Model John Deere tractors fill every shelf and display cabinet in the three dining rooms at Ye Old Country Kitchen in Snow Camp. And not just tractors. There’s a John Deere airplane, a truck that’s integrated into a tractor-pull scene, and a snow mobile.
John Deere stockpiles like Ye Old’s aren’t rare. Similar to Coca Cola memorabilia (which also hangs on a few of the walls), the green-and-yellow farm machinery inspires random, obsessive collectors (see www.bleedinggreen.com). But I can get behind a tractor collection. My family owned a farm implement business in Johnston County for decades, and my toy box ran over with Allis Chalmers figurines and model tractor wheels. Anytime I’m in an antique store, I look for the distinct orange pieces.
Bryan Wilson, Ye Old Country Kitchen’s owner, tells a similar story about his acquisitions. His father was a farmer in Snow Camp, as was his grandfather. “I started getting toy [tractors] at a young age and have been collecting ever since.”
Photographs of his Wilson’s grandfather’s dairy farm hang below the well-kept mini tractors, which are mostly encased in their original packaging (I buried most of mine in a sandbox). Next to the one-story, wood-planked restaurant that was used as a set for the film Vampires Anonymous stands a sign for the Durham-based Long Meadow Milk, with whom the Wilson family used to work.
Wilson’s parents, James and Louise, opened the restaurant at the corner of Snow Camp Road and Greensboro Chapel Hill Road in 1969, when the unincorporated community of Snow Camp had little other than farmland. “There wasn’t anything out here like that,” Wilson says. Ye Old Country Kitchen remained the only restaurant in the area for 30 years, at which point Yesteryear Cafe opened a mile away on a two-lane road.
I ask Wilson about his own ties to farming. “Do you have any actual John Deeres?”
“And do you farm?” I ask.
“A little,” he says, claiming “a few cows and pigs.”
I believe Wilson, who is soft-spoken, and wears a blue ballshirt that bears his restaurant’s endorsement.
I eat from the buffet, choosing super-crisp fried chicken (the highlight), boiled cabbage, green beans, macaroni and cheese and a salad. Wilson admits that he cooked most of it. For dessert, I get a piece of cool chocolate pie, which his mother made. She still bakes all of the desserts, he tells me. With the rest of her time, Louise Wilson works next door at the Outdoor Theatre, which she started almost 40 years ago to help educate people about the area’s Quaker roots. The theatre’s longest running play, The Sword of Peace, dramatizes decisions made by Quakers, whose religious beliefs are rooted in nonviolence, during the American Revolution.
The production’s focus on local is reflected next door at the restaurant, which Wilson’s grandparents took over once the theatre was started. They moved it to its current spot on Drama Road, and expanded the building nine times to accommodate crowds. Wilson began his stint as owner in 1987, following his grandfather’s death in 1983.
“You have a lot of local food,” I tell Wilson.
“We try,” he says, adding that there’s meat for sale, too. He goes to a freezer and comes back to show me a frozen pound of hot sausage. The label reads, “Ye Old Country Kitchen.”
After prodding Wilson that he must raise more than his admitted few hogs in order to process the sausage, he tells me that he also sales his own country ham and supplies the restaurant with some of its meat. The remainder of Ye Old's food is primarily purchased from nearby farmers.
Wilson is as humble as his restaurant, which serves honest good food. The only extravagance at Ye Old, it seems, are the tractors, but they hint at the restaurant’s roots. There are the Coca Cola signs, too, but those, says Wilson, are just a hobby.
Ye Old Country Kitchen (327 Drama Road, Snow Camp) is open 11 a.m.—2:30 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, and 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.