Miracle on the Haw

 In 2015-09

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The funny thing is,” Heather LaGarde says with a laugh, “we don’t officially exist as a town, or even a village.  We’re really just a good idea.” As twilight settles over tiny Saxapahaw (population 1,700), a restored mill town set in a bucolic bend of the Haw River in southern Alamance County, you’d have no disagreement from the 700 or so folks converging for the evening — some settling with picnics on blankets on a grassy hillside across from the mill, while others roam the thriving business district for “Saturdays in Saxapahaw.” The summertime celebration, which runs May to September, is equal parts upscale farmers market and free folk festival.

At the village’s popular General Store, which calls itself a “five-star gas station,” customers queue up a dozen deep for gourmet takeout or poke around aisles displaying everything from locally made heirloom applesauce to organic yogurt, giant Marconi peppers to a wall of regional wines and beers. The mill’s new butcher shop, gastropub and artisan brewery are doing their customary brisk weekend business as well, serving an unusually democratic crowd that includes everyone from families with kids to elderly farm couples, Durham hipsters to daytripping kayakers.

Not bad for a “good idea” that, indeed, has no legal corporate or village boundaries or official municipal status. There’s no mayor, village council, property taxes or public works department — only a nearby volunteer fire department and a populist army of local volunteers who dig Saxapahaw’s old-fashioned ethos. Longtime locals recall a time when Alamance County’s government had little awareness that the tiny place even existed. But like a southern Brigadoon that aims to preserve its traditional values with fiddles, food and fellowship, the “Miracle on the Haw,” as some have called this populist revival, is a truly homegrown affair.

 

Had you stumbled just a few years ago into the sleepy mill village named after the Sissipahaw Indians that once made the area home, you’d have found a strikingly handsome brick mill that once produced cotton fabric for the Confederate army but had been sitting empty since losing a bout with a tornado in 1994. Local real-estate developer Mac Jordan — grandson of late U.S. Sen. B. Everett Jordan — set out to revitalize the village by restoring the historic mill his family had owned since 1927 (“Runs in the family,” April 2013). Jordan, who grew up in Saxapahaw, eventually enlisted the help of Heather LaGarde and her husband Tom, a former UNC basketball star and NBA player, who run an architectural salvage business. They shared Jordan’s deep passion for historic preservation. “From the beginning,” says Heather LaGarde, who grew up in Chapel Hill and learned to drive a car in Saxapahaw as a teen, “we wanted to create a slower place with a rich sense of community, the kind of place many of us remember growing up.”

The partners began by transforming the mill’s lower structure into 75 apartments, sparking a revival that attracted Jeff Barney and his partner Cameron Ratliff to the village in 2008. Barney, a well-traveled chef who formerly worked at Pittsboro’s popular Chatham Marketplace food co-op, quickly made the General Store a prime destination for farmers looking to grab a quick breakfast and roving foodies from nearby Chapel Hill. A popular “sharing bench” near its front door has become a community gathering spot, where locals swap everything from gumboots to outgrown baby clothes. Students and professors from nearby Elon University (30 minutes north) and UNC Chapel Hill (25 minutes east) contribute to a growing vibe that blends community spirit with urban cool, seasoned by a pinch of pure small-town nostalgia.

“There’s no question we’ve tapped into something in people, especially young people, a real yearning for simplicity and authenticity,” Barney says. “There was no formal blueprint for anything that evolved except for really good, fresh, honest locally grown food; great music; good beer and a welcoming spirit,” he says. “The timing was right. We created it, and the public found us.” Locals have a phrase for this sort of newfangled, old-fashioned energy: Very Saxy.

Doug Williams and Claire Haslam were among the early believers, moving to the Rivermill apartments in 2007, shortly before they bought into the mill ownership and helped complete its restoration. With the help of architects at Clearscapes and remodelers at Alphin Design Build, both Raleigh companies, the couple created the Haw River Ballroom, a fixture on the state’s live music circuit that is owned by the LaGardes and partner Margaret Jemison, and the adjacent Eddy Pub. The crowded restaurant features locally sourced foods from area farms — including four that specifically relocated to the area because of Saxapahaw’s appeal — and beer from Haw River Farmhouse Ales, located downstairs.

A charter school housed in the mill now enrolls 275 students from 5th to 12th grade, while the upper mill is home to 29 one- to four-bedroom Rivermill Lofts, priced from $290,000 to $385,000, most of which have sold. The lofts feature views of the river and architectural details such as reclaimed wood and exposed beams and advanced green technologies of solar and geothermal systems.

“My wife Murielle, who is French, always said she wanted to live someplace where you could walk everywhere, buy a good baguette and find good wine. Saxapahaw has all of that and then some,” says Tommy Noonan, director of the village’s new Culture Mill, a nonprofit that’s developing artist-in-residency programs and live performance programs designed to make the village a bigger arts destination. Noonan, his wife and young daughter moved here a year ago from Berlin, where they worked as dancers and choreographers. “There’s a civility here that allows people of very different cultural tastes and politics to interact and politely listen to each other. It’s the perfect place to raise our daughter, and grow something special,” says Noonan, who grew up in Orange County. Already established on Main Street is Paperhand Puppet Intervention, a veteran company of puppeteers whose annual shows at UNC Chapel Hill’s Forest Theater and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh have wowed critics and wooed audiences for 16 years.

The economic impact of the riverside revival, including as many as 20,000 visitors annually, hasn’t been tabulated, Doug Williams says. “There havn’t been any formal studies on the economic impact yet,” he says. “The closest thing we can point to is that we now employ about 75 people, many of them locals who are happy to have a place to work right out their door. Others have heard about what’s going on here and simply found their way to Saxapahaw.” That includes the county’s business leaders. “At least the Alamance Chamber of Commerce knows about us now,” he says. “They’ve been very interested in what’s going on here — even helpful.”

Others interested in Saxapahaw include writers for national publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, who produced flattering stories about the development. That partially explains the out-of-state plates that are parked from one end of the village to the other on any given weekend.  “This place is really a celebration of the best things in life — good food, a safe place for family, great live music, a blended diversity that makes every kind of person feel welcome and at home, part of a vibrant community in one of the most beautiful places on earth,” says Heather LaGarde before she takes up a large, plastic swan bucket and drifts through a happy crowd enjoying the rockabilly music of Jonathan Byrd, collecting donations that help keep this river magic growing.

Very Saxy indeed.

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