Graham’s founders were pleased with the pretty little town which grew around their stucco and brick courthouse. So pleased, according to legend, that they rejected the proposed passage of the North Carolina Railroad’s dirty, disruptive locomotives within a block of the courthouse, choosing peace over progress and prosperity.
The railroad created its own town just west of Graham, calling it Company Shops. As the rail center grew, some suggested it be named Carolinadelphia; Burlington was the name finally chosen. Burlington attracted most of the commerce and today is more than four times as populous as Graham.
With the recent decline of the railroads and the coming of Interstate 85 half a mile south of town, Graham has grown too. Now its population of 9,000 is merged into a continuous textile strip stretching from Burlington east to the mills of Haw River near the Orange County line.
Yet downtown Graham easily retained its individuality. Many stores lining broad Main Street date from the turn of the century: a handsome old bank converted into law offices, several hardware stores, a theater transformed into an antique shop. The former Hotel Graham houses a convenience store and the undistinguished “Home Cookin’” of the Riverside Cafe and Cafeteria. And then there’s Nick’s General Store, which has occupied one corner of the courthouse square since the town began. Along with the spacious white houses on Albright Avenue and Melville, Harden, Elm and Maple Streets, these sturdy old buildings lend Graham an aged charm and a rare sense of permanence.
Graham’s identity is also preserved through its ample share of eccentricities. In one shop there’s a sign warning “No Cigars Allowed.” The Graham Flea Market, formerly McAdams’ Department Store, prominently displays six china “Hippie Figurines” on sale for $1.50 each. (The “hippies,” male and female, all have long hair. The men have beards. Some hippies sit in the lotus position; others sprawl, legs extended.)
Instead of parking meters the town has a “meter maid,” Grace Williams, who enforces the two-hour parking limit by marking the tires of parked cars with chalk. Among its modern fire engines, the fire department has a truck from the 1950’s, as well as an operational vehicle with a leather carriage set reminiscent of the Coolidge era.
The weekly newspaper, The Alamance News, has headlines like “Car Struck By Woman Leaving Parking Space.” Handbills posted around town by the Tabernacle Baptist Church advertising a film called “The Grim Reaper” have a color sketch of a cloaked skeleton, eyes glowing, opening a coffin with one hand while holding a bloody scythe in the other. The ad for this “explosive motion picture of Satan’s demonic forces” asks, just below the coffin, “Are You Next?”
There’s a Graham Sporting Goods and Soda Shop, a Who’s Ceramics, a Moon Fashion Shop, and a Style-a-Peele beauty salon.
At the corner of the courthouse square where the town well used to be, the watering holes are now a beer hall, a poolroom, and “The Sound Castle,” a disco lounge. The movie theater on Main Street, featuring films of “The Bad News Bears” genre, is a vision from the past with a marquee lit by hundreds of gay little light bulbs.
All roads lead to the squat grey stone county courthouse — built in 1923 — which looks like a refugee from Washington. In front, looking north down Main Street, stands the ubiquitous Confederate statue, this one a soldier with wide hat, rifle at his side, bed roll draped across his body. Inscriptions circle the pedestal. From the vantage point of the courthouse steps, the inscription reads:
On Fame’s eternal camping ground, Their silent tents are spread. And glory guards with solemn round The bivouac of the dead.
Among the dead bivouacked in Graham is Wyatt Outlaw, a black man hanged from a tree near the old courthouse by the Ku Klux Klan in 1870.
Like their Caswell County compatriots, Alamance Klansmen, numbering between six and seven hundred, terrorized blacks and their white sympathizers during Reconstruction. One Alamance white who spoke against the Klan found a coffin at his door with the message “Hold your tongue or this will be your home.” (I don’t know if the producers of “The Grim Reaper” were influenced by this bit of Klan ingenuity.)
T.M. Shoffner, an Alamance legislator, sponsored a law empowering the governor to declare a county to be in a state of insurrection if local law enforcement officials couldn’t maintain order. The governor defined “order.” Called The Shoffner Act, the law was specifically designed to check Klan activities. Enraged KKK riders from Orange County decided to execute Shoffner for this unfriendly deed, but were turned back by Alamance Klansmen. Shoffner wisely fled to Indiana.
