams opened in theaters and captured the hearts and minds of audiences around the world. Thirty years later, it still has the same impact. At first look it appears to be a baseball film, but it is more about relationships. In this case father-son relationships.
In 2019, Tunnel Creek Vineyards opened for business and 30 years from now people will still be sharing the memories they made here, and their children will be making memories of their own. Yet Tunnel Creek Vineyards is not just about making great memories and enjoying good wines, it too is about relationships, but in this case about individuals, the community, and development for the common good.
Not everyone’s “field of dreams” is the same. For Ray Kinsella in the 1989 movie it was a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. For Larry and Sharon Holler it was acres and acres of rolling hills which could be covered with grape vines and dotted with sites for weddings, reunions, corporate meetings, picnics, long walks, viewing sunsets, and places to just relax and enjoy the company, the wine, renewing old relationships and building new ones.
Developers for the Common Good
Originally from the Winston-Salem area, the Hollers come to Person County via Morehead City where they developed health care facilities and medical offices bringing more opportunities to serve the wellness needs of the people there and in the surrounding area. Jerry Jones, long-time mayor of Morehead City, shares that Larry and Sharon are “Great examples of community-oriented developers working for the common good.” Linda Staab, former planning director for Morehead City, relates how Larry and Sharon revitalized the area she refers to as midtown, the area between downtown and the West End. “Larry and Sharon took an area of run-down buildings and closing businesses and built modern two- and three-story buildings. Then they set about filling these buildings with high quality physicians and specialists in many medical fields and landscaping these structures creating an impressive and appealing entry into the area.” Mayor Jones echoes this. He also relates how he and Larry were trying to get a traffic light at a busy and potentially dangerous intersection but the DOT was reluctant. The Mayor had all but given up the idea when Larry called him and said the light was a go. “Larry and Sharon get things done.” Just ask any of the doctors who came to Morehead to fill these buildings like Dr. Rick Stevens, Dr. Matt Swiber, or Dr. Jennifer Orr and they will tell you the same.
On to the Next Project
With Morehead City’s mid-town evolving and the new modern buildings full of healthcare providers, Larry and Sharon began to look for new “fields.” They began the quest to find just the right property, not only to fill a personal vision, but one to inspire new visions every day for others.
It eventually led them to 400 acres of land at the end of Berryhill Road in northern Person County. They visited a property in Granville County that they thought would suit their needs only to find it had been sold. They had no particular location in mind, but knew that they were looking for significant acreage, rolling hills and beautiful scenery in a pastoral area. They liked what they saw when they arrived in Person County and Roxboro. Tommy Winstead, a local realtor, knew a particular property very well and realized that this might just be what they were looking for. With a red mud gully being the first access, they had discovered a property that had fallen into disarray from previous ventures. They saw not what was there, but instead, what could be. The rolling hills were just right for growing grape vines. The natural beauty of approximately 400 acres along with the tunnel led them to realize that this was the place. A place not just for growing grapes to make wine but a place to enrich lives, create life-long memories, and bring employment and an economic boost to the area as well.
Developing the “Best Kept Secret”
Once all the legal real estate business was done and the Hollers relocated to South Boston, the real work started. Living in South Boston, they could be close to the site and work under the radar, all the while growing more in love with Roxboro and Person County. Roads had to be extended onto the property, land had to be cleared, and excavation for a lake began. In other words, a great transformation was taking place. For more than 5 years they worked in relative secrecy. Not because they had anything to hide but they were just too darn busy to publicize it. And Larry, being a very meticulous person, wanted to be sure that he had something worth sharing before a lot of people got wind of the project.
Development of the lake was an important early step as this would be one of several focal points on the property. Larry had a vision and knew that a lot of dirt would be required for the dam to create a deep lake.
The vineyards may be Larry and Sharon’s vision but the man behind the curtain is their son, Ryan, a former pro golfer who has joined in this venture. He is overseeing the creation where each metal post is placed precisely in line, new vines are planted and established vines nurtured. So many more details including irrigation, pest control, equipment management… but you only have to see one aerial shot of the property to appreciate his meticulousness.
It is important to note that Larry and Sharon are extremely grateful and thankful for the help and advice from Mark Friszolowski, winemaker at Childress Vineyards and Richard Childress. They have been strong supporters and have gone above and beyond to help Tunnel Creek Vineyards start off on the right track. Their assistance undoubtably saved valuable time and helped avoid mistakes at the beginning stages that could have cost years of production. Richard and Larry, have enjoyed seeing each other again and reminiscing over their younger years growing up on the South side of Winston-Salem. childressvineyards.com/
Through the Gates at the End of Berryhill Road
Once you pass through the gates, gates meant not to keep people out but to invite them to stay awhile and hurry back to visit again, you get the feeling you may not be in Kansas anymore, or in this case Person County. The ball and pillar caps topping the matching fieldstone columns between which hangs a gate that could have been found in Oz are the first clue. Magnolias, surrounded by perfectly placed long leaf pine needles, line the road as welcoming sentinels. The road, now gravel but later to be paved, beckons you on. The first building will be an 8,000 square foot wine tasting center that will have a balcony and large terrace in the back overlooking the lake. It will also house a conference room just right for corporate meetings, educational seminars, planning retreats, and varied other events. The wine tasting center will be a focal point, but not the only one.
