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.