Nowadays, you can see 71-year-old Jerry Neal, the least-retired retired man in Randolph County, zipping around his roughly 550 acres of red clay and rolling hills in a Mini Cooper that looks more suitable for Charlize Theron in The Italian Job than for the co-founder of RF Micro Devices Inc., a technology company now called Qorvo with annual revenue topping $2.5 billion. As a teenager, Neal often circled around downtown Asheboro in Tommy Hill’s ’58 Chevy with red leather seats and the reel-to-reel tape deck Neal rigged to give the duo an edge in their pursuit of girls.
“I had my own radio receiver that I’d built, illegally by the way, but I’d recorded all these songs of the day — Brenda Lee, Conway Twitty — so I made these tapes,” says Neal, whose family has owned land in Randolph County since the 18th century. “Tommy and me, as we were plying our trade down there, could show them we’ve got any kind of music you want to listen to. This is actually pretty impressive — a brand new ’58 Chevy and this unconventional music system. It gave us an extra edge.”
Asheboro was a mill town then, with textile plants and furniture factories that, among other things, churned out the Kennedy rocking chair, named after the 35th president who had at least 14 of them. It was a mill town when 18-year-old John McGlohon, now 92, enlisted in the Army just before Pearl Harbor and spent the war taking reconnaissance photographs, flying the Hump across the Himalayas, mapping the coast of China and capturing a photo from directly overhead as the atomic cloud rose up from Hiroshima. It was a mill town when he mustered out in 1945, eventually becoming fire chief, which, in a place that stored varnish by the barrel, is about as sobering an occupation as heart surgeon.
It was a mill town when Burrell Hopkins opened Hops Bar-B-Q on the corner of Church and Sunset in an old gas station and taxi stand. It was a mill town when civil rights protesters in the 1960s lay down in front of Hops’ doorway. And it was a mill town when Jerry Southard, the current owner of Hops, started working there in 1971 when he was 14.
With the exception of Acme-McCrary Corp.’s hosiery mill, the textile and furniture plants moved offshore, or just plain moved, and downtown businesses that supported them headed for the mall. “We were a typical small Southern mill town,” says David Smith, mayor of the city that has a population of about 26,000. “And we were typical in that our downtown was in various stages of decline.” By the late 1990s, what remained on the blocks where people strolled at night and Neal cruised as a kid were derelict buildings and empty storefronts. Not anymore.
The city revitalization began with Bicentennial Park, an outdoor entertainment and gathering spot that includes a covered stage. A new farmers market was built, open three days a week from April to October. The liquor laws were liberalized in 2007. “We were the largest dry city in North Carolina,” Smith says. “That immediately spurred some renewed interest in our downtown area. It hasn’t been a panacea or the great economic engine that its proponents said it would be, but it’s also not been the end of the world that the opponents thought it would be.”
Antique stores moved into downtown. So did restaurants like The Flying Pig and an upscale wine bar, Lumina. Dustie Gregson opened The Table, a coffee shop/bakery/restaurant next door to the Asheboro Mill Lofts, income-restricted housing in renovated factory buildings. She took over an office building, which dates to 1925. “It was bad,” she says. “The ceiling had been leaking. The back was caved in. I walked in and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is perfect.’ And my husband said, ‘Are you insane?’” Her husband, Andy, is running unopposed for Randolph County district attorney. In a particularly busy lunch rush, you might see him with his tie tucked into his shirt, washing dishes. Dustie Gregson did the interior decorating, including designing an impressive wrought-iron and milk-bottle chandelier and restoring the original tin ceiling. “Let’s do something, but let’s not do it halfway,” says Gregson, who grew up in nearby Sophia. “Let’s treat it as if it was sitting in the middle of a big city.”
The Table is far from a one-off. Bia’s Gourmet Hardware is an upscale restaurant opened by Bia and Eric Rich, who moved to Asheboro from Manhattan. She’s originally from just outside Sao Paulo, and he’s from Greensboro. Their Worth Street building dates to the early 20th century and, as its name suggests, was once a hardware store. Its last use before the Riches’ bistro was as the Enigma nightclub, with its exterior brick painted gold. “It had a couple of mixed metaphors,” says Eric. “Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek lettering. It was kind of Nefertiti and Tutankhamun. Kind of an eyesore.” Those not won over by the escargots or wine cellar can fall into conversation with bartender John Czop, a former Manhattanite and freelance artist who has drawn Spider-Woman and X-Men for Marvel Comics. “I came down here because Bia promised to teach me how to cook,” he says.
A block or so down Fayetteville Street is the year-old Four Saints Brewing Company. Joel McClosky is a Pittsburgh-area transplant who came to Asheboro for a teaching job. He and business partner Andrew Deming renovated a former Buick dealership for their brewpub. “You drive into Asheboro’s downtown on a Saturday afternoon and you actually see people walking around, popping in and out of shops, going places,” says McClosky. “Twelve years ago when I moved there, Saturday afternoon everybody was at Wal-Mart. It’s the whole rising tide thing.”
The refurbished Sunset Theatre, built in 1930, is a centerpiece of the town’s main street. Neal, who left RF Micro in 2012, has performed his one-man show, a portrayal of Italian radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi, at the city-owned venue. Marconi, however, isn’t the best role Neal has played in the city. First, he restored the 115-foot tall Cranford Industries smokestack. “I researched smokestacks a little bit and realized there’s never going to be any more of these. When they’re gone, those smokestacks that helped build this country are going
to be gone forever.”
Neal is looking at redeveloping the remainder of the abandoned factory building adjacent to the smokestack and expects to make a decision within a few months. “We’re doing an evaluation from an engineering point of view about what are the economics of doing something with the building,” says Neal, who has worked with a Pinehurst architect on plans for the National Register of Historic Places site. “I don’t want to get ahead of where we are. To try to save it would mean a lot to the city.” And,
it would give him something extra to drive around again.
Jim Moriarty is a writer based in Southern Pines. We want to tell your town’s story. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.