Archive for March, 2020

This bicycle ride was once again to get out of the house but not further this pandemic.   The solo bike ride would start in Henderson NC and continue to the towns of Soul City and Warrenton.  Compared to those places Henderson NC (population 15,000) felt like the Big City.  It was and is the home of the variety store Rose’s.  Henderson was also the site of several textile mills.

As a child the first bicycle trips of my life were the most basic.   At about age ten or eleven I was finally allowed to bicycle alone or with a friend from my suburban tract house to the closest commercial center; 31st Street in Virginia Beach; a distance of two and a half miles.  The two main draws for me were a Seven-Eleven and Rose’s.

Rose’s was a competitor to Woolworth’s but in Virginia Beach at that time we had only Rose’s; what my mother would call a “dime store.”   It felt fundamental to our Virginia Beach life.  Like a Woolworth’s it sold practically everything except groceries.  They had a lunch counter.  During my early adolescence friends and I biked to Rose’s and practically lived there, just wandering around the aisles.

Rose’s was founded in Henderson NC in 1915.   After Walmart laid waste to Rose’s and most other competitors in the dime store business in the 1980’s the retailer Variety Wholesalers bought up the name and the remnants of Rose’s in 1996.   Variety Wholesalers’ CEO and primary stockholder is Art Pope, a man who has another gig:  being the Darth Vader of Republican politics in North Carolina;  the man behind the curtain pulling the strings.  He funds a host of conservative think tanks.  He supposedly masterminded the Republican takeover of the NC state government in 2010.

There is still a Rose’s in Henderson NC.  Searching for somewhere to leave my car for five hours I chose the Rose’s parking lot.


It was to be a coronavirus bike ride.   I was not going to allow myself to touch anything, certainly not anything that did not come from my apartment.   I could not eat at restaurants so I brought along a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I had filled up with gas for the hour-long drive from Chapel Hill to Henderson using a disposable glove.   My mission on this ride was to see again the towns of Soul City and Warrenton.   This was the eventual route.


I bicycled first towards downtown Henderson.


The west side of Henderson is within walking distance of its downtown with many attractive affordable older homes.   Some are underutilized, some not.  They sell for less than half the price of those in Durham or Raleigh.


I bicycled through downtown.


Downtown mid-century modernism.


On the northeast side of town there were the remnants of factories or mills.

In some neighborhoods there was former mill housing.


Unions have never really worked out in North Carolina, certainly not in the textile industry.  Norma Rae!

On the northeast fringes of town, more modernism; Greystone Concrete Products.


I bicycled out of town towards Soul City, twelve miles to the northeast.    Henderson is in Vance County but I soon crossed the line into Warren County.  Warren County is one of several counties in northeastern North Carolina that are majority African-American.   Despite being only fifty miles from Durham the population is not growing.  Warren County had a population in 1840 of 13,000; 1880: 22,500; in 2020: 19,500.   I did not see a lot of productive-looking agriculture.   People seemed to be living in small settlements spread across the rural landscape.

This small dog risked his life on a highway to try and chase me down.

In places the landscape looks like the caricature of Old South.



Soul City is a planned community first proposed in 1969 and initially developed in the early 1970’s by civil rights activist Floyd McKissick.  The organizers got some federal money; apocryphally because McKissick had agreed to support Nixon in the 1968 election.  The town was to have 18,000 people by 1989 and 44,000 people by 2004.  Clearly that did not happen.  Still, Soul City is not dead and since my last visit here five years ago the community looked slightly more spruced up.   Some new construction is underway, new single family houses.   I would guess the total population is several hundred.   Bicycling through the countryside I knew I was upon Soul City when I saw this street sign hanging on the edge of a cornfield.




The park and community swimming pool both looked well maintained.

I have always found the Soul City sign appealing.   The sign’s monolith design reminds me of other monoliths from that same late sixties early seventies period.

Cycling away from Soul City I saw the large building that Soul City had originally intended for industrial use;  it has been converted into a prison.

