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, but a John Deere airplane, a truck that's integrated into a tractor pull scene and a snow mobile.
John Deere stockpiles such as those at Ye Old's aren't rare. Similar to Coca-Cola memorabilia (which also adorns a few of the walls), the green-and-yellow farm machinery inspires random obsessive collectors. (If you're among them, check out bleedinggreen.com.)
I can get behind a tractor collection. My family owned a farm-implement business in Johnston County for decades, and my toy box teemed 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 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, which was used as a set for the film Vampires Anonymous, stands a sign for Long Meadow Milk, a long-gone Durham-based dairy with which the Wilson family used to work.
Wilson's parents, James and Louise, opened Ye Old Country Kitchen at the corner of Snow Camp and Greensboro Chapel Hill roads in 1969, when the unincorporated community of Snow Camp was little more 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, "a few cows and pigs."
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 Louise Wilson made. She still bakes all of the desserts.
With the rest of her time, Louise 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 theater's longest running play, The Sword of Peace, dramatizes decisions made by Quakers, whose religious beliefs are rooted in nonviolence, during the American Revolution.
Wilson's grandparents took over the restaurant and moved it to its current spot on Drama Road; they expanded the building nine times to accommodate crowds. Wilson began his stint as owner in 1987, following his grandfather's death in 1983.
About five years ago, he added a store. It stocks Louise's desserts, honey by Cane Mountain Farm of Graham and wines by Wolfe Wines of Snow Camp.
"You have a lot of local food," I tell Wilson.
"We try," he says, adding that meat is 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 tells me that he must raise more than his just a few hogs in order to process the sausage, adding that he also sells his own country ham and supplies the restaurant with some of its meat. The remainder of Ye Old's food is purchased primarily 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.