Roxboro’s a sensible town. Has been since the 1790’s, when its founders set it smack in the middle of Person County. They wanted their county seat to be easy to get to.
But not too easy. The residents of Roxboro, indeed of all Person County, fought long and hard against the coming of railroads and slicked-up roads that wouldn’t wash away with each rain. It took until 1890 for “community-minded” businessmen to finally get a rail line to Roxboro.
And as recently as 1936 there was a Roxboro minister whose antipathy for automobiles ran so deep he hanged one from a tree, claiming they were “responsible for meanness, wastefulness and other vices.”
Even in these days of newness for newness’ sake, of uniform quick-everything chains, Roxboro has managed, either by design or luck, to segregate “progress” out on the US 501 bypass, so that downtown retains the character it’s had for 40 years.
Roxboro’s population — 5,000 — hasn’t changed much since 1940. Neither has the population — 25,000 — of largely forested, agrarian Person County. You get the idea that people up there are content with things the way they are.
Of course there have been changes. Black people are now treated as the equals of whites. Many Roxboro residents travel out of the county to work. They’re widening the highway where 501 enters town, running the pavement right up to people’s front porches. The railroad depot is now a feed store. The town newspapers, the Courier and the Times, are now the Courier-Times. Most every street sports a branch of Piedmont Technical Institute — there’s one in an old movie theatre, an old store, where the newspaper used to have its office, an old automobile showroom.
Yet much of Roxboro is essentially the same as it was back in the 1920’s and 30’s, when most of the buildings were constructed. The courthouse, with its lawn and shade trees, its parking spaces and the obligatory monuments to Confederate and other war dead, is still the center of downtown activity. (There’s a special statue in front for Captain E. Fletcher Satterfield, a local man who had the distinction of dying at the farthest point of advance of Confederate troops against the center of the Union line at Gettysburg in what was the so-called turning point battle of the Civil War.) Even when court is not in session, there are plenty of people hanging around the courthouse grounds, sitting on their cars.
And arrayed around the courthouse are some of the most interesting stores in the Piedmont. There’s the Eatwell Cafe (a counter and two booths), the N.C. Diner (a counter), and Shorty’s Place (a pool room). There’s Short’s Grocery, with advertisements for pork chitterlings, neck bones, pig’s feet, and oxtails pasted on the windows, and, on the other side of the courthouse square, Wilson’s Market, where they sell homebaked pies and cut your meat to order and give away free dog bones from the scraps in back.
Beside Wilson’s is the Farmer’s Supply Store, a good place to do your Christmas shopping. If you want something old-fashioned and hard to find, the Farmer’s Supply Store will have it. “We still stick to the old-timey,” one of the saleswomen told me between swatting at flies. “Nothing modern, fancy.” When I needed gear for my mule, I found it there. They have hardware, stoneware, shoes, and hats; seed, feed, plants, and pots; workclothes, kitchenware, tack, and garden tools. They have iron kettles like the ones people used to make soap in. There’s a picture of the world’s largest watermelon (197 pounds) hanging above the bins of seeds, with an offer of a $500 reward for a bigger specimen. They still have some bottles of Red Number 2 dye, banned as cancer-causing by the FDA, in case you want to put some in your food.
Besides a Leggett’s and a Rose’s, there is a Massey’s Department Store, which was recently selling women’s blouses for 50¢ and skirts for one dollar, and where jeans, shirts, and jackets were going for well under what you’d pay at any of the big chain outlets.
Roxboro still has the feel of a working town. If your business brings you there for a while, the Hotel Roxboro has single rooms for $22 a week and doubles for $25. There are refrigerators and showers throughout the halls.
Gardens abound just beyond the parking lots and buildings of downtown. Many of the houses around town are old and sprawling, with towers and turrets, big porches and fancy windows that speak of times when people used to spend their time watching the world go by.
Many of the biggest employers are located south of Roxboro on US 501. Besides the national corporations, like Eaton Industries and Crown Aluminum, there are such locally famous businesses as the Roxboro-Carolina Broom Works (the second largest broom manufacturer in the state) and Camp Chemical Company, makers of most of the fertilizer used by farmers in this area.
US 158 from Oxford meets US 501 and US 57 just inside Roxboro. Where the highways split up into business and bypass stands Mabel’s Grill, specializing in homecooking, Brunswick stew, and presweetened tea that puts Kool-Aid to shame. Mabel is there every day standing over the stove — the day I was there she was wearing curlers — while one waitress takes care of the six booths, the counter, and the table out in no-man’s-land where everybody can watch you eat. There’s a special luncheon menu and a good selection of vegetables.
Over lunch at Mabel’s, or maybe at Bob’s Barbeque out on the bypass (which reputedly has the best barbeque in town), you can read Winky Wilkins’ sports column in the Courier-Times, or an editorial on potty training, or a report from Senator Jesse Helms decrying the latest perversions and excesses of the far left (most all Democrats and Republicans) and the bureaucracy. Helms’ photograph is thoughtfully attached to make it easier to envision the pebbly roll of his cheeks and lips as he grumbles his way through his sentences.
A note of warning: don’t be fooled when you drive by Randy’s Restaurant and see all the cars parked out front. They’re not customer’s cars; people just park there. The folks at Randy’s got a little too enthusiastic pit cooking their barbeque and burned down the roof.
The photographs in this selection are available as a PDF only. Click here to download.