Five miles past Soul City the town of Ridgeway is not much of a town, just several houses plopped around an intersection on two lane US-1.    I had not heard of the Ridgeway Opry House but it seems like it was very much a going concern up until the coronavirus thing.   YouTube has videos of people even older than me singing and playing Old Time/Bluegrass/Country for six dollars cover on Saturday nights.


I continued to bicycle through countryside.


Warrenton, the seat of Warren County looks bigger than its population: 858, less than the 1,500 people who lived here back in 1860.   Soul City had had no extant businesses.   Warrenton has several restaurants including a Hardee’s.



The three houses below were built before 1850, the last one in the 1700’s.




It was time for lunch.   There were a few people on the street but no one stopped to talk, which was fine with me.   I found a bench in front of the Episcopal church.   I could eat my sandwich and read my Kindle.

Back on the bicycle I headed out of town.  It was eighteen miles back to the car at Rose’s in Henderson.


I made it back to the car with no problems.   I did actually go into one establishment during this trip, at the end, into the Food Lion in Henderson next door to the Rose’s store.   I wanted a sack of potatoes and a bag of lemons.   I was able to easily get them without getting too close to anyone.   Other people in the Henderson Food Lion seemed to making no effort to keep a six foot social distance.

Last Saturday night we pushed the boundaries of social distancing and had one guest over for dinner; Maxine.   We all tried to stay six feet from each other.  Really.  The three of us had nice long conversations about all sorts of issues.   I asked Maxine for suggestions on where I should bike the next day.   Maxine is somewhat of a doyenne of artsy people in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina.   She said she knew artists who were moving, or at least talking about moving, to Roxboro, thirty miles north of Durham. Roxboro?  Really?   She said she had heard houses there were “practically free” and there were lots empty warehouses for studio space and potential performance venues.

Twenty-five years ago doing freight sales I made many drives to Roxboro (population then and now: about 8,500.)   At least then there was as a lot of manufacturing.  Those factories had freight.  “Ship with my company” I would tell them.  Roxboro is in Person County.

The racetrack Orange County Speedway is more or less on the way when driving from Chapel Hill to Roxboro.   Orange County is immediately to the southwest of Person County and is the county surrounding Chapel Hill.  Orange County has a reputation for being the one of the most liberal counties in North Carolina. (In the 2016 election: Clinton 76% Trump 22%)   I have lived in Orange County for thirty-two years and have never seen an ad for Orange County Speedway.   I have never heard anyone talk about Orange County Speedway or go to its events.  I have thought about going but somehow have never gotten around to it.  People talk about going to Durham Bulls baseball games all the time.  Why not small track auto racing?   Clearly the target audience for Orange County Speedway is not Orange County.

Orange County Speedway is tucked up into the far northeast corner of the county.   Here is the bicycle ride I took that Sunday.   Like previous bicycle rides in this pandemic, I tried very hard not get near anyone or touch anything and did not stop for lunch anywhere.

To get to a starting point I drove our car with the bicycle in the back.  When in my car at a stoplight in downtown Chapel Hill I saw these people trying to keep a social distance at the Purple Bowl, which serves açaí bowls.


Forty minutes and twenty-eight miles later I parked the Prius at my starting point:  the post office on the highway for Rougemont NC;  about fifteen miles north of Durham.

The NCDOT and its policies of widening roads have made places like Rougemont NC not seem like real towns. The “Main Street” of Rougemont is just a couple of gas stations, a church, and a dead restaurant on a four lane highway.



I bicycled off the main highway and down a two lane road heading the two miles towards the address of Orange County Speedway.


I came across what seemed like Orange County Speedway.  Depressing.   It was now a cow pasture.


Dejected, I biked about a quarter mile down the road.

To quote Homer Simpson “Doh!”  I had been looking at the OLD Orange County Speedway, or some sort of abandoned adjacent track.   The current Orange County Speedway next door looks much better.


