For decades there were two kings among the 3,000 citizens in the tranquil farming town of Zebulon, N.C. "My brother Barker Kannon was the hot-dog king and my brother-in-law Elmo Tant was the pumpkin king," says Alma Kannon Farah. Alma is one of the three Kannon sisters who operate Kannon's Cafe in Zebulon, and they serve the best chili dogs in the Carolinas. Behind the counter at Kannon's are photographs of the kings: a black-and-white of Barker preparing his famous franks, and a color snapshot of Elmo surrounded by blazing orange pumpkins at the annual Pumpkin Festival. Barker passed away in 1979, and when Tant died in 1986, Zebulon was without a king.
There may soon be a new one. The fresh prince in town is a sloe-eyed, well-fed Raleigh businessman named Steve Bryant. He has just brought his Class AA Southern League baseball team from Georgia to Zebulon. After 20 years at Golden Park in Columbus, the reborn team made its Carolina debut last month at Five County Stadium on the outskirts of town. The Carolina Mudcats had been scheduled to open there on April 19, but a wet March slowed construction of the new ballpark, so the team had to play at an old, abandoned Class D field in nearby Wilson for a couple of months.
Five County is a 6,000-seat stadium built over one of Avon Privette's tobacco fields. It's a nice, modest, good-looking venue situated at the intersection of two country roads, Old U.S. 264 and North Carolina 39. This is as pretty a place as you can imagine. There are no houses in sight, only rolling meadows full of purple and yellow wildflowers, tobacco and soybean fields, and, just across the way, Avon Privette's cattle.
Bryant, 40, hastens to say that Five County Stadium won't be modest forever. He says he'll be finished constructing a large and fancy $11 million stadium by 1993. He says it'll have seats for 12,000, an exploding scoreboard and an enormous hydraulically powered catfish that will rise behind the centerfield fence to salute home runs. The two adjacent ponds will have bridges that children can walk out on so that they can feed bread crumbs to real mud cats.
Anyway, the current field fits in nicely at the corner of 264 and 39. How the 1993 behemoth will look remains to be seen.
Not only docs Bryant's team have a new setting in North Carolina, it also has a new crop of players. A Houston Astro farm team since 1970, the Mudcats are a Pittsburgh affiliate this year. The summer of '91 is a time of change and much excitement in Zebulon.
"I'd rather read a hardware magazine than go see a ball game, but that makes me unusual around here," says Jim Debnam, who with his father runs Debnam's Hardware. "Our customers are very excited about it."
One such customer is Don H. Perry, an accountant and part-time farmer, who sums up the local feeling: "If there is such a thing as a field of dreams, ours is it."
Zebulon looks exactly the way you would expect it to look, except that there are no hitching posts along North Arendell Avenue, the main drag. The town lies in the gentle Carolina hills, 16 miles east of Raleigh. There are just five stoplights in Zebulon and no movie theater. Two things the town doesn't lack for are weather-beaten barns and Southern hospitality, good news for visitors since Zebulon boasts neither a hotel nor a motel. Zebulon does have a McDonald's, and on Fridays you'll often find a Zebulon resident sipping his morning coffee there while reading the weekly Zebulon Record, reasonably hot off the press.
Of course, ever since the Mudcats appeared on the horizon, predictions of growth have abounded. "This'll be the opportunity to get maybe a hotel built and a nice restaurant," said town councilman Leonard Seawall when Bryant announced his move, in 1989, a year after purchasing the Georgia team for $950,000. "Something real nice. A family restaurant."