Wyatt Outlaw, a black Graham policeman, was less fortunate. Outlaw once had the audacity to fire into a Klan parade; he also headed the county chapter of the militant black/Republican Union League. These offenses earned him a Klan death sentence, which was duly executed one night in February, 1870. A sign was pinned to Outlaw’s chest warning, “Beware, ye guilty, both black and white.” The murderers were never caught.
In May, after Caswell Klansmen filleted Chicken Stevens, a Republican state senator, Republican Governor William Holden declared both counties to be in a state of insurrection and sent the militia to make mass arrests. Later, when President Grant failed to countermand state and federal court directives requiring Holden to restore the writ of habeas corpus, the occupation collapsed.
These days there’s little sign of racial tension in Graham, if only because there are few black faces to be seen.
What you do see are elderly people in surprising profusion, people like Virginia Bodein, who told me, “Graham’s the garden spot of the world as far as I’m concerned.”
A Graham native, Bodein left to teach in Maryland for 30 years, then returned home and retired. “In Maryland I didn’t walk down to the laundry room without locking my door,” she recalled. She said Graham is different. “I feel safe here. I don’t drive; I can walk anywhere and not have to worry.”
Virginia Bodein proudly reported that “when you’re in the least bit of trouble” Graham folks are quick to offer help, sympathy, understanding. “It’s a wonderful little town,” she glowed.
People in Graham are friendly — while such openness has receded elsewhere, they’re still willing to meet your gaze, smile, exchange greetings, strike up a conversation.
Over on Albright Avenue Talmadge Nelson, 71, crouched on his porch roof, patching holes with tar. A butterfly circled overhead in the morning sunlight.
I waved to him from across the street and he waved right back. “Morning,” he called warmly. (It turned out he’d mistaken me for someone he knew.) His voice carried easily; the houses press intimately close on Albright Avenue.
“Morning,” I replied, crossing to stand in the shade of a great tree on the sidewalk before him.
Nelson enjoyed talking, spoke readily of his lifetime in Graham, of his 30 years with Coca Cola, lettering signs “wherever they’d let me put one.” Some of the memories made him laugh, his head tilting back, white hair blending softly with the white clapboard behind him.
He said he spent his time keeping up the sprawling house (in his wife’s family since they built it in 1902), and visiting with friends, kinfolk, and occasional strangers. We chatted on until suddenly he recalled that the young man craning his neck to talk to him had said he was a writer.
“You don’t want to write about me,” he insisted. “I’m not important.” At first I thought he was kidding, but he added, “I’m supposed to be a forgotten man. I’m retired.”
We talked on. By and by he remembered a baseball team he’d played with back when the present courthouse was under construction. The team had three brother combinations, including Talmadge and his brother Billy, a tall left-hander who once struck out 22 batters in a game. Talmadge played second base “and didn’t make an error all season.”
“We had quite a team,” he boasted happily. Tiny Graham lost to Greensboro in the state championship game, but Nelson’s memory of the team’s glory remains undiminished.
There are numerous factory outlets scattered all around. My favorite, the Rolane Factory Store, is actually in Burlington, about three miles north of the Alamance County Courthouse on Highway 87. The store bills itself as “The World’s Largest Hosiery Outlet” — fanciers of inexpensive or outrageous socks will love it.
The Graham Presbyterian Church, an oasis in the middle of town, is a graceful 121-year-old brick structure surrounded by trees and grass, a fountain and flowerbeds. The folks inside will gladly let you look around the chapel with its beautiful stained glass windows. Or you can sit outside eating a fresh 10 cents doughnut from the Tasty Bakery on Main Street and watch mothers gather in their cars at noon to pick up their kids from the church day care center.
Out by the Interstate, at the first Graham exit (148), is Zia Teresa’s, a quality Italian restaurant which serves generous portions, understands the nuances of Italian cookery, and offers the best garlic bread south of Little Italy.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Thrifty Kitchen tucked among the agricultural equipment stores just west of town. They sell a hell of a soggy foot-long hotdog, with the works — chili, slaw, onions, mustard, and a little of the wax paper they wrap it in — for only 70 cents.