The rebirth of Saxapahaw

by Scott Sessoms

Seventeen miles west of Chapel Hill an old cotton mill has sprung back to life. But it’s not spinning cotton any more. It’s now a destination for concerts, art, food and new business in the rural town of Saxapahaw.

Listen closely, and you’ll hear the river gushing over large rocks and the birds.  This is what you’re likely to hear out in Saxapahaw, a small town that hugs a wide, rocky section of the Haw River.  It’s not always quiet though.  On Saturday afternoons thousands arrive to a farmer’s market and outdoor concert.  Some evenings, you’ll hear live music echoing out of a newly constructed music hall.

The center of Saxapahaw is now a restored cotton mill – three stories tall and about a city block long.  It was empty when Linda Pucci moved here in 2001.

“The mill itself was derelict,” Pucci said. “Broken windows, cars, junk and scrap. It was just a mess. There was nothing else here. You went across the bridge, turned right and you saw these derelict buildings and you just drove on. You weren’t going to stop.”

But Mac Jordan, whose family owned the mill for 50 years, wasn’t ready to see the town wither away.  As a student at Duke, his master’s thesis was a plan to transform the old mill. After graduating, Jordan put the plan into action – as the developer of Saxapahaw Rivermill Village.

“I had developed a program which was pretty simple, really,” Jordan said. “We didn’t want to be just a suburb. We wanted a true billage where people could hang-out, socialize, eat and work.”

Jordan and his team had a couple things going for them. The town is close enough to the Triangle to attract people who want to work in the city, and live in the country.  And Jordan, grandson of the late Senator B. Everett Jordan, had access to capital to pursue the grand vision.

Jordan secured financing for the risky investment, found architects and began construction. Five-years later, this former dusty, old mill is now full of unique living spaces and diverse businesses.
Heather LaGarde and her husband created the a “music series and farmer’s market” event known as Saturdays-In-Saxapahaw , which led to the opening of a large live music venue:  the Haw River Ballroom.

“It was a really crazy idea to try and do a very large music venue in the middle of the country,” LaGarde said. “But, it’s such a beautiful space. We just felt like we could do it.”

Conor Oberst, Gillian Welsh, The Drive By Truckers, as well as Grammy award winnersLucinda Williams and Patty Griffin, have all played the Haw River Ballroom.

LaGarde says this is how she would describe Saxapahaw – to someone who’s never been.

“I would describe it as a magical river village that’s just one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen,” LaGarde said. “It’s so small and so dominated by the river, that the river kind of protects the town from ever getting overdeveloped, which we love.”

Keep in mind, all of this is happening in a really, really small town.  No shopping malls, no highways and a population of 2,000 people. Jordan – the developer –  isn’t seeking massive expansion.

“This might come as a shock, being from a developer, but no, we don’t want growth,” Jordan said. “I mean, we want some growth, but we want to maintain quality of life and preserve as much open space as possible. Again, the aesthetic is what is attractive.”

With the conversion of the closed down cotton mill, into a vibrant new town center, Saxapahaw seems reborn, and who knows where the momentum will lead.

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