The coronavirus diaries; part one: Mebane to Gibsonville: March 14, 2020

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.

2 responses to “The coronavirus diaries; part one: Mebane to Gibsonville: March 14, 2020”

  1. Bruce Burnette Avatar
    Bruce Burnette

    Interesting trip! As a child, I remember going with mom and aunts to Haw River, they went to the fabric store at the Mill there. I remember the huge mill building , and rambling around. There was a lot of activity too, in the mill vicinity. This probably was in the early-mid 60’s. We live near Danville, Va in the county. Mom and family was into sewing back in those days.

    Several years ago, returning to our home from Duke Hospital, Mom and I made a side trip to Haw River, at that time frame, 2009? It seemed very deserted, and nothing like what I remembered as a child. I have been in many of the places you rode through in this bike trip over the years.

  2. Bruce Burnette Avatar
    Bruce Burnette

    Not an Urban bike route, but new to me, and something I will need to visit and check out this summer.
    The Haw River Trail. Not lengthy as The New River Trail in Va, but shows promise.

    I have been exploring Stokes County (Danbury,NC) and Pilot Mountain as much as I can. An overlooked area of NC.

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