I love driving home to Charlotte on the old two-lane Highways 64 and 49. It may be quicker to take I-85, but then again there’s the heavy traffic, pile-ups, and the void of anything beautiful. And, you must realize that the old way is changing fast. Lanes are being added every day and what were once small little towns are now extending their limits. So, let’s look back to the day and time when I was a college student in the late 70’s. What was it like back then to make the journey home for a weekend with family?
Leaving out from Raleigh on Friday afternoons after classes at NC State, I quickly passed through Apex which prided itself with a sign reading “Peak of Good Living.” Next, in wonderment of what will be, I crossed over the expansive construction site of what would soon become the B. Everett Jordan Lake. A broad field as far as eyes could see, the road passed through a narrow patch of pines. And then there was the steel bridge crossing the torrential Haw River a mile below what was then known as Chicken Bridge.
Passing at 15mph around the Chatham County Courthouse in the center of Pittsboro, I often stopped at a café or the antique store where I looked for old hand tools. Today, Woodworking guru Roy Underhill operates a really cool “Woodwright School” in one of the old stores on Main Street. Beyond Pittsboro I crossed over the Rocky River upon entering Siler City. I’m not talking about the same river that crosses much further down the road in the town of Harrisburg. Along this river running through Chatham County settled some of the earliest Baptists in piedmont NC. And in the town of Siler City is located the best place to eat a good hamburger in America. Behind the counter at Johnson’s Drive-In, the cook is busy melting blocks of Velveeta upon which he twists in nearly cooked burgers for their final burn. Passing out of Siler City, the next little town is Ramseur followed by numerous large farms and small lakes. I loved shaking my hands ceremoniously towards the passing lakes as if I were jerking a fishing rod. I’d love to have been able to fish some of what I saw.
Half way home and entering the town of Asheboro, Wright’s Cabinet Shop stood on the left side of the road. This was a different kind of establishment than that found in Roy Underhill’s new version of old timey woodworking. Mr. Wright’s place was a working shop filled with a hybrid of every kind of early mechanized machinery you’d want to see. His shop consisted of two side-by-side cinder block buildings with plank flooring. In back was a wood fired lumber kiln that I know burned down at least two times. The shop was filled with the whirring and flapping sound of overhead drive belts powered by a large 14 hp electric motor. There were swing saws and other woodworking equipment of the like I had never seen. Mr. Wright had flipped a 24” planer, transforming it into the widest jointer I’d ever seen. All I could think in seeing this was …Good God All Mighty! Mr. Wright was missing at least three fingers though his display and sales area were always filled with the finest woodworking.
About two hundred yards from Wright’s place was the Blue Mist Barbecue. I can still smell it from my memories but sadly quality trended downward over the years and it’s no longer there. However, I almost always stopped and bought a sandwich, fries and coke.
Passing through Asheboro, I often turned east on 220 if daylight allowed. Nearby were the potteries of Seagrove. There was the young Ben Owen, his historically quaint sales cabin, and his grandfather who was always in the background working him like a prized fighter. Ben’s place was filled with brightly colored and non-functional pieces glowing bright red from leaded glazes. Nearby were Vernon and Pam Owens and their Jug Town “campus.” I loved the tall candle sticks and butter churns. Everybody needs a butter churn!
But mostly on my trips home, and if I were able to get out of class early enough, I loved to stop by Seagrove Pottery where I’d sit a spell talking with Dot Auman prior to closing time. I loved the conversation and cherish my many talks with a real North Carolina treasure. On every stop at Seagrove Pottery I purchased a Rebecca pitcher, bowl, or some other kitchen piece glazed in their blue with streaks of brown and feldspar white. On one occasion I purchased a complete place setting for six. It wasn’t long after that we lost Dot and her husband Walter Auman as they were tragically killed in a traffic accident when a passing logging truck came unbuckled.
West of Asheboro, Hwy 49 splits off of Hwy 64 and heads southwest through the decaying mountain range called the Uwharries. Out in the middle of nowhere the road widens beautifully to four lanes through pastoral farmlands. The widened road is a stone’s throw from the town of Denton where is held the Annual Doyle Lawson Bluegrass Festival and Old Time Fly-In Threshers’ Reunion. On several occasions I timed my trips home to enjoy the summer festivities.
