Carrboro, however, was not like this decades ago.
You would know that if you took the Historic Downtown Carrboro Walking Tour.
Victoria Hensley, a senior history major at UNC-Chapel Hill, led a tour this past Wednesday. She is an intern with Preservation Chapel Hill, a nonprofit organization that arranges a series of walking tours exploring places in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community.
Hensley met her “group,” consisting in no one but this reporter, at the Carrboro Town Hall for a 40-minute tour on foot that covered 15 sites.
“The Town Hall used to be the Carrboro Graded School, built in 1922,” she said, pointing to the elm tree planted in the front yard in a 1960 photo from her guide book. The tree is still there, having grown large and tall, overlooking the building.
Her guide book contains a dozen of historic photos, which emphasize the changes that have taken place over the years. The photos were provided by Richard Ellington, a local history buff, born and raised in Carrboro. He co-authored “Carrboro: Images of America.”
The tour focuses on the mill history of the town, evident in the present-day Carr Mill Mall. As Hensley gave the basics:
- Carrboro was originally called West End because of the railroad and the train depot completed in 1882 in the west end of Chapel Hill.
- Thomas F. Lloyd built the Alberta Cotton Mill (now Carr Mill Mall), which opened in 1899.
- Lloyd sold the mill to Julian Shakespeare Carr in 1909, who renamed it Durham Hosiery Mill No. 4.
- In 1913, the town changed its name from Venable, after then president of UNC, Francis P. Venable, to Carrboro, in honor of Julian Carr’s contribution to the community.
PCH Program Coordinator Cassandra Bennett, who holds a master’s degree in public history and oversees the walking tours, said, “The story we want to make sure we convey in our tour is that mill town history. Pretty much all of the older buildings are directly related to the mill history, whether it’s the mill owner, mill superintendent or mill workers.”
Local historian Ellington, however, had a different take. “Instead of being called a mill town, Carrboro should really be called a railroad town. Without the railroad, there couldn’t have been any mills,” he said, adding that in the 1890s and 1900s, the railway system was the only way to transport materials in and out of town.
As the textile industry flourished, people came to town from the farms to seek jobs. According to Ellington, it was common in the South for the mill owner to provide housing, known as mill houses, for his workers. For example, he said, Lloyd built two or three rows of rental houses formerly located in what is now the parking lot in front of Harris Teeter and CVS.
One of the stops in the tour is two residential homes on Lindsay Street. Normal and unassuming, they were built, according to Hensley, as one single mill house by Issac W. Pritchard and William E. Lindsay, owners of the Blanche Hosiery Mill and competitors of Lloyd’s. Subsequently, between 1925 and 1932, the two houses were split and dragged apart from each other, she said.
The Blanche Hosiery Mill marked Pritchard and Lindsay’s effort to create a separate business from the existing Alberta Cotton Mill. Ellington said that what is now a woodworking shop behind Fitch Lumber, on the right-hand side of the lot against East Poplar Avenue, used to be a piece of the Blanche Hosiery Mill. This structure, along with Carr Mill Mall, are the only two mill buildings left standing in town, he said.
Another stop, where Tyler’s Taproom sits now, used to be L.D. Hearn’s Grocery, one of Carrboro’s oldest businesses, according to Hensley. Ellington said that when he was growing up, the downtown was a bustling place, with seven locally owned grocery stores serving the vibrant farming community around.
Ellington picked Carr Mill Mall, the vestige of the Blanche Hosiery Mill and Hearn’s Grocery as three things speaking for Carrboro’s identity.
“Up until the 1960s, everything in Chapel Hill revolved around providing for the university community,” he said. “Carrboro was never part of that because Carrboro was a working-class town.”
“Carrboro is definitely a walking town,” Hensley said. “It’s like a hidden gem out here.” The highest number of people Hensley has ever had in the tour was two, for she normally leads the tour on weekdays. But for those taking the tour, it felt like having an exclusive, private guide.
“It doesn’t matter how many people we take on the tour, as long as we are connecting somebody to the history,” said Bennett.
She said that PCH has received positive feedback about the tour from the community. “Some long-time residents who took the tour knew Carrboro has a mill history, but they’re just amazed by the history that they walk past and drive past every day that they don’t realize is right there.”