The Culture of Saxapahaw, North Carolina


By Mia Brady


It has been featured in local publications like Chapel Hill Magazine, Triad Business Journal, Our State Magazine, News and Observer, The Burlington Times, and WUNC TV; in national publications like the Orlando Sentinel, The LA Times, the Washington Post, Gourmet Magazine, Bon Appetite and The New York Times. With recognition like this, there is no question that the former quiet little mill town of Saxapahaw, North Carolina is a distinguishable place. Located about half way between Graham and Chapel Hill, this town is unquestionably off the beaten path. Driving through miles of farmland, one would never expect to stumble into this quaint, yet established, town with such a strong, identifiable culture.


The town of Saxapahaw, nestled along the Haw River, was founded back in 1840 as a cotton mill town. It had a quiet, authentic mill-town, farm feel for over nearly 150 years, until1994, when the Saxapahaw Rivermill was forced to close due to economic reasons. This little town focused around cotton soon was faced with the task of rebuilding itself; a task that was tackled with exceptional drive. Mac Jordan, the grandson of former mill owner John Jordan, bought the mill and focused on renovation. Today, just 18 years after the closure of the mill, Saxapahaw has established itself as a town worthy of Gourmet’s and New York Times’ attention. This little mill town has expanded into a town with a welcoming culture and a passion for local food.


In addition to Jordan’s dedicated efforts, Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff have transformed various spots in Saxapahaw into facilities to help rebuild the town, and revamp the feel. One of such is The Eddy Pub, a pub and restaurant housed in a former mill that pays tribute to the original mill village of Saxapahaw. Saxapahaw General Store was bought by Barney and Ratliff in 2008, and for the past four years, these two have focused their efforts on ensuring that the Saxapahaw community can enjoy local food.


When visiting Saxapahaw, Phoebe and I were amazed by the uniqueness of the atmosphere. We entered the store and noticed right away that it doubled in nature, as both a convenient store with every day products, and a local food emporium. To our right we were faced with shelves of both everyday and locally grown products, but to our left, a vast chalkboard filled with what seemed to be hundreds of meal choices awaited us. To say that it took us about 20 minutes to finally make a decision on our meals is not an exaggeration. With options like the Applewood Bacon Blue Cheese Burger, which looked just as good as it sounds as a waiter walked by with the burger on a tray, the Saxy White Pizza, with artichokes, prosciutto and roasted tomatoes, or of course, the Avocadomater, for the veggie lover, filled with avocado, sprouts, cream cheese, cucumber and provolone. After much deliberation, I decided on the Roasted Vegetable Sandwich, with roasted tomatoes, zucchini, squash, peppers and onions on deliciously toasted multigrain bread. Phoebe went for The Schmancy Pizza, which featured fresh tomato, two types of fresh mozzarella, creamy pesto sauce, red onion, and bacon.


As we waited anxiously for our delicious sounding meals outside on the patio, we had the wonderful opportunity to chat with owner Jeff Barney, who was kind enough to take a few minutes from his hectic day to speak to us about the culture of Saxapahaw. Barney attributed the success and popularity of Saxapahaw to its ability to reach such a wide audience. Saxapahaw offers something for everyone, with its laid back nature, delicious, local food, and of course, unparalleled sense of community.


There is no question that Saxapahaw is an incredibly unique place; a place that draws people of all ages and all backgrounds. Elon students are not exempt from those drawn to Saxapahaw. Will Stiefel, a senior at Elon raved about the Saxapahaw General Store, noting that he and his roommates deemed Thursday afternoons, “Saxapahaw Thursdays” and make the 25-minute trek willingly and eagerly, saying that the “quality and atmosphere are definitely worth the drive”. Will said:


I fell in love with Saxapahaw General Store on my very first visit. Their support of the local community and farms is evident the moment you walk in. Fresh, local ingredients, along with great preparation, make the food the best I’ve had since coming to school in NC. Not to mention, the employees are all charming and seem to remember everyone who stops in.


While Will has developed a love for Saxapahaw that brings him back there each week, Elon graduate Katie Kenney, who first discovered Saxapahaw through the help of Elon professor, Dr. Janet MacFall, as a junior, was so impressed by the small town that she found herself living there a year later, post graduation. The summer after her junior year, Katie lived in Elon, and spent time traveling to the small town for Saxapahaw Saturdays, as the town houses a farmers market and live music every Saturday during the summer. When offered a job to teach English in South Korea starting in the spring of 2013, Katie decided to live and work in the town that she grew to love, and feel a part of. Since the summer of 2012, Katie has been living in Saxapahaw and working at both The Eddy Pub and Saxapahaw General Store. Katie is inspired by the culture that Saxapahaw promotes, and never tires of seeing visitors become inspired by Saxapahaw, as well.


When asked about the food culture of Saxapahaw, Katie noted that it is the commitment to local food that draws people’s attention to this community, and connects them in a deep way. Saxapahaw is a community that supports each other so strongly, and through this support, has fostered and grown as a unique place that draws many different people in. As Katie so accurately states,


Food in Saxapahaw goes hand in hand with respect for the community. The community is supported economically through sourcing local produce, meat, and goods (think wine, candles, t-shirts, and handicrafts) while bringing people together. Saxapahaw is very small, and it’s the General Store and Eddy Pub that bring people together. Both are full of regulars, people who support our mission wholeheartedly. People gather here for music, for trivia nights, and for celebrations. Food and community are synonymous here, and it definitely makes Saxapahaw a special place.


There is no question that Saxapahaw is a special place; a place with a dedication to community and local food, which will continue to strive and grow in its uniqueness.