This is a YouTube video someone took in 2016.   I still have never been to an Orange County Speedway race.


I turned the bicycle towards Roxboro, thirteen miles to the north.    This is stuff I saw along the way.





I biked some of the way on the main highway US15-501.   It being a Sunday morning during a pandemic there was not much traffic.

I have always thought that Roxboro NC rivals Shelby NC and Asheboro NC as an extreme example of a town where all downtown businesses have closed up and moved to a bypass multilane highway one mile from the original downtown.  Roxboro does have something like two miles of commercial sprawl along US15-501.


Preparing to triage patients.


Roxboro has been a town of manufacturers.   It still has several factories, including a large GKN auto parts plant.  I got off the main highway and biked into town from the south along South Main Street,  passing several abandoned factories.




Downtown in most small towns on a Sunday morning is pretty chill but here in Roxboro during a coronavirus it was like a neutron bomb had gone off.




I like the Person County courthouse.  Is this Art Deco?

Maybe because they have been less economically dynamic many towns like Roxboro still have mid-century modernist buildings around downtown.   The Roxboro Municipal Building.




This may have been one of the arts venues Maxine had talked about.



Roxboro has attractive residential buildings adjacent to downtown, some nicely kept up, some not.





Sorry for being so smug but check out the prewar gas station for sale in Roxboro, $ 62,500.00!

(click on link above)

I headed back out of town, heading south on a different two lane road.



There are lots of old tobacco barns out here, some reused some not.



Just before I arrived back in Rougemont I passed this rare car, a 1960-62 Ford Falcon Ranchero.  It has no license plate which would indicate it does not run.


I put the bicycle in the back of the Prius and drove back to Chapel Hill.

Yes, I was out in the fresh air but I honestly did not touch ANYTHING outside of my own stuff during these five or six hours except the elevator buttons in the Greenbridge condo building where I live.   I used the sleeve of my jacket to touch those buttons.

During these five hours I talked to two random people for about twenty seconds each time, but in both instances I was overcompensating with social distancing; practically having to shout at the person because I was so far away. Is this the new normal?  I hope not.   I did bicycle zoom by lots of people on the Neuse River Trail but always at speed.,

I put the Bike Friday in the back of our Prius and drove a half hour east to the northern edge of Raleigh.   Much of the growth of the Raleigh area in the past twenty years has been on the north side but still within the Raleigh city limits.  North Carolina state laws are particularly advantageous to this.   In many U.S. states cities cannot easily annex land as new housing developments are built, and dozens of tiny municipalities mushroom.  (St. Louis County in Missouri has eighty-six separate “towns” most with their own police and parks departments.)   That the newer housing developments on Raleigh’s north side can continue to be in the Raleigh city limits contributes to the fiscal health of the city.   Raleigh can use its size and fiscal health to build things like its greenway system.

To get to those greenways I parked our car in the huge empty parking lot of a Kohl’s store, just off Falls of the Neuse Road.    This is the route I took by bicycle.

I started biking at a point that is on a straight shot twelve miles from downtown Raleigh.  I bicycled even further out, cycling on the bike path along Falls of the Neuse Road.


4 – 6 story apartments like these are becoming the new normal, the architecture of the 2015 – 2020 period and beyond.   They are furiously being built in all parts of cities, all over America, right now.  I am not sure if I like them or not.  It is what it is.


Further on I rolled into a development called Bedford at Falls River.  Subdivisions like this used to be novel but now they are ubiquitous; “towns” built by developers with a retro look and an actual commercial center mimicking an old fashioned downtown.  They normally use architecture inspired by the set of The Music Man.   My friend Tom calls them “faux-villes.”   My brother Alex constructed a big piece of his career as a writer by specifically criticizing them, saying they were not actual towns, they were just real estate subdivisions.