A little further down the road, in the bottom lands as the road begins to rise up in challenge of the Yadkin River, is located Jacob’s Creek Stone Company. An early quarry of Carolina blue slate, it was always worth the 15 minutes needed to drive through the piles and piles of discarded pieces of slate. And also nearby on 49 Hwy was Fine’s Broom Company. In a long clapboard building set off from the highway, artisan broom maker Samuel Lee Fine created his cleaning masterpieces. His story reminded me of my dad and how early in the great depression he made a truck load of brooms and had them hauled to the streets of Charlotte to sell. Times were rough and my dad learned a lot about entrepreneurship as he didn’t sell enough to even pay his transportation. But, years later at NC State I had the chance to work at the University Crafts Center with student Marlow Gates whose story turned out much different.
Just across the street and up a ways from Fine’s Broom Company an ancient stone wall appears out of the passing forest. Holding up an ancient roadbed from the ravages of a creek, the wall’s purpose is disguised by thicket and overgrowth as it disappears into the adjoining woods. Just as old 49 Hwy has been replaced by Interstate 85/40, there was once an even older road winding its way parallel to Hwy 49. It’s amazing what you’ll learn if only you let your eyes see things for the time they existed.
Another mile further at the crossroad, an old ranger’s station had been sold by the US government. For years, every time I passed I’d see an old man in the front yard sitting in a straight back chair. I always honked and threw up my hand to which he reciprocated. One day he was gone.
And down the road further yet is the bridge crossing the Yadkin River at Tuckertown Reservoir. I’ve stopped there numerous times to wet a hook and have even landed a few bass and crappie. There’s nothing like crossing Tuckertown at sunset or on a foggy morning! And, at the nearby boat landing was always an older heavy set black lady, sitting in a folding chair beside her car which was covered with dolls. Clothed in period antebellum hoop dresses, Barbie-like baby dolls were transformed into the perfect bedroom accent suited for the most tasteful southern lady. And yet, there was something odd about what I saw. Here was this lady only a generation or two out of slavery perpetuating the cast system from which her family had been freed. And yet, she appeared happy to be making her own money freely by the commands of her own hand. I often wanted to stop by and talk to the lady, to photograph her along with her wayside sales display. I can still see the sign on cardboard “Piller Dolls $10.00.” I’d love to carve a sculptural piece in memory of this old vision.
Passing through the old German lands along the Dutch Buffalo Creek, the quality and style of historic architecture was certainly evident. There was the crossroads at Richfield near Pheiffer University. Also nearby was the historic site of Mathias Barringer’s gold mine. From an early 1800’s newspaper account, I once read where he melted down gold from the mine and cast it to make a man of gold. According to the article, he floated it down the Pee Dee River for all to see.
Nearing the town of Mt. Pleasant, the smell of fresh cut pine filled the air as I passed Piedmont Hardwood’s saw mill. And, in the town of Pleasant Hill was located numerous old Victorian Houses along with what was once the mid-1800’s Mount Pleasant Lutheran Female Seminary. It’s now the location of the Eastern Cabarrus County History Museum.
Not much further, the road raised a bit in elevation with huge boulders the size of houses dotting the landscape. This geology is all a remnant gift of violent explosions during a prehistoric time when the rock covered hill was but one of many volcanic islands dotting an inland sea.
Atop this hill crest crosses the old Concord Road and near the intersection stands Stonewall Jackson Training School. What remains truly is creepy but still beautiful. I can only imagine the old campus filled with youth. Just down the hill from the school is an abandoned rock quarry filled with water. I fished it numerous times but learned from experience that the waters best served the local population as a swimming hole. From the backside of Jackson Training School is a view west across the rock quarry some 25 miles to downtown Charlotte. It’s a beautiful view and I can imagine the young residents watching the sun waste away over an earlier Charlotte skyline. Imagine all the farmsteads they saw? Billowing cows and majestic fields of grain? They could see the steam trains as they passed nearby and also the farm houses with chimneys and trails of smoke leading your mind’s eye to the sky.
That was all a different day and I love dreaming a bit of our state’s past. But, I’m now here in Raleigh, writing about my trips to Charlotte and feel truly blessed for the memories I’ve been given.