By Bryan Mims
Spend some time in Henderson, and chances are good that you’ll pick out a Rose. It’s a firmly rooted surname around here. Do a White Pages search online, enter the name “Rose,” and you’ll get more than 1,800 results, nothing to sneeze at in a city of some 15,300 that isn’t sharing in the growth of the booming Triangle that is only 40 minutes away.
During World War II, a tobacco farmer named Charles Peete Rose Sr. ran a general store near the town’s railroad tracks. In January 1942, before he shipped off to war for two years, he and his wife, Margaret, celebrated the birth of their only child, a boy. The family lived in rooms above the store, and young Charlie, sharing a bedroom with his grandmother, would drift off to the sound of train whistles firing his imagination, his wanderlust. Oh, the places he would go.
He rose to be Henderson’s most famous Rose, earning his fame by interviewing presidents, dictators, billionaires, rock stars, actors, great thinkers, star athletes, even notorious killers.
Charlie Rose, host of an interview program on PBS and co-anchor of “CBS This Morning,” told Fortune magazine in 2009 that he remembers his childhood in Henderson longingly, working in his dad’s general store at age 7, reading biographies by candlelight. Rose returns periodically to the 500-acre farm outside nearby Oxford that he uses as a retreat.
A young entrepreneur named Paul H. Rose, not closely related to Charlie Rose’s family, opened Roses 5-10-15 Cent Store in downtown Henderson in 1915. By 1921, he had 11 stores; by 1929, he was opening one store a month across the Carolinas and Tennessee, initially in small towns. Roses is still headquartered in Henderson but is no longer owned by the Rose family. In 1997, it was sold to Variety Wholesalers Inc., a family-owned business that operates about 175 stores, mostly in the Southeast (page 34). Variety Wholesalers is the second-largest employer in Vance County, behind the public-school system.
You can still see the building that housed the original Roses store on Garnett Street, Henderson’s main drag. It’s a three-story brick structure with the words “P.H. Rose Building” on top. Variety Wholesalers uses the site as its corporate office.
Along Garnett you’ll see trim buildings of brick — red-brown brick, beige brick, white brick — and the occasional stone building embellished with Greek columns. The Henry A. Dennis County Office Building and the old First National Bank look especially regal in their stonemasonry. A couple of brick buildings display painted-on advertisements from an era long before monopole billboards: “Vance Furniture Co., Henderson’s Largest,” reads one and “Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco.”
Downtown Henderson looks like the quintessential small-city business district with its arch-shaped windows on brick facades and sidewalks peopled with pedestrians in no particular hurry. Some storefronts are vacant, their windows posted with “available” signs. It pains Henderson native Irene Edwards, 62, to see the hollow buildings, and she worries that they portray a city on the decline. The population has barely changed over the last 25 years.
“What’s gonna be here for the younger generation?” Edwards says, standing on the sidewalk along Garnett, pointing out a darkened storefront. “The children when they grow up, what are they gonna do here for jobs? They’ve got to feed their families.”
Henderson and Vance County have long struggled economically, particularly since the early 2000s when the Harriet and Henderson cotton mills closed their doors. The unemployment rate in June 2016 was among the state’s highest, at 7.5%, and more than 38% of Vance County children lived in poverty in 2014, compared with a statewide average of 17.6%, according to the N.C. Justice Center.
Numbers like that are powerful motivators for Deryl von Williams, who’s hustling in and out of the Village Café on a late-summer day, delivering free lunches to area children. She talks fast, too, speaking with an accent not of this place. “I’m from New York,” she says. “This is Henderson, Vance County. It’s a totally different world. It’s like Mars.”
She moved here when her parents retired to the area — her father grew up in nearby Warren County — and started a private, nonprofit school called the Vance County Learning Center. Her mission: to teach students with discipline and academic problems who couldn’t be taught in the public schools. She opened it in 2004, alarmed after hearing that 6,000 suspensions were occurring each year in Vance County schools, a district that enrolls about 7,500 students, about 75% of them African-American. “That means children go home for two days, three days, five days, 10 days, or total expulsion, meaning you don’t come back,” she says. “I have a problem with that. What happens to them?” The county’s two main high schools received “D” ratings in the state’s accountability report for 2015-16, while its early college school affiliated with the local community college was awarded an “A.”
Tuition at von Williams’ school is $900 a month, but many families don’t pay the full cost. The state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offers school vouchers for low-income families, grants financial aid of up to $4,200 a year per student. Von Williams also operates a café, boutique store and summer camp to support the learning center.
During the summer, she provides free lunches to hundreds of poor children who might otherwise go hungry. She and her staff drive to neighborhoods and housing projects handing out food to kids, many of them sitting expectantly on the curbs. “What you have to do is go to them,” she says. “When they hear our horns blow, children come running from everywhere.”
Despite pockets of poverty, Henderson is filled with silver linings. The Vance County Economic Development Commission promotes the area as “The Leading Edge of the Research Triangle,” with Durham just 40 miles away and Interstate 85 running right through the northern edge of the city. Industry has indeed come: Seattle-based Pacific Coast Feather Co. makes pillows and employs more than 250 people in Vance County. Iams Co., maker of pet food,and International Paper Co. together employ more than 200. There’s also Semprius, a Durham semiconductor firm which promised in 2011 to create more than 250 jobs at its solar-cell plant here.
Despite a few empty stores, downtown Henderson shows some signs of vitality. It has a yoga and pilates studio; a shop called Down to Earth that sells herbs, plants, bulk teas and vitamins; and an arts, crafts and antiques emporium called Mainstreet Marketplace, a mini-mall where local artists sell their creations.
Much of small-town Americana still endures in Henderson, from the architecture of downtown to the drive-in movie theater — one of a precious few still operating — on the city’s southern outskirts. The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater looms along U.S. 1 like a monument to ’57 Chevys and doo-wop. On Wednesday through Sunday nights during the summer, and on weekend nights in the fall and spring, cars pack the place. “We get people from Wake Forest and Raleigh on a weekly basis,” says Christina Fulcher, 31, who’s been coming to the theater since she was a baby. Now, she brings her own children, as do many other moms and dads, to experience something that has largely faded from the American scene.
Longtime residents of Henderson, like people in towns across America, often can’t help but look at yesteryear through rose-tinted glasses. But in a town with so many Roses, local boosters say, with enough exposure, Henderson can bloom again.
Bryan Mims is a Raleigh-based writer and broadcast journalist.