An Ode to Saxapahaw

What the North Carolina river village lacks in size, it makes up for in character and community spirit

photo: Heather LaGarde

A crowd listens to music at Saturdays in Saxapahaw.

I don’t have the space to explain the magic of Saxapahaw, North Carolina, and how it came to be. A book of words might not even be enough. First there was a river, the Haw, tumbling over ancient volcanic boulders. Then a cotton mill and mill village. Then ruin. Now, rebirth.

The rebirth is what draws me over and over to Saxapahaw (locals say SAX-puh-haw). For two decades now, a collection of rural visionaries and dedicated craftspeople have made the tiny river village and its once-abandoned mill a cultural magnet. East of Chapel Hill, where I live, Durham and Raleigh offer plenty of excellent restaurants, breweries, and live music venues. I find the pull of Saxapahaw, sixteen miles west, even stronger. 

On sunny Sundays, we’ll join friends for a morning paddle on a flatwater section of the Haw and then have a leisurely lunch on the terrace of the Eddy Pub, one of many businesses in the former mill’s funky, sprawling rehabilitated dye house. Among them are a brewery (Haw River Farmhouse Ales), coffee shop (Cup 22), bike shop (River Mill Cycles), and craft store specializing in products made in North Carolina and woman-owned brands (Freehand Market).

photo: Heather LaGarde
Kayaking on the Haw River.

At Left Bank Butchery, next door to the Eddy, owner Ross Flynn has partnered with a couple of local farms for all his beef and pork to ensure the best animal conditions and quality. He and his acolytes practice whole-animal “seam butchery,” hand-slicing along natural seams to separate muscles instead of sawing through blocks that contain muscle groups of varying tenderness. 

A few doors down is the Saxapahaw General Store, which owners Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff call “your local five-star gas station.” Fuel up at the “Saxaco” pumps. Buy local beer and vegetables, bread, milk, and chewing tobacco. Or stay for a meal. Locals and foodies who drive for miles line up together to order house-braised brisket, duck confit, and chorizo biscuits and gravy. 

Jeff and Cameron opened the restaurant and store in 2008. They were encouraged in those early days by Heather and Tom LaGarde, two other Saxapahaw pioneers, who started a summertime Saturday farmers’ market and free music event back in 2005 that has grown into Saturdays in Saxapahaw. It’s still free nearly two decades later but now draws more than a thousand people weekly. 

photo: Heather LaGarde
Saturdays in Saxapahaw.

“I really admire Jeff and Cameron,” Heather says. “They managed to not make the locals feel alienated. If they had been snooty and not kept some of the things that people in the neighborhood wanted, they could have really set the tone for this to be a gentrification hell.”

That commitment to authenticity runs through all the businesses at Saxapahaw. It’s one of many sources of the magic. Another is the story of the mill itself—established in the middle 1800s, bought by the B. Everett Jordan family in 1927 and updated in brick and steel, sold in 1978 and shuttered two decades later, only to be repurchased and converted into lofts and businesses by Everett Jordan’s son and grandson. Want to learn more? Drop by the Saxapahaw Museum

photo: Heather LaGarde
The refurbished cotton mill on the Haw River.

There’s so much to love about Saxapahaw. Like the easy, organic aesthetic. The architects left part of the dye house unfinished, giving the place the feel of ruins. The landscape designers trained flowering vines up old drying racks. In the center of a pollinator garden a rusty dye vat towers overhead, with “Haw River Ballroom” punched out of the metal so that at night, when lighted from within, the words glow.

Oh yeah, the Haw River Ballroom. What a remarkable place—a cavernous, 750-person music venue opened in 2012 by the LaGardes. It has reclaimed wood floors, brick walls covered in high-tech German-made acoustic panels, a disco ball that bathes concerts in spinning luminous fairy dust. The Ballroom draws big names to this small place in part because of how the LaGardes and their staff treat the artists—they own a fleet of kayaks and take all the bands for a paddle during their stay—and how this rural corner helps touring musicians unwind. 

I saw Son Volt there not long ago and, a few weeks before, a quartet headed by Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse. At the Andrew Marlin show, during intermission, my wife and I sipped drinks on the terrace overlooking the river. A massive thunderstorm had passed through that afternoon, and the day’s heat was lifting. Fat tufts of clouds daubed pink by the setting sun drifted over the raging Haw while chimney swifts, joined by the evening’s first bats, circled and dipped for insects. When we heard the strum of a mandolin, we ordered more drinks and stepped inside. 

The Haw River Ballroom.