Chatham’s largest town offers historical charm and a new energy
By Matt White | Photography By Beth Mann
Siler City is seeing a bit of a renaissance these days, especially within its downtown, which has a strong history as an artistic hub. A recent wave of entrepreneurs are opening restaurants and shops amid the long-standing studio spaces and a growing Latino influence in the economy. Even with the growth, Siler City retains its small-town character.
There is no shortage of street fairs and events downtown, including the Spring Chicken Festival, hosted by Siler City Parks and Recreation Department each May to celebrate the town’s once-thriving poultry industry, and its revival is being underwritten by Mountaire Farms, which will open a major processing center later this year. Over the summer is the Koo Day Tah Street Festival, put on by Terry McInturff, who has built custom electric guitars in his workshop for nearly two decades. In the fall, don’t miss the Hispanic Liaison’s Fiesta de la Herencia Hispana (Hispanic Heritage Festival), which features food trucks, live music, a parade and a review of traditional outfits, including quinceanera dresses. When the holidays come around, the Christmas parade is always a big attraction, too.
It all takes place along Chatham Avenue, which has seen several new businesses open in the last year. One is Oasis Open Air Market, which Jackie Adams opened in 2018, offering organic and locally sourced groceries and daily specials in the market’s kitchen. Oasis’ patio space and adjacent mini-park includes a beer garden and serves as the hub for many downtown events.
For more local eats, check out Artisan Hub on West Raleigh Street, where Dustin and Alaina Poe list the local farms that supply their ingredients on a chalkboard just inside the door. Most of the producers are within or just outside Siler City, like Celebrity Dairy, Dinner Bell Farm, East Branch Ginger, Lindley Mills and Homeland Creamery, among others. Dustin and Alaina opened Artisan Hub a little more than a year ago after Dustin left Chapel Hill’s Il Palio. At Artisan Hub, Dustin offers traditional family and diner food with a local, polished bent. Artisan Hub’s beef is sourced from his parents nearby farm, and for his chicken-and-sweet potato spice waffles, he breads the chicken twice with spices, utilizing flour from Henderson, North Carolina.
And there are more changes in store for Chatham Avenue. At one end is the Farmers Alliance Store building, a general store owned by shareholders for more than a century. When it closed last year, it was Chatham’s oldest continually operated business. But Lisa Fedele, an incubator board member and senior manager at Cisco who works out of her Siler City home, recently purchased the building. She plans to reopen the location as a modern shared-space work-and-art hub called the Alliance, a nod to the building’s long history. Lisa, a sculpture artist who works in what she terms “assemblages,” moved to Siler City from New Orleans, where an historic downtown thrives around a healthy art scene. She sees the future of downtown Siler City in the same way as nearby Saxapahaw, once a neglected mill town reborn as a destination for events and the arts.
“There’s [about] six core people in Saxapahaw who decided to take that town and change the world,” says Lisa, who wants to do the same in Siler City. “Technology is in our favor, too, because you can have very high earners who also have a creative side and want to have a place for that. You can’t touch [the rents for] studio space in Durham for what you can get here.”
A quick stroll in any direction downtown highlights Siler City’s connection to the arts: Nearly a dozen large murals cover the walls of downtown buildings, from landscapes that depict the town 100 years ago to two-story-tall bursts of floral displays on the rear of the NC Arts Incubator building by local artist JR Butler. Several others depict fanciful rabbits, once a major commodity for Siler City during its rail hub days, when the town shipped tens of thousands of rabbits to restaurants across the nation. Several of the rabbit murals are the work of Roger Person, one of Siler City’s longest-tenured artists. His Chatham Avenue gallery, Wingnut Artists Gallery and Studio, was once a department store. When he renovated the ceiling, he found original, ornate tiles hiding above. His gallery is home to huge canvas works, surreal sculptures and even some stained glass from early in his career. His work “Higher Education” – a chaotic stack of wooden school desk chairs that reaches nearly to the top of the room – were all originally made nearby at Boling Chair Company, a former Siler City furniture factory. Next door to Roger’s gallery is Twin Birch & Teasel, where Sue Szary weaves fabric creations on looms in her studio. Many of her creations utilize wool from her own sheep or from other local farms, including from alpacas at nearby Black Tulip Farms.
At the hub of the downtown arts district, spanning half a block, is the NC Arts Incubator, which rents studio and gallery space to artists from around the county and beyond, from potters to painters to sculptors. Its longest-running tenant is Terry’s guitar workshop, where he’s made guitars used by generations of international rock stars. (He offers regular tours.) April Weaver, the incubator’s director, has reworked the space in the last year, opening The Chatham Rabbit coffee shop and bringing in artists from other artist hubs like Pittsboro, Carrboro and even Raleigh.
“It’s been a small-town place,” April says. “Whoever walked through the door could have a show. But now I’m recruiting artists from around Chatham and outside [of it]. I want to have a strong reputation as a regional showcase.”
A trip downtown wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Peppercorn for coffee or Loma Bonita, a Mexican grocery famed for its butcher shop and authentic cuisine.
Outside of downtown, Siler City’s longest-standing eateries are all found closer to Highway 64. They’ve been serving famous burgers at Johnson’s Drive-In since 1946. It stays packed with locals until it closes at 2 p.m., so get there early. Just down the road is Bestfood Cafeteria, with home-cooked favorites in the main dining hall, including its fried chicken (see pg. 89 for more), in addition to Hayley-Bale Steak House and a gift shop full of authentic local gifts and fun souvenirs. Don’t pass up Chris’ Drive In, a favorite of Jordan-Matthews High School students and local families, off Highway 64 on 2nd Avenue.
And a quick, interesting bit of history for you: One of Siler City’s enduring claims to fame is its cameo on “The Andy Griffith Show,” where it was said to be a place to go fishing without a license. But the town has an even stronger tie to North Carolina’s most enduring TV franchise: Frances Bavier, better known as Aunt Bee on the show, lived the latter part of her life in town and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery. When she passed away, she left a $100,000 trust fund to the town’s police department.
If you haven’t visited Siler City’s downtown in awhile, it’s worth a trip – consider this your unofficial visitors’ guide and take an afternoon to explore! CM
Read the original article from the February/March 2019 Issue: