The Paris of the Piedmont. That’s what Nyle Frank (the self-proclaimed King of the Invisible Universe) used to call Carrboro. Carrboro isn’t invisible, but for years it’s been overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbor, Chapel Hill. Now, that’s beginning to change: A new shopping center, at the old mill, is being talked about. The railroad station has been turned into a restaurant. Politically, an entrenched and conservative establishment is beginning to be challenged; there’s even a scandal brewing over the alleged misuse of funds from last year’s 4th of July celebration. Gwen Harvey still lives there. Here’s why.
This is Carrboro — the little settlement around the depot and the cotton mill that keeps growing.
I have lived here for three years, two of them in a quiet and respectable black community. Those who live around me are the venerable citizens of this old mill town. They sit on their front porches, sunning and nodding their heads to ancient tales and new whispers that mask the long summer days.
Sometimes I feel that I come close to knowing them. In Cliff’s Meat Market, where I buy big and bursting red tomatoes, I grin at the other patrons who line the meat counter, joking with the butcher, selecting huge slabs of ham. They seem caught up in a gaiety bound by time-honored respect and beliefs inveterate. I see it, too, in the faces of the brash young kids who play softball in the lot next door to the town hall. Their loud whelps and the prescriptive presence of Mom and Dad reach me through nights hot and sticky. But I remain the outsider: one from the university who stayed, impervious to the pop-eyed stares of rumpled black men who live in doorways, or the rumblings of a political machinery rousing from its sleep.
In my mind, some of the people I have encountered here, the daily chronicles aped obligingly in the Chapel Hill Newspaper, and places against which I have brushed in darkness and amazement:
Ms. Claudia Canady. She’s special assistant to Chapel Hill Mayor James Wallace, but she grew up on a farm in Carrboro near what is now University Lake. She remembers when the main street of Carrboro was no more than the tiny block from the Baptist Church to the Station Restaurant. “It was an old mill town and everyone knew everyone else. Folks would meet on the corner to catch up on what went on the day before. But it was the old mill building that everyone thought put Carrboro on the map — it had something to do with materials for the war and high productivity levels. Everyone thought it was pretty big. There was a grand celebration and the governor came over to make a speech. He said something like, ‘For the first time in the history of Carrboro, Chapel Hill had to look up to it.’ ” [The town had a comeback from the Depression in 1942 when the former No. 7 mill was converted into a munitions plant. It stayed in operation for three years and paid seven thousand dollars a week in wages. It was a boom time for Carrboro.]
Annree and Gordon Mitchell. Annree’s the potter who wants to operate a kiln in her yard on 317 Pine Street. The Carrboro Board of Aldermen agreed. Then a petition was presented against the board’s alteration of the zoning laws for the sake of one resident. The battle to operate the kiln continues with the Board of Adjustment to be reckoned with and a conditional use permit being sought. Annree, who teaches pottery courses and does all the firing at the YMCA, is determined to have the kiln she and a fellow potter built by hand. The Chapel Hill Newspaper quoted her, “We have been virtually ignored since the day we moved in. I don’t think it’s my kiln they don’t like. I think it’s me. I’m young, I’m an artist, I’ve got two kids, I grow potatoes in my yard and I haven’t lived here for 40 years. (she’s 32).”
Kay Allison is a good business person. The publisher of The Village Advocate, she would like to help Carrboro convey a “personality of its own.” She speaks of the “good, friendly merchants,” the increased interest in a cooperative marketing effort, renovation of old houses into downtown shops. Her vision encompasses Tumbleweed Cyclery and the Western Auto — the peaceful co-existence of the newfangled and traditional. It’s Carr Mill coming and Gift Land going out of business.
Wilbur Neville is 31 years old and black. He was born and raised in my neighborhood. He thinks Carrboro suffers from a “cultural lag.” He rattles off the reasons: no mass transportation, no recreation center, none of the needed public services. Change has come to Carrboro in his lifetime. This he admits, but it has been a “forced change.” “Roberts Associates brought in apartment buildings, and with them came university students who brought a visual population change, but affected no great change in government. Student turn-out was even light for the cause of the bus referendum. It seems as if the students just sleep here, driving and biking numbly along Main Street, Carrboro on their way to classes, shops, and eateries in Chapel Hill. They are people in transit. Just passing through. . . . Carrboro wants to be alone and apart but has not the resources for self-sufficiency. The people do not know how to communicate. No they aren’t educated. I remember when Carrboro had a judge without even a high school education. A judge, dealing in life and freedom.”
