A Five-Star Gas Station

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First to fill up are the four blue plastic window booths overlooking the parking lot and large back booth nestled between a rack of motor oil and cooler of fancy bottled mineral waters. Elsewhere black-mesh patio tables for two are tucked into grocery aisles wherever they don’t impede shoppers. And, weather permitting, there’s seating on the brick patio with a partial view of the gas pumps.

Store regulars are as colorful as the inventory: oldsters (among them retired mill workers) in coveralls…grizzled hippies…beefy construction crews…well turned out women from Chapel Hill and Durham.

One Saturday I spotted Tom LaGarde, the six-foot-ten former University of North Carolina basketball star who lives on a farm nearby with his wife Heather. Both LaGardes are heavily invested in the rebirth of Saxapahaw, which Heather views as a kind of Brigadoon. She runs the May-through-August farmers’ market held Saturday evenings from five to eight while Tom manages the Rivermill Music Series, booking groups like Wood & Steel (Carolina bluegrass) to play during market hours. Hugely popular, the concerts are laid-back, bring-your-own-chair affairs above the banks of the Haw River.

This rocky, rushing river drove the cotton mill that supported Saxapahaw for nearly 150 years, much of that time managed or owned by the late U.S. senator B. Everett Jordan. His big house on the hill is still there along with rows of newly spiffed up clapboard mill houses leading up to it.

Today’s Jordans are passionate about breathing new life into Saxapahaw. And none more so than the senator’s grandson Mac, a graduate of North Carolina State University’s School of Architecture, whose dream (and college thesis) of turning the derelict mill into condos and shops, galleries and restaurants is now a reality.

Though Barney and Ratliff recently opened the Eddy Pub at the far end of the old mill’s dye house, the Saxapahaw General Store Café continues to serve the prepared-on-the-spot soups, salads, and sandwiches that leave fans hungry for more.

An award-winning food and travel journalist now living in North Carolina, Jean Anderson is a member of the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. Her latest cookbook is Falling off the Bone.

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