Warren began building Shangri-La in 1968, when he was 75 years old. He lovingly crafted each detail, pouring his soul into these structures, even going so far as to gather the stone and quartz from the nearby quarry himself. He also found offbeat items at local flea markets, which visitors can find sprinkled around the town like hidden easter eggs: A black french bulldog, a headless duck, a metal donkey, an old-timey kettle.
The buildings are around five feet high, encircling a central pond with a tall, metal water tower. For added fancy, Warren added several elaborate thrones, which lure passersby to sit, to be royalty of Shangri-La, if only for a few moments.
Warren's purpose and dream is carved into a stone slab at the entrance:
"Let me live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to man." - Henry Warren, 1972
By the time Warren passed away in 1977, he'd built 27 buildings in his peaceful stone town. His loved ones worked together to finish his final structure, a hospital.
The Inhabitants of Shangri-La
"Howdy," says a woman mowing the grassy lawn.
"Come on over, come look around!" she welcomes me in a warm, Southern drawl.
Henry Warren's daughter and family still enjoy and maintain Shangri-La, keeping it beautiful and lively for visitors to enjoy. Truly they are a friend to man, as the sign suggests. She gives me a tour of the village. I peer in tiny doors, discovering hidden surprises and delights--like a tiny toilet in one building--that speak to Warren's sense of humor like a twinkle and a wink.
Then I spy something that doesn't seem to belong: A Minion toy from a pipe atop a building.
"Oh!" Warren's daughter laughs. "I haven't seen that one! People leave all kinds of things here."
I notice them everywhere then: Toys hidden all around the village. Warren's village is such an inviting and utopian place, visitors often want to leave a piece of themselves behind. A toy duck sits beside the fishing hole; a small alien is watching the theater.
I pull a small toy bear from my keychain and gently sit him inside the school. I hope he enjoys his new home in North Carolina's own version of Shangri-La.
The other inhabitants of Shangri-La are swarms of butterflies. Tall bushes, through which Warren built a meandering pathway of quartz, stone, and arrowheads, herald dozens of fluttering orange and black butterflies.
"Oh, they just come for the flowers," smiles Henry's daughter.
But I suspect they come for the peace and magic of Warren's village.
The Guest Journal
On a grassy hill overlooking the Shangri-La skyline, visitors find a guest journal -- a tome full of decades of beautiful memories and thank you's for the Warren family. Visitors are encouraged to write their experience there.
Not many things last 50 years in this world. Once upon a time, a retired tobacco farmer dug up rocks and gems and crafted a beautiful city just so strangers could come by and be happy -- and 50 years later, his legacy is still giving people wonder and joy.
I write: Thank you for creating a little paradise for your North Carolinian neighbors.
I smile as I drive away, hoping my little bear enjoys his new home in Shangri-La.
If you want to go see Shangri-La for yourself, you can find it here!
Heather is an ABC11 Community Influencer. Read more of her work on her blog .