On the way from the car to the Saxapahaw General Store Cafe, we were beckoned by a man sitting on the patio, donning thick goggles and what looked to be a liturgical stole over casual attire.
“I see you have a camera. You’ll probably be interested in this,” he said to my partner while pointing to a straw basket with something the size of an olive dangling from its high handle.
Our new friend turned out to be Chris Carter, naturalist, artist and frequent diner, who had brought with him to brunch his soon-to-be-hatched monarch butterfly. Carter’s goggles were high-powered magnifying glasses, and his scarf was a “monarch vestment” made for him by his partner and dining companion, Deborah Amaral.
“It represents the colors of the monarch life cycle,” she explained.
As locals will tell you, this encounter would qualify as “very Saxy,” a term used to describe magical happenings in Saxapahaw, N.C, an offbeat two-square-mile community of about 2,500 people.
A former cotton mill village in a rural area only 20 minutes northwest of Chapel Hill, Saxapahaw (pronounced SAX-a-puh-haw) has undergone an impressively nonconformist rebirth since 2005, when the mill building (the mill closed in 1994) was renovated and redeveloped as residential and commercial space known as the Saxapahaw Rivermill. Within what amounts to a city block, you’ll find two casual but knock-your-socks-off restaurants (the cafe and the Eddy Pub); the Saxapahaw Artists Gallery; the home of Paperhand Puppet Intervention, a wildly popular giant-puppet theater troupe; Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co., set along the banks of the Haw River; and the just-opened Haw River Ballroom, a stunning performance hall. Just up the road, along rolling countryside, is Benjamin Vineyards and Winery.
While life lumbers along here year-round, the pace picks up from May through August with the rollicking Saturdays in Saxapahaw, an early evening affair with free concerts, a farmers market and a beloved children’s play area featuring a 40-yard-long homemade slip-and-slide.
The mill’s restoration was led by Mac Jordan, grandson of the late U.S. Sen. B. Everett Jordan, a Democrat from North Carolina who grew up nearby and once owned the mill. Along the way, Jordan enlisted the help of Tom and Heather LaGarde, a couple who had moved to the area from New York. Heather grew up in Chapel Hill, and Tom had been a student there, playing basketball for the University of North Carolina and then for the NBA. With the Rivermill in place, the LaGardes honed the vibe of the village, an unpretentious blend of community and cool. They created and still run the Saturday event. In 2008, the pair recruited Jeff Barney, self-taught cook extraordinaire, and his partner, Cameron Ratliff, to bring good eats to Saxapahaw, giving city folks a reason to make the drive and locals a cause for celebration.
Barney and Ratliff transformed the local Shell station/convenience store into the “Saxaco” station and Saxapahaw General Store Cafe. Outside, a biodiesel pump stands near the regular unleaded, while inside, local organic wines are up the aisle from the Little Debbies.
“We call it the Saxapahaw miracle,” said butterfly man Carter, a 19-year resident.
The brunch specials on this Saturday included eggs over applewood bacon succotash and an omelette with spinach and local goat cheese. While the menu may sound precious, the plastic booths keep things down to earth.
Much of the protein was from Cozi Farm, just across the street, which is run by Corey Landry and Suzanne Nelson, a former Capitol Hill reporter who happened to be eating in the cafe.
“There are a lot of recovering urbanites around here,” Nelson said between bites of her deep-yellow-yolked eggs. “You have to be able to leave part of that behind to enjoy this.”
We opted for a lunch special and shared a thick, moist meatloaf sandwich made with pork from Cane Creek Farm, one of the farmers market vendors, along with a side of inventive succotash (potatoes, onions, corn, bacon and chickpeas).
While we were eating, Landry arrived to deliver an urgent message: “The butterfly is coming out!”
We rushed to the patio to find a group of locals and visitors hunched around Carter’s table to watch the monarch slowly emerge from its chrysalis.
We hated to leave the nature show, but we had stops to make, including a soothing two-hour kayak paddle along the tree-lined Greater Alamance Creek, off the Haw River. We saw birds, dragonflies, turtles, a few fishermen, and not much else.
Near the river, at the tiny but bustling tasting room at Benjamin Vineyards, we sampled both European and muscadine wine varieties, all cultivated using organic growing methods.
At the farmers market, about 30 vendors were set up along a paved parking area, while the concert crowd sat on blankets and chairs on an adjacent grassy hillside. We felt particularly lucky to catch the family-friendly yet non-treacly Jimmy Magoo, backed by the Paperhand Puppet Band, the talented world-jazz-rock-folk group that accompanies the puppet shows. During the break, some of the musicians led an ad-hoc puppet parade through the market.
As we sat on lawn chairs sipping a crisp Benjamin chardonnay, a woman and her two daughters spread their blanket beside us. Soon the girls, 4 and 6, were off running.
“It’s such a safe environment here,” said their mother, Kim Nowosad, who travels here from nearby Durham twice a month. “There’s a real sense of community. I love it so much.”
We tore ourselves away from the music before the Eddy Pub got crowded, even managing to score a patio table overlooking the river and the setting sun. Indoor seating in what was once the dye house is equally appealing. The decor highlights retrofits of many mill fixtures, including beer taps fashioned from steam pipes.
Still in a meaty mood, we ordered a creative local charcuterie plate and a grass-fed steak, washing them down with a Summer Basil Farmhouse Ale from Fullsteam Brewery in Durham.
Just as we were finishing, up walked Carter and Amaral, back for their second mill meal of the day. I asked how the monarch had fared.
“First it flew over to a bush for a while, and then up into a tree,” Carter said. “When we drove away around 5 o’clock we could still see a little spot of orange on the branch.”
A toast was in order to a very Saxy happy ending.
Daniel, a freelance writer in Durham, N.C., is the author of “Farm Fresh North Carolina.”