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.