By Jon Spoon
My first known ancestor settled in Chatham County just before the American Revolution and rose to the rank of captain in the Patriot Militia. Captain William Gholson’s exploits included warning Loyalist leader David Fanning to stay out of Chatham County before killing his right-hand man and getting his house torched in response. The Revolution might have ended before Yorktown, if not for one snitch who foiled General Cornwallis’ capture at Ramsey’s Mill. Some of the first acreage that my family ever owned came in exchange for supplying Patriot forces in the war. By the time the railroads got to Chatham County, the family name had morphed into the more American “Goldston.” Joseph John Goldston donated land for a post office, a train station and a Methodist church around the turn of the century, and the town of Goldston was incorporated in 1907. The venerable town of Goldston has held a steady population of around 300 people since its inception and never budged from its place as the third and smallest incorporated town in Chatham County.
My mother was raised just outside the town limits, across the pond from her grandparents. Her father left school early to work on the farm but was a smart man and built a successful timber and then dairy business. My mother loved art and learned to paint at Meredith College. After attending Chatham Central High School, my mom went back to teach students with learning disabilities. She spent my childhood as a professional artist but earned her master’s in literacy from UNC after going back to teach in Chatham County Schools. My parents met as teachers at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City.
I never knew much about my dad because he died when I was young, but many of the anecdotes I gathered came from his former students. It takes a lot to be remembered as a math teacher. I remember Mr. Sheridan at Northwood High, but Mr. Spoon at Jordan-Matthews was somewhat of a legend. Many people told me that he was the first person who could explain math in a way that they understood. Others said that they never understood math, but they respected my dad because he truly tried to help them learn. Nearly everyone I talked to remembered the machine gun fire of him writing equations on a chalkboard; I remember the small knot on his finger from where he held the chalk. Mr. Spoon was the cool calculus teacher who liked Waylon Jennings and never took off his newsboy cap.
I was born in Greensboro and lived in Black Mountain for a while but moved back to Chatham at age 10. I went to J.S. Waters Elementary for a year before settling uncomfortably at Horton Middle. Fifth grade is a tough time to transition, but I made most of my greatest friends here. On my first day at Horton, a boy came up to me and said I could sit with him and his friends. Jeff Stewart has been like a brother to me ever since, and my formative years in Chatham were filled with deep and rewarding friendships. By the time I got to Northwood, I was enjoying life and blessed to go to a school with a great marching band, an overachieving theater program and enough sports to prove I was not a star at any of them.
I went to undergrad, as millennials were instructed to do, with no sense of direction. I ended up with a history and art history degree with the vague notion that I wanted to be a lawyer for an art museum. I was glad for my eye-opening legal education at N.C. Central University’s School of Law but soon realized that I did not want to be a lawyer.After law school, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work in a think tank or something. I thought that I had to be in a big place in order to make a big difference. I learned quickly that I needed birds and crickets instead of car horns and yelling. I longed for the restorative powers next to the Rocky River and was miserable in an overwhelming city. I moved back in the midst of a full-on existential crisis. When I really had nothing going, I landed an apprenticeship, of sorts, at Cole Pottery in Sanford. I learned pottery from one of the greatest living masters in the world and was able to see some of the most ancient North Carolina pottery processes.
When I felt that I had learned enough to develop my own style, I rented a studio space at the North Carolina Arts Incubator in Siler City. I loved being surrounded by talented craftspeople in all different mediums. Chatham has an amazingly rich history in the arts, and I’m glad to have been involved in the Chatham Arts Council and the Chatham Artists Guild. I enjoyed doing art full time, but quickly realized art is not as freeing when it is your sole means of income. I decided to put my education to use and became the director for NCAI. I loved the people and the potential, but it was a herculean job for one person, and I needed health insurance and to start a retirement plan. I was glad to get a position as a Small Business Center coordinator for Central Carolina Community College and quickly transitioned to role of the SBC’s director. Now I am excited to start a new position as the director of continuing education for Chatham County.
I finally found a good balance with my feet firmly on the soil that I love. Chatham is a special place, and I am glad to be a part of its bright future. We are facing the fastest changing time in our history, but it does not have to be change for the worse. I would say that I was one of the people who liked Chatham how it was. I could drive to amenities when I needed them, and I savored the seclusion. I would not have minded if the county had just stayed the same, but that was never an option. We are surrounded by growing metropolitan areas, we have low taxes, and we have three rivers and a lake. Chatham was bound to grow, and now it is truly upon us. I understand those who wish it could remain as it is, but I hope that people do not let that quixotic longing make them miss the opportunity that is at hand.
We have the opportunity to guide the development that happens here and inform developers as to our character. By and large, the developers who I have met in Chatham have a genuine desire to accentuate the character that already exists. The isolation part is out, but beyond that, developers want to build people-pleasing, desirable places. They chose here because we have beautiful natural landscapes, a vibrant arts and music culture, and an eccentricity that behooves them not to snuff out. Chatham County can grow in a way that amplifies its identity rather than paints over it.
It takes real civic involvement and not just last-second pleas for project denials for this to work. To this end, I’ve been a member of the Chatham County Planning Board for the past four years. I encourage others who care about the future of Chatham to find a way to contribute to the vision. I hope that we can build a truly special, albeit larger, community in Chatham. I think we can be the place where Silicon Valley and Napa Valley meet, where we have cutting-edge careers available to the kids who grow up here and also source the produce for our farm-to-fork restaurants from 10 minutes down Highway 64. I think we can develop new tools like a Chatham land trust that would enable us to facilitate development of apartment buildings we need in the northeastern part of the county, while funding permanent conservation of natural areas along our rivers.
In 2021, merely seizing up in fear of change will not be a worthwhile way forward. The change is coming, and our opportunities to guide it in a positive direction are more important than ever. I encourage you all to find a way that you can help define the character of Chatham County. There are obviously a lot of differing opinions for what that character is, but it will make for good discussions when the tables fill out.
Jon Spoon is an artist and also the director of continuing education for Central Carolina Community College