Bedford at Falls River was quite nice, actually.  Despite the coronavirus it seemed idyllic.  There were lots of kids on the streets on a beautiful day when the schools were closed.   Bedford is quite large, it went on for blocks and blocks, maybe even miles.  The “town” looked genuinely retro, its “downtown” seemed commercially surviving.   The whole area was woods and farmland prior to 2002.


Mimicking the faux-ville Southern Village in Chapel Hill, which mimics the actual historic city of Charleston were rows of houses with Charleston style front porches, a front door to nowhere.

The Neuse River Trail is part of the Raleigh Capital Area Greenway system, a quite impressive network of something like one hundred miles of greenways in Raleigh, most of them along wooded stream beds.   For example, from Bedford at Falls River there is a lovely paved path along the Neuse River that goes all the way south past central Raleigh to Clayton NC, a distance of twenty-eight miles.

The Raleigh area can be quite hilly but almost all of this greenway was absolutely flat on smooth pavement, a bicyclist’s dream.

The Neuse River is not much of a river, really.   Even though we have had a reasonable amount of rain recently it is not much bigger than a creek.   It certainly is not navigable.  Maybe this is why much of North Carolina did not urbanize until after about the year 1900; we lack navigable rivers like the James and Potomac in Virginia.


At about fifteen miles I stopped at a bench along the trail.  I sat alone, ate my peanut butter sandwich, and read The New Yorker on my kindle.   One old guy with two beagles stopped by and tried to be sociable.   I smiled but was resistant.  He walked on.  It was peaceful.   I had bicycled on the Neuse River Trail for close to twenty miles before taking a right onto another similar path, the Crabtree Creek Greenway.   The greenway follows (obviously) Crabtree Creek through flat wooded bottomlands surrounded by development on all sides.    I did not go quite far enough to run into the famous Crabtree Valley Mall.   Instead, I took another right, up a series of steep hills into 1960’s residential areas of a district called North Hills.   These residential areas are gradually being overtaken by commercial and multifamily development.

There theoretically is a bike path along Falls of the Neuse Road.   It is not nice, not peaceful, and not smooth.   Whoever put this in forgot about roots that would crack the surface.   Boneshaking.   I rode instead on the actual highway whenever there was a big break in the traffic.


I rode about eight miles north to just past I-540 where was car was at that Kohl’s parking lot.  The ride was done.  I felt comfortable going into this Starbucks.   They had closed it for seating and no one was in there except two employees.   I realized that if I paid with my credit card I did not even have to touch anything.   The staff was very cordial and I got an almond milk latte to drink in the car on the drive home.

Tootie and I are attempting to stay somewhat quarantined.  Why not ride a bicycle, especially if it does not involve a stop at public places?  This was a five hour bike ride that involved no human interaction.   If any of my readers feel that this kind of travel is irresponsible please email me!

Six towns in eighteen miles stretch across the width of Alamance County NC.  Four of the six are former textile mill villages, one a former textile city, one a college town.   The map shows the one way journey.  I just doubled back.

It is only a half hour drive to Mebane NC in the Prius from my home in Chapel Hill NC.   Sure, I could have started biking from home but this gave me a head start.  I parked the car the main drag in Mebane NC.



It is not fair to portray any of these six towns as “dying textile towns.”   The textile mills have 95% closed but other industry has moved into the area.  The newer industry, however, is almost entirely outside of the historic downtown areas.  I-85 parallels my bike ride and was never more than a mile away.  All these towns have ruins of former industries.   Some buildings have been repurposed, some not.

The White Furniture Company in Mebane was in business from 1881 to 1993.   I remember the notices of the closing.  They made high end wood furniture.   The factory sat empty for about twenty years but just a few years ago the building opened as apartments.   Yes, people now want to live in downtown Mebane, an idea that seemed crazy just five years ago.


An exception to these closed industries is Kingsdown, a mattress factory just two blocks from the White Furniture building.  Its website says it has been here since 1904 and it appears still very much in business.


I biked through downtown Mebane on the way out of town, heading west.   It is (to me) amazing that all sorts of restaurants have opened here.   These storefronts were mostly empty ten years ago.