Continuing on the road, the brand-new event venue comes into view. Recently completed, this building is nestled among the lake and vineyards. It is adaptable to hosting inside weddings, wedding receptions and dinners of all types, corporate meetings, family and class reunions, and perhaps musical events. The road from the gates and parking area to the event venue will be paved. The pavement will end there, but not the things to see and experience. In order to keep more of the natural charm of the place, the rest of the roads will be stone. These will lead to a pavilion built to resemble a large picnic shelter with beautiful views in any season and access to the most magical place on these four hundred acres: The tunnel for which the property is named.
A part of the Lynchburg to Roxboro railroad and spanning an old postal road, the tunnel is a majestic, yet humble structure amid woods just over the creek. Who knows how many generations of children who grew up in this area played here as kids and what games fired by their imaginations they must have played. It is a magnificent structure made of granite with a perfect Roman arch. Were it in Europe it may have been mistaken as work of the Romans. Here and now it stands a perfect place for a couple to have that unforgettable site for a wedding. Standing under that arch with the sun providing the backlighting, the trees providing the wedding canopy, and the creek providing the music, no couple could ask for a grander or more sublime location to begin a life together.
by Laura Galyean
A meadow-like area will be dotted with picnic tables providing the perfect place for a family outing stretching into twilight with kids chasing fireflies. Spring there is a field of multi-colored wildflowers covering maybe a half acre or more along one side of the road. Summer finds this field full of tall sunflowers where yellow finches among others gather to feast. Fall will find the woods ablaze with colors and winter will offer a gray stark beauty of its own.
How the tunnel came to be here is another story for another time. All that needs to be said now is once you see it here in the middle of the 400-acre wood, it will become a place that fires your imagination and a place you will want to visit more than again and again.
A Secret No More
The best kept secret for the past five years is secret no more. Weddings have already been held on the property and inquiries made as to when everything will be ready. Seems some people want to wait to set their wedding date until after everything is complete. But that may never be. Meaning that this seems to be only the beginning of Tunnel Creek. There are already more than 15 acres planted in neat well-kept rows of grapes which will be ready for harvest this fall. Tunnel Creek hopes to have their first wines bottled this year. Eventually there will be more than 30 acres covering the hill sides with these neat ordered rows.
Napa Valley and Home-made Wine Memories
Larry, according to his son Ryan, has to have a project in the works. So how did a vineyard become the new project? Having spent time in the Napa Valley region of California and having a Dad who grew grapes and made his own wine when Larry was growing up, may have planted the seed. Whatever the inspiration, the result is turning into a place where “memories of a lifetime” are waiting to be made. This new project is a different kind of building and meets a different kind of need, but the two are related. This isn’t a midtown area of failing businesses to be turned into medical buildings for the common good, but something even greater. Health is so much more than a healthy body; it is also a healthy mind and spirit. Tunnel Creek is going to quench the thirst for good wine, sate the eye with the beauty of its surroundings, fill the spirit with the memories of life-changing events, and feed the soul with the fellowship of good times shared there. Truly a place for everyone.
It is and will be a place not at the end of the rainbow but under the rainbow, a place of sunsets, a place of fine wines, a place of events from blue jean and t-shirt friendly to black tie. Once a month dinners will be prepared by well-known chefs among the kegs in the wine cellar, and a black tie event will be held at Christmas time when as Larry’s dad said, “Everyone can dress up at least once a year.” A place garden clubs can meet, a place where VIR wives can come to relax between races, a place where people can just come to walk around and enjoy themselves. A place for family reunions, for starting lives together or maybe renewing vows. A place where families can picnic and kids can wade in the creek. A place where old men like me can wander and marvel at the beauty and goodness of life.
The Holler’s vision is all these things and more. Not a ballfield in the middle of a cornfield to help reunite a father and son, but a place where fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all family members and everyone can come and enjoy. A place of consistency.
For the Common Good
Tunnel Creek Vineyards is a place Person County can be proud of for many reasons. One of which that when in operation the workforce needed to run the vineyards may rise up to 100 full time positions. An initial call has already been issued for 75 positions. Another is that this may just be the best venue of its kind from Washington to Atlanta.
The Hollers have built, and people are sure to come, not once but again and again. To take a virtual visit, go to www.TunnelCreekVineyards.com. Or better yet drive down to the end of Berryhill Road which bisects Bethel Hill Charter School campus and visit in person. The gates are open for the good of all.
Click here for more aerial photos!
Norwood Walker has spent much of the last 60 years in a classroom on one side of the desk or the other. Loving to write poetry and stories in high school, his English teacher of 3 years once told him he might become a writer if he overcame his radical period. She is still waiting. He can be reached at norwoodwalker@gmail or Rainbow’s End on Facebook.