Rivertown Revival

On the banks of the Haw River, a family of Duke alumni rebuilds Saxapahaw, bringing a mill town with a storied past into the present.
October 2, 2012

When Mac Jordan stepped onto Duke’s campus in 1979, he was one of the few freshmen to come with red dirt flowing through his veins. Growing up in Saxapahaw, a mill village on the Haw River in North Carolina’s Alamance County, he and his siblings spent their days climbing trees in the shady woods and catching salamanders by the creeks that feed the Haw. “The river, the forests, the fields, the farms, the creeks, that’s where I was,” recalls Jordan ’83. “We were always running around in the pastures or the streams, making trails and clubhouses and creating our own play land.”

Just twenty-nine miles from Duke’s campus, Saxapahaw (pronounced SAX-apuh- haw) felt like a world away. It was a town of 2,000 people, centered on a textile mill that Jordan’s family had owned for more than fifty years. Just about everyone worked at the mill or was related to someone who did. Jordan had cleaned equipment and swept floors there as a teenager. Life was church, school, the mill, and the rolling, wooded hills. “I knew there was a world outside of a tiny rural town, but until I got to Duke, it was a pretty small world,” says Jordan, the third generation of his family to attend Duke. (A ministry library in the divinity school is named for his great-grandfather, Methodist preacher Henry Harrison Jordan.) One time, when he brought a few classmates home for a visit, his dad asked them to help round up the cattle in the pasture after supper.

But by 1979, that simple life was changing. Although mill business was still thriving, the village was not. Mill workers, who once rented mill-owned houses clustered around the river, began moving farther from town. Their children left for jobs elsewhere. And like so many rivers in American industrial towns, the Haw had grown so polluted that kids were warned off swimming or eating fish caught there. Mac’s father, John Jordan ’58, understood that if Saxapahaw were going to survive, it needed to be reinvented.

As a young man, Mac felt a need to determine what role he would play in that effort. Although he loved painting and drawing, he chose to major in public policy, which offered classes that dealt with community revitalization, economic development, business, politics, and regulation.

“Dad was very good at training me not to waste my time, that everything you do should have a purpose,” says Mac.

At Duke, Mac Jordan’s became saving Saxapahaw.

“The beauty of the community, both naturally and socially,” he says, “I wanted it for my kids.”

The Saxapahaw Cotton Mill was constructed in the 1840s and made cloth for the Confederate Army. In 1924, its owners saw their fortunes fall, and the mill went into receivership until Charles V. Sellers bought it in 1927. Sellers called upon his nephew, B. Everett Jordan ’18, to help him reopen the mill and manage it.

Everett and his wife, Katherine, took it upon themselves to build up the village community. To prevent young boys from throwing rocks through the mill windows, he enlisted a friend to start a Boy Scout troop. Katherine planted redbud and dogwood trees that still stand along the road in front of the mill. The couple built a community center and gave land for the establishment of a school.

Then-seven-year-old Wilma Phillips arrived in 1939, when her parents and grandmother took jobs in the mill. “[The Jordans] even moved us here in their company truck from Tennessee,” she says. Her family moved into a mill-owned house on the hill, the first of three they would live in. At eighteen, she went to work in the mill. She spent most of her career testing yarn on a machine in a room called “the lab.”

Phillips married in 1951, and she and her husband, Harold, moved two miles out into the country. “Before they built that highway out there, it was red mud,” she recalls. “The old saying was, if you got that red mud ’tween your toes, you never would leave.” Once the mud was paved over, however, the community began to disperse. The Phillipses’ daughter and granddaughter still live down the road, just outside of Saxapahaw, but both work in Chapel Hill.

"I like to joke we're a bunch of rednecks and hippies all mixed together."

In 1958, North Carolina Gov. Luther Hodges appointed Everett Jordan to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat left by the death of W. Kerr Scott. Jordan spent the next fifteen years in Washington, turning the mill over to his eldest child, Ben ’51. He came home to Saxapahaw in 1973 and died a year later, leaving the Saxapahaw mill and two other North Carolina mills to his three children.

In 1978, the year before Mac entered college, the siblings sold the mill to Dixie Yarns. “In hindsight, it was a blessing we got out of the textile industry then,” says John Jordan, “because 1979 was the peak of manufacturing, in all industries, in the U.S. We were lucky, not smart.”

