The ride to Saxapahaw helped explain some of the cultural diversions that make North Carolina what it is. On this particular Sunday afternoon, I was delayed getting started. With only about three hours to get someplace and back, before dark. I decided to go see friends John and Jackie at their new apartment in Saxapahaw.
Saxapahaw is about fifteen miles west of Carrboro, midway between Carrboro and Burlington. Textile mills operated in Saxapahaw from 1844 until 1994. The population of the town in the 2000 census was 1,418. Saxapahaw, like Carrboro, is a former textile mill village with small wooden houses that were built by the mill owners for their workers. Unlike Carrboro, it is not adjacent to any other town. Also unlike Carrboro, it was built adjacent to water power, next to rapids on the Haw River. It is by itself in the countryside. There is a tiny former downtown strip of about four buildings, and then a large multistory brick factory overlooking the river.
As you ride into town, you see the highway lined for a few blocks with small wooden mill houses. On the front porch of one former mill house was an overweight middle aged guy in a tank top, talking to a rough looking woman. They both seemed to be staring at the cars going by. Both were smoking cigarettes. Mixed with this vibe was a small subdivision of new houses on the outskirts of town.
Up the hill at the former mill is a small strip shopping center, anchored by a mini mart, until recently the only retail business in town. This mini mart is the place that friend John claims was written up in Food & Wine magazine. While I did not eat there on this trip, it is one of the most unique restaurant settings I have ever eaten at. The menu of the restaurant is on the chalkboard. One orders stuff like “mussels with baguette” at the mini-mart counter. Some entries cost over twenty dollars. There are no waiters. You retrieve whatever drinks you want, as in a bottle of wine, from the glass doored refrigerators of the mini-mart. You pay for the food and drinks at the counter, and retrieve your fancy entrée on real china. You then sit in the mini-mart surrounded by candy, motor oil. and boxes of Tampax. You can also sit outside at tables in the parking lot.
The multistory brick mill buildings of Saxapahaw have now almost completely been turned into apartments. It is unusual for this to be successful in North Carolina and may show the changes taking place in our state. While a few people have lived in multistory apartments in major North Carolina cities, fancy apartments in a rural area strike me as unique. I mean, I would love to live like that, but I did not think anyone else did. I was wrong. The concept seems to be taking off. Saxapahaw is becoming a very lively community. Admittedly it a was beautiful day of very early spring, but the brick buildings seemed alive with activity, people of all ages. These people, however, seem very different than the couple I had seen on their front porch as I had ridden into town. Does it really smack of gentrification when you are populating an abandoned factory?
(photo copyright John Ripley, all rights reserved)
Friends John and Jackie had lived in their apartment only a short time. Like other people I know who have considered living in the town, they work in creative fields. He is a photographer whose work takes him all over the world. Their apartment is a third floor walkup, overlooking directly the rushing waters of the Haw River. Like many apartments in former mills, it has wonderful heart of pine floors and high ceilings.
Riding back in the approaching darkness, one passes miles of house trailers in cow fields and nineteenth century farmhouses. Mixed in are encroaching gentleman farmers and tract mansions. Three miles before Carrboro, in a section of woods, are a couple of doublewides. Just beyond on the right is a dead country store, now a tire repair shop called Alpha Y Omega. Across the street is the less than three year old John Edwards estate, with its more than twenty thousand square feet setup, including a gymnasium. Because of the woods, you cannot see the house through the trees. I pedaled up the hill, trying to get home before the darkness.