Carrboro is not an ordinary living place. Through the years, it has inherited a sizeable spillover of people brought here by the university. They come to escape the homogeneity of high-rise dormitory life. They come with expensive stereo equipment that must be protected by the public safety officer. They bring dollars to spend in the A&P. They show a fondness for the narrow-shaded streets and the old houses with a front porch swing and a place for growing vegetables in the backyard. What they find is a society slowly discarding a conservative taint while quietly seeking to assimilate this new breed.
Jacques and Amy Menache founded the Art School in Carrboro. Martin Holtz and Norma Dunkelburger conceived the Gallery Theatre. There, on 150 E. Main Street, adults and children can climb the dusty wooden steps to a second floor world of watercolor, silkscreen, dance, acting, and scene design.
Wallace Kaufman, a native New Yorker and academician turned real estate broker, runs Heartwood Realty. He wants to develop new attitudes about land use. His Saralyn and Loblolly communities are broken up into small tracts, with environmental restrictions to protect everyone. Not an average real estate broker, he talks and he lobbies and he writes. I pick up the June issue of Redbook magazine and discover a short story entitled “Rebirth” between Summer meal planning and suntanning hints. Wallace Kaufman is the author. I am reminded of Updike and the ice melts in my tea.
A block from my home, on Lloyd Street and across from what was once the Carrboro town hall, there is now the Haw River Paddle Shop. I remember watching them move into the tiny building, longer than it is wide, and wondering who would seek out canoes and Kayaks here. Just the other year a ladies fine apparel shop had tried there and failed. But the young workers are there every morning, restoring frayed canvas, answering the questions of their barefoot clientele, telling each other stories of wind and water.
So here I stay, along with the others who shamefacedly admit that yes, they too graduated from the university years ago and no, they cannot think of a better Southern spot in which to live and perhaps grow old. Shunning the smoky barrooms and the three-dollars-a-seat cinema houses, they sit on back stoops at dusk and feel a bit smug about the order of things and watch the peachtree ripen in the yard next door.
It is appropriate that there be revived in Carrboro today the two deserted dwellings around which the town grew: the old mill and the depot.
In a joint development, Southern Real Estate out of Charlotte, North Carolina and the Edy Corporation plan to convert the mill building into a shopping center. The developers, architects, and contractors promise to heed the town’s mandate to conserve as much as possible of the wide green lawn, the old shade trees, and perhaps even the faint air of years past. Most see the new construction as a drawing card for the whole of downtown Carrboro.
Lee Epting and Mike Macomson own and manage The Station Restaurant. They spotted the station there years ago while passing through town, liked what they saw and began the two years of negotiations which led to the facelift of the forgotten structure. By tradition, the depot was the meeting place for all types of people. So it is today, serving family-style meals to truck drivers, bankers and professors.
Great pain was given to salvaging as much authentic material as possible in the arrangement and design of the interior. Lee says the huge bar in the main dining hall was made from the doors of the old bathrooms. Fortunately, the depot had the four doors needed for the job — back then, blacks and whites had separate facilities.
The villages of Chapel Hill and Carrboro are contiguous, the western boundary of Chapel Hill being Carrboro’s eastern boundary. Chapel Hill is a much older town, being laid out in 1793 at the same time that the University laid the corner stone of its first building. Carrboro’s history begins with the extension of the railroad, in 1882, from what was thereafter called University Station to a point about a mile west of UNC.
Louis Graves, who established The Chapel Hill Weekly in 1923, recalled in an article appearing in that paper on March 21, 1947, the Carrboro he knew in the 1890’s: “The only buildings were the railway station, the cotton gin, flour mill, blacksmith shop and one or two other dwellings. Everyone called the railroad station ‘the depot.’ Hacks with Negro drivers would meet every train to drive folks into Chapel Hill. Sometimes they would have races and the entire plain would be clouded with dust.”
Carrboro’s growth into a real town began when Tom Lloyd built his cotton mill in 1898. With his keen mind and natural gift for trading, he quickly became the richest man in town, though he had no formal schooling. He learned to write his name merely to sign checks and handle business transactions.
The little town that grew up around the depot and the mill was named Venable for Frances P. Venable, then President of the University. Later, when the Carr family bought the Lloyd mill, the name was changed to Carrboro.
Extracted from Orange County, 1752-1952, edited by Hugh Lefler and Paul Wagner. Chapel Hill, 1953.