But John was not ready to leave Saxapahaw. “I was born and raised here, and my four children were born and raised here. Saxapahaw was, and is, a good place to raise a family…. It’s something you want to preserve.” So John decided to go into the realestate business. Sensing an opportunity for Saxapahaw to become a bedroom community for Chapel Hill, fifteen miles away along highway N.C. 54, he bought the sixty-six mill houses, thirty-three on each side of the river, as part of the sale to Dixie Yarns. He sold the houses across the river from the mill for between $10,000 and $20,000, some of them to longtime mill workers who had never imagined owning a home. With that revenue, he financed renovations on the other thirty-three houses, which he continues to rent.

Jordan approached the renovations with conservation in mind. Cottages were equipped with wood stoves, energy-efficient appliances, solar water heating, and gardens in the yard. John and his wife, Margaret, hosted backyard picnics and an annual festival to raise money for the community center.

“Now, I’m a business person,” Jordan says. “I like to think I’m a Christian. It’s not a conflict of interest. The greatest commandment is ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.’ That’s important. You need to love your neighbor as yourself. Everything we do should be a win-win in life.”

Mac helped with renovations on summer breaks from Duke, where he was beginning to look at his hometown from a new perspective. He had taken a photography course with Alex Harris, founder of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, who assigned students to study and photograph a community. Naturally, Mac chose Saxapahaw, focusing on a millworker family he knew. The assignment showed him the human scale of the social and economic policies he was studying. “We tend to think we know it all before we really interact with who it is we’re trying to serve or help. That’s where Alex’s class really was a paradigm shift for me, in my way of approaching life and business and architecture,” he says.

After graduating, Mac moved home and got his real-estate and contractor’s licenses, ready to help his father revitalize his hometown. “I just fell in love with what he was doing,” he says. “It was important as a career and business opportunity, but also from a policy and philosophical point of view.”

But while the Jordans’ real-estate venture was taking off, the future of the mill seemed in doubt. With increased automation and growing competition from international manufacturers, textile mills across the country shed jobs or closed altogether. In Greensboro, once the hub of a thriving apparel industry, the nearly century-old Revolution Mill was shuttered in 1982. Dixie Yarns had already converted one of Saxapahaw’s mill buildings, the dye house, to storage. “Time and motion is everything in manufacturing,” John says, and a threestory mill building couldn’t keep up with modern production techniques. It seemed only a matter of time before it, too, would become a victim of a declining industry.

The Jordans, though, were ready. Even though the dye house remained under Dixie Yarns’ control, Mac drafted a plan for renovating it for his master’s thesis at North Carolina State University’s School of Architecture. “We had a one-year and a five-year and a ten-year plan,” Mac says. “We saw the direction that textiles was headed. We just didn’t know when or how soon, but we knew this plant would probably shut down.”

By the time the inevitable happened and the mill closed in 1994, the Jordans had invested too much time and money into their idea of an attractive, safe community to let it wither. “You can’t have a derelict mill in the heart of it,” Mac says. “It was an opportunity, a huge risk, but there really wasn’t a choice. We felt that we were probably the only ones that were in a position to take it on.”

Banks were harder to convince. “Everybody considered us in the middle of nowhere, and we thought we were in the middle of everywhere,” Mac says. John used personal resources to buy the mill properties. When a charter school signed on as a tenant, he was able to borrow a million dollars to begin renovations on part of the upper mill. Mac called his brother, Carter, who was living in Wyoming. “Dad’s going to let us do it,” he said. “And I could use your help.” Carter flipped a coin, “and it came up heads, so he moved back,” Mac laughs.

Family legacy: "Saving a community is like being an artist," John Jordan says of his son Mac (left), who once dreamed of becoming an artist. "You want to create something, like a painting, that will last forever." [Credit: Lissa Gotwals]

The brothers sandblasted the interior, removed asbestos, built retaining walls, and painstakingly sanded the original maple floors. As soon as wiring was done, Mac set up a makeshift apartment in the old “lab” room to protect the site from vandals. The school opened in 1998, along with a mix of retail and commercial space in the upper mill building. Financing the lower mill’s conversion to residential apartments required Mac to tap into his public-policy background to get the structure designated as a historic landmark, qualifying the project for tax credits, which he combined with a Housing and Urban Developmentbacked mortgage. The process took three years and interactions with every level of government, from state building-inspection and historic-preservation offices to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even the Army Corps of Engineers. It also took immense patience with Mother Nature: Six months after the project began, Hurricane Fran hit, bringing a 100-year flood up the Haw River that filled the bottom floor with water.

