illustrations by Laura Frankstone
The South is littered with the carcasses of former mill towns, where abandoned storefronts and unemployment tell the tale of the death of the textile industry. When Dixie Mill – in
Saxapahaw, an hour west of Raleigh – finally shut its doors 20 years ago, the tiny town seemed doomed to the same fate.
Instead, this rural riverside spot has risen like a phoenix, finding new life as a center of food, recreation, and music.
The transformation began in 2005 when the lower Dixie mill was restored and made into apartments and lofts. The Saxapahaw General Store – a gourmet restaurant/convenience store – came next, in 2008. Since then, the Haw River Ballroom, an airy music venue in the mill’s former dye room, has become a major draw, and several other businesses have moved into the restored mill.
Still, Saxapahaw is small, and it has stayed that way. Technically a “census-designated place” rather than a municipality, it doesn’t even have a stoplight. What it does have is one lunch place, and it’s amazing. One place to eat dinner, and it’s world class. One concert venue that draws music lovers from all over the Southeast. How is it that a tiny non-town holds not just one of everything, but the best of everything?
You’ll only have to drive an hour and park once to find out for yourself: A day of music, food and fun.
Start with a cup of coffee at Cup 22, located in the balcony of the Haw River Ballroom. Several hiking and mountain biking trial heads lie within walking distance, including the William Nealy Memorial trail that leads to a river island.
For lunch, a stop at the General Store is a must. The charm is its unexpected mash-up of convenience mart and gourmet eatery. You can fill up your tank at the Saxaco pump outside. Inside, you can buy toilet paper and wine, venison jerky and locally grown produce. Seasonal menu items are posted on a chalkboard. Though the place specializes in a variety of sandwiches and beef burgers, the ribs are out of this world, and there’s nothing in Raleigh to rival the red curry shrimp salad.
After lunch, book a trip down the river with the Haw River Canoe and Kayak Company. Instructors teach canoeing and kayaking and run summer day camps for kids. Visitors can rent canoes and kayaks, or take a guided trip down the river. Owner Joe Jacob points out there is little development along this stretch of the Haw, so it’s perfect for glimpsing wildlife along the riverbank. “There’s a natural history component to every tour we take,” he says. If paddling’s not your thing, you might want to arrange for a lazy afternoon at Benjamin Winery, just across the river. Five dollars lets you taste six different wines. The winery serves cheese and crackers but also encourages picnic lunches and dinners on their lovely patio overlooking the vineyard. Visitors with more time should check out the three other Haw River Valley wineries along the Haw River Wine Trail.
The Eddy Pub, nestled next to the Ballroom, is the perfect pre-show dinner destination. The Eddy serves delicious farm-to-table fare in an atmosphere that is, like the rest of Saxapahaw, sophisticated and rustic at the same time. Hand-crafted wooden tables and amber bottle pendant lights lend the “farm table room” a cozy radiance. The patio balcony gives diners a panoramic view of the river.
The Haw River Ballroom boasts headliners like Lucinda Williams and Chatham County Line, as well as up-and-coming performers. The brick walls of the former cotton mill dye house soar several stories for three levels of viewing, and the acoustics are terrific. For concert-goers reluctant to drive back to Raleigh after the show, the nearby River Landing Inn offers several comfortable rooms and lovely walking trails by the river.
Saturdays in Saxapahaw, a weekly series, celebrates the music and food that put Saxapahaw on the map. On Saturdays from May to September, local farmers and chefs sell produce and prepared dishes in an open-air market from 5 to 8 p.m. Live music begins at 6 p.m. Last year, more than 300 bands applied for 17 summer Saturday spots, and though the event is free, a plastic swan-shaped bucket passed around to hundreds of music lovers makes the gig more than worthwhile for organizers and musicians.
The handful of Saxapahaw merchants have also formed an informal business alliance to find ways to support each other. “We’ve had to get creative and work together,” says Joe Jacob. His afternoon and evening “picnic paddles,” catered by the General Store or The Eddy Pub, are one example.
This spring, The Eddy Pub also hosted a tasting dinner to highlight a new business the town is fostering: Haw River Farmhouse Ales, which is building a production center and tasting bar that should be open by June. Husband and wife Dawnya Bohager and Ben Woodward were home-brewers who want to build a business in the town they love. “Everybody wants everybody to succeed. It’s been ‘open arms’ from the beginning,” says Bohager.
Saxaphahaw owes the Haw River its name and its life. The river attracted the Sissipahaw Indians to its banks, and the river also allowed the first merchant ships to navigate North Carolina’s interior. The river brought grist mills, and later, textile mills. And it was unspoiled views of the Haw that enticed today’s apartment dwellers into the restored mill. The river brought the small farmers, the paddlers, the hikers and the adventure seekers. And now, the tourists.
In Saxapahaw there’s a healthy tension between presentation and preservation, between attracting new business and protecting what is wild and wonderful. Matt Shepherd, a Saxapahaw native who works at Cup 22 and at the Ballroom, sums it up this way: “Saxapahaw: It’s so wonderful I just want to build a wall around it!” When Joe Jacob isn’t dreaming up creative ways to capture new business, he worries about encroaching development. “I hope there’ll never be a stoplight here,” he says.
“The whole purpose of this business is getting people to care about the river,” says Jacob. “People get out on the Haw and it just captures their hearts.” Jacob recalls his favorite quotation from John Muir, poet and founder of the Sierra Club. He waits patiently while I get the words down: “The river flows not past but through us, tingling, vibrating, exciting, every cell in our bodies, making them sing and glide.”
Like coming home
For a musician, Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom is a spectacular place to play. Headliners Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, and Patty Griffin have all gushed, on stage and off, about its welcoming, nearly magical atmosphere.
This dye-house-turned-music-venue holds a particular significance in my own heart and history. Today, I’m lucky enough to play there with my old-time band The South Carolina Broadcasters. But when I was growing up nearby, Saxapahaw was just a sleepy river village with a tiny post office that my family drove through on the way to Chapel Hill.
That changed 12 years ago, when community leaders Tom and Heather LaGarde began hosting a farmer’s market on the grassy hill across from the mill. From then on, my Saturday evenings were spent sipping lavender lemonade and listening to whichever band happened to be gracing the Haywagon stage.
It was there I was bitten by the music bug.
One night I gathered up the courage to approach Heather LaGarde as she roamed the crowd, passing the swan to collect tips for the band (Saxapahawlics, y’all know what I’m talking about). Encouraged by her warm smile, I asked if I might have a chance to become an opening act, singing and playing guitar. I auditioned, and a few weeks later, I was warming up for Lizzy Ross. I only knew three chords, but I fell in love with the music and the feeling I got from being so honest on stage.
A few summers later, the LaGardes opened the Haw River Ballroom. I worked the box office and stayed late to mop floors so I’d get a chance to be on that beautiful stage.
When the three-tiered room was empty – but the microphones were still running – I’d jump beneath the lights and sing my tunes.
One night, I found myself in the green room with the amazing Lucinda Williams, yammering away with her like a long-lost friend. We talked about buying shoes on Zappos and her fondness for gaudy jewelry. I apologized for taking up so much of her time. “Honey, you have got to quit saying that!” she told me. “Women need to stop being so sorry.”
That’s just one of many life lessons I’ve learned working at the Ballroom.
Last year, I sang on the Ballroom stage to an audience for the first time. The experience was beautifully overwhelming. I looked out into the faces of friends and supporters who had nurtured me along the way. It felt like coming home.