There is even another set of apartments occupying a former industrial space.

I headed through a short stretch of countryside.


Haw River is the name of both a river and a town.   The town (current population 2200) sits on the Haw River.   Until today when I read Wikipedia I had not realized how interesting the history of this town was.    Haw River (the town) has always been about manufacturing, originally from water power.   There were textile mills here before the American Civil War.   Confederate uniforms were made here.   The Cone mill in Haw River was the largest source of corduroy cloth in the world for a while in the 1970’s.   That same Cone family of Baltimore and Greensboro was the source of the money of the Cone sisters who were among the first collectors of Picasso and Matisse in Paris in the early 1900’s.  I do not think any mills in Haw River are operating today.  Haw River at first glance seems abandoned but has some glimmers of rebirth.  There is worker housing still extant.






On this Saturday afternoon other bikers were out.

Who would want to live in Haw River, I snobbily muse?  Apparently someone.  The same developer who re-did the White Manufacturing plant five miles away in Mebane is now spending $30 million to build 176 apartments in this former mill in Haw River, overlooking the Haw River.


Just a few miles further west is the county seat of Alamance County, the city of Graham (population 14,000.)

On riding into Graham from the east I have always thought that these two houses were attractive.


In the past year or two Graham has gone upscale, at least on a relative basis.  This place is new and the crowd was ignoring coronavirus social distancing.


The Graham Cinema is still going, showing one low cost movie at a time in a full theater that has not been chopped into sections.   It apparently still has the one employee and former owner who makes hilarious recordings on his voicemail of the day’s showings,  a reminder of the days when you had to call the theater.   Let’s hope the coronavirus does not kill this.

If Graham NC is still the real Graham NC why in a dumpy part of town was someone making a movie using the dumpy part of town as a backdrop?   The movie crew is not practicing social distance.

Downtown Graham NC is only three miles from downtown Burlington NC,   Burlington (population 51,000) is too big to qualify as a textile town so I will call it a former textile city.    There are textile mills, most closed down, all over Burlington.


Especially on the east side there remain several sections of former company mill housing.

It is amazing how much of the infrastructure in American cities was built specifically in the 1925-29 boom.   The tallest building in downtown Burlington was built for a bank during that era.   It is now occupied by LabCorp, a company headquartered in Burlington.   The company that is going to be a big part of the fight against the coronavirus. LabCorp uses buildings all over the city.


Downtown Burlington ten years ago was mostly empty.   Stuff has opened up recently, including this brewery, where people were ignoring the request to social distance.

Durham NC is thirty-five miles to the east and the real estate prices there have been zooming up.   When my son Jack bought a house in Durham a year ago I tried to convince him to consider Burlington.  Jack considered the idea of him moving to Burlington to be insane. Too bad, the older neighborhoods of western Burlington are quite attractive and about half the cost of Durham.



There are miles of 1960’s neighborhoods stretching west.   I have passed this one house by bicycle for years and it continues to amaze me; why do they not want windows?


Until about ten years ago Elon College was the name of the town and the college.  Now the college is Elon University and the town is Elon.   Elon University has grown tremendously and now students are 83% out of state.

Gibsonville (City of Roses!) (population 6500) is three miles beyond Elon and feels much more North Carolinian.   I have been passing Pete’s Grill for years and I still have never eaten there.   Maybe someday.


I noodled on the bike around Gibsonville.  I have eaten at Jack’s Barbecue on previous trips.  Today because of the coronavirus it was open for takeout only.




I turned the bicycle around and headed back.   The entire ride paralleled the North Carolina Railroad and was mostly within sight of it.   This state -owned railroad is managed by the Norfolk Southern.   I carries 3 – 4 passenger trains per day from Raleigh to Durham to Burlington to Greensboro to High Point to Charlotte.    High speed rail could only happen if these tracks are greatly upgraded.


It took me an hour or two by bike to get back to my car in Mebane.