At a local auction, John Jordan met Tom LaGarde, a former University of North Carolina basketball player who had just walked away from an unsatisfying career selling bonds in New York. LaGarde and his wife, Heather, had recently moved to a neighboring farm town with their threeyear- old daughter and newborn son, seeking to bring up their children in the same sort of community the Jordans wanted to preserve.

A Chapel Hill native, Heather recalled trips to Saxapahaw with her parents, learning to drive on its quiet streets when she was a teenager. “It just seemed like this faraway place that was very close,” she says. “It had these beautiful buildings, but it was dusty and starting to fade.”

Tom, who runs an architectural salvage business, shared the Jordans’ passion for historic preservation and conservation. Although they didn’t agree on everything— the Jordans are registered Republicans and church-going Methodists; the LaGardes, Democrats whose main gospel is organic food—the families had a mutual appreciation for small-town values and a simpler life. And in a way, their ability to connect across cultural differences is emblematic of the come-as-you-are openness that seems to make Saxapahaw work.

Although the Jordans were clear about their vision about Saxapahaw as a place with “amenities,” as John likes to call them, that would draw people from Chapel Hill, they hadn’t put much thought into how to get people from Chapel Hill to take notice. “I loved that they hadn’t come up with a marketing plan or any way of getting the word out about this really cool project in the middle of nowhere,” says Heather La- Garde, who had been a professional event promoter for Human Rights Watch and other nonprofit organizations. “It looked like a New York loft, right on the river in North Carolina.”

The LaGardes suggested an idea: a Saturday evening farmer’s market, with live music and artists’ stalls. It was anything but a conventional way to advertise apartments.

“I didn’t have to think about it at all,” says Mac. “We knew that we were so unconventional and so different than everything that was out there that our marketing really wasn’t just marketing, it was as much storytelling and community revitalization. We weren’t just trying to sell or rent property; we were trying to have a whole community come back to life.”

“It took some guts to do that,” Heather says, “but I think it’s so deeply in their values.”

On a Saturday evening in June, the grassy hill across the street from the lower mill fills with picnic blankets and lawn chairs while a bluegrass band plays energetically under a covered bandstand. Local farmers sell grass-fed beef, strawberries, and collard greens from tents set up in the small parking lot. Kids run barefoot through the grass, playing capture the flag and chasing fireflies in the growing dusk, while their parents sip wine and tap their feet to the music. The smallest children climb on hay bales, while braver ones slide down a homemade water slide set at the top of the hill.

Saturday night charm: In summer, the village swells with visitors who come to browse the weekly farmer's market, listen to music, or just lounge on the hillside. [Credit: Lissa Gotwals]

“Saturdays in Saxapahaw,” launched in 2005, initially drew about fifty people to the weekly summer markets. As the renovations progressed, the Jordans and La- Gardes hosted art events to showcase the space. Enthusiasm was building. Then a fire destroyed part of the lower mill three months before scheduled completion of the apartments, causing a six-month delay. They opened at last that December, just weeks before the tax credit deadline. All seventy-five units were rented by the following summer.

Tonight, the crowd for the weekly market and concert is around 1,500. John Jordan is there, as he is every week, greeting neighbors, a sight Heather LaGarde loves to see. “[The Jordans] get to see a new community forming, and they’re sharing their nostalgia with everybody else,” she says.

Up the road, in the corner of the old dye house, the Saxapahaw General Store offers an eclectic mix that tells a story of Saxapahaw’s contrasts: pork rinds and local honey, deer hunting supplies and $10 rounds of cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery, fishing worms and organic kale. The store’s grill serves scratch buttermilk biscuits, shrimp and grits, local braised beef short ribs, or white pizza with fennel and prosciutto. A sign above the bussing tray asks patrons to scrape their plates into a compost bin so that the scraps can be fed to the chickens at Cozi Farm, up the hill. Sit and eat an omelet on the store’s back patio, and you can nearly see the chicken that laid the egg.

