Down the Road in Saxapahaw

By Rachel Revelle

Haw-RiverI was introduced to the hidden delight of Saxapahaw, North Carolina last fall when some friends organized a canoe trip down the Haw River. The Haw River Canoe and Kayak Company took us a few miles upriver, we spent a gorgeous Fall afternoon paddling back downstream, and ended up at the Saxapahaw Rivermill, the central hub of the town. Since the Saxapahaw Cotton Mill was originally built in the 1840s, it’s fair to say that the river mill has long been the central hub of town. What’s different now, however, is that it is filled with upscale lofts, a rustic general store that happens to serve up seriously gourmet offerings (the New York Times agrees), and the latest addition, a state of the art music venue called the Haw River Ballroom.

I knew from my own experience that Saxapahaw was receiving increasing hype, but what I didn’t know until a Duke Magazine article highlighted it recently, was the full story of its revitalization, and the connections to Duke. It has been the Jordan family, with three generations of Duke alumni, that has overseen the overhaul from a formerly prospering but eventually defunct textile mill to a thriving village of art and local commerce.

Mac Jordan, the most recent Duke grad, applied knowledge developed at Duke—from a Center for Documentary Studies photography project to a public policy major—to a specific project that he felt passionate about, the revitalization of his home town. Sounds like a good model for Duke’s emphasis on civic engagement and practice oriented education if you ask me! He has also collaborated with others invested in Saxapahaw’s growth to spur innovation.  It has certainly worked.

Perhaps what I love best about Saxapahaw’s revival story is the atmosphere it has so comfortably created, a place where, as Mac Jordan jokes, “a bunch of rednecks and hippies [are] all mixed together.” As a product of small-town North Carolina myself, I appreciate the deliberate emphasis on the cultural heritage of the place. It seems that long-time locals are for the most part pleased with the transformation, a sign that the project has been done well.  At the same time, the gourmet local food, the folk and indie music scene, and the sheer natural beauty are plenty enough reason for shades of hippie/hipster/urbanite to escape to the countryside.

It makes me consider what growth means for a community. Perhaps it’s not always bigger and better and newer.  Integration of old and new, in a way that provides stability yet forward momentum, seems to be key.  I think the Jordans have thought harder about a socially and ethically conscious way to do development than most. Admittedly, though, there are going to be some feelings of loss along with new gains. The architectural heritage is certainly being reused, and some cultural elements have been preserved, but Saxapahaw is not a mill town anymore. In order to have a viable future, it had to adapt and draw in new people.  I’m sure the former mill families have a different outlook than my friends and I who love a good Saturday excursion to their town.

Saxapahaw has not significantly changed its landscape, but has cleanly and elegantly ushered in new features that have given it new life. I hope the confluence of elements that now characterize this eclectic town will continue to be solidified in ways that all who live there appreciate.  Maybe a new sense of culture is developing that will be shared in years to come.

I certainly am glad to have this enclave just down the road. It is a counterpart to Durham and the Triangle that makes me even more appreciative of this region of North Carolina as a whole. I’ll be heading down the road this Friday night for a Mandolin Orange show—I wonder who I will see around and about the ballroom.