When the convenience store space went on sale in 2008, the LaGardes recruited chefs Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff of Chatham Marketplace in Pittsboro and Fowler’s in Durham to turn it into a destination for gourmet local food. Selling artisanal cheese out of the former company store generated some pushback from oldtimers, Heather recalls, and it was an early test of how well new and old Saxapahaw could coexist. “As soon as they believed that it was about community and not gentrification, and about families having lives there and not just selling things,” she says, “then a real trust was formed.”

Barney and Ratliff went on to join Doug Williams and Claire Haslam to open the Eddy Pub, as well as a baking and catering company. The Eddy offers eight North Carolina beers on tap, local cheese and burgers, and bratwurst made from local, organically raised livestock. Eddy patrons can sit outside on an open-air patio, soaking up the sunshine and gazing at the Haw.

The Haw River Ballroom [Credit: Lissa Gotwals]

In May 2011, the biggest showcase of Mac and Carter Jordan’s labor of love was finally open to the public: a three-story, 700-person-capacity live-music venue called the Haw River Ballroom. The exposed brick and metal beams are at once raw and sleek, old and modern. Cones of cotton yarn the mill once produced sit on an old wooden rack in the lobby, next to colorful handmade signs announcing the local beers on tap.

The LaGardes and their business partner, Margaret Jemison, purchased the space from the Jordans and spent two years planning the ballroom’s offerings. A coffeehouse next door, Cup 22, provides a daytime gathering place and a caffeinated option during concerts. The ballroom’s performance calendar features buzz-generating touring bands, mostly of the indie rock variety, but it also hosts local clog dancers, a community acoustic jam, weekly Ping- Pong, sometimes even a bouncy house for kids on rainy winter afternoons. The latest addition to the schedule is “Saxapahaw University” (“Where everyone is Grade A”), a series of free lectures, classes, and readings. The first SU event was a discussion of local ecology and natural history, and recent topics have included mill history, politics, and family history.

“We’re a mixed breed out here,” says Mac Jordan. “I like to joke we’re a bunch of rednecks and hippies all mixed together.”

Heather points out that the “hippies” are more like young, upwardly mobile professionals, and the “rednecks” she describes as “well-read, church-going, open-minded conservatives.” Saxapahaw’s small-town atmosphere helps soothe whatever differences exist. “I don’t think you can hold onto a stereotype when you see someone day to day,” Heather says.

It’s safe to swim in the Haw River again, thanks in large part to the work of the Haw River Association, an activist group that has led efforts to improve water quality and restore wildlife since the 1970s. There’s now a walking-and-paddle trail along the Haw that connects Alamance County to Jordan Lake (named for the late senator), making Saxapahaw a stop on the national Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

The last phase of renovation is taking place in the upper-mill building, where twenty-nine loft condos, each with a view of the river, are being constructed from original mill materials—from the wood floors to the exposed brick walls to the pressed tin ceilings. Each condo is furnished with art and furniture made in North Carolina. The 1,200- to 1,300-square-foot lofts start at $335,000—a far cry from the $10,000 mill houses John Jordan sold thirty years ago.

“I’m telling you, they made it a city now over there,” says Wilma Phillips, who at eighty years old still lives two miles outside of Saxapahaw. John Jordan recently gave her ladies’ church group a tour of the ballroom and the lower-mill condos. She was amazed to see the old flooring she had stood on for decades reused in the lofts. She says she enjoys seeing the patio at The Eddy full of people on Saturday nights. “You go by and it’s lit up, it’s so pretty. I never did dream it would be looking like this.”

As the sun goes down, the fairy lights go on around the old dye house. An old metal hulk of an extractor machine lights up from inside, the words “HAW RIVER BALLROOM” punched through the side to create an illuminated sign. A similar machine stands inside next to the soundboard.

“I was so excited when Tom and Heather said they wanted to save that one,” Mac says, “because when I was a teenager, my first paycheck was from the dye house. I worked in maintenance, and one of my jobs was cleaning the filters on those extractors. The very one they left in there, I used to clean the filter on.”

The way the Jordans talk about Saxapahaw, there’s a sense of coming full circle, of having endured the trials of time and motion and seen the next cycle begin. One of John’s grandsons recently showed him a self-portrait he’d taken, sitting on a rock in the middle of the river. “To me, it was very symbolic,” John says. “I see three generations of Jordans sitting on a rock in the middle of the Haw River.”

 

Morgan M.P.P. ’11 is a writer who lives in Durham.