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Siler City

Searching For Roast Goat & Finding Fine Art in Siler City

by Mitch Virchick

Aunt BeaI couldn’t remember the last time I stopped in Siler City. Was it never? Someone once told me that Frances Bavier, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor’s Aunt Bea on “The Andy Griffith Show”, had settled there in her retirement, but was not known to have baked any peach cobbler for her Siler City neighbors. This tiny metropolis was often mentioned by name on the old television show, as a shopping destination for Mayberry’s sophisticates. I thought it strange that the prickly Ms.Bavier, who was born in New York, and was a veteran of the Broadway stage, would have seen fit to pass her final years in this place. Its very name had the ring of a morality lesson that the show was so deft at offering up—the decidedly agrarian, almost lonesome-sounding, “Siler”, followed by the grand locution “City” recalled the sub-plots in which the pointed ordinariness of Mayberry’s small-town lives gently pierced their own puffed-up vanities.

City Hall in Siler CityI had traveled to each of the 100 county seats of North Carolina on a photography project about twelve years ago, and would have passed by Siler City in western Chatham County along U.S. Hwy 64, en route from Pittsboro to Asheboro. However, Siler City was not the county seat, so there was no particular reason to stop. Maybe I stopped on a drive to the state zoo in Asheboro, where we must have taken the kids at least once or twice, twenty years or so ago. Once we took the oldroad, NC 49, to Charlotte, out of Asheboro, and might have passed it or stopped in at that time. But I couldn’t recall. Even if I did, I couldn’t remember any of the specifics about the place. My friend Alvis Dunn, who has taught history at UNC and at Guilford College, tells me his mother was from Siler City, but this is as close to knowing anyone from there as I’ve gotten. Many of the friends I met as a student at UNC came from such small commercial centers, unassociated with county government—Reidsville. Clayton. Roanoke Rapids. Rocky Mount. High Point. Ahoskie. Mooresville. Eden. Hickory. Cameron.

Chapel Hill & Carrboro are close enough to Siler City to warrant intermittent dispatches. We heard an ominous report about David Duke’s white supremacist-inspired rally to staunch the Hispanic immigrant “threat”. Not long ago, the large Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant closed down, and the harsh impact was felt as 830 jobs were lost in this town of 8,500. There was a book written about the changing face of Siler City and the genuine pride both the old and new townspeople felt when its predominantly Hispanic Jordan-Matthews High School soccer team captured the 2004 state championship.

When I considered writing a series of articles about day trips, Siler City came to mind. The Triangle is a known quantity, and most of its attractions are familiar. Even the smaller towns like Hillsborough and Pittsboro are well-trodden ground to most readers. I don’t really think of myself as a journalist—my method of inquiry on the who-what-when-where-why spectrum is probably too roundabout and blotchy to be effective. I wanted to write about a place that I needed to explore for myself. And yet, I thought that if there really was nothing to cover in Siler City, there should at least be a reason to make an effort to travel there. And so, my real reason for driving to Siler City was to find a goat meat sandwich.

Siler City now hosts a Latino population that may be the largest, in terms of the percentage of its residents, in the state. In fact, nearly half of the residents are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. I had heard that the local Triangle Hispanic community, if ever in need of a goat to serve at a barbecue or family feast, could go to Siler City, where, rumor had it, there was a place which was licensed to slaughter goats, and butchers to dress the meat. What better excuse for a visit to Siler City than a search for a good meal of roast goat?  I decided to take the country roads from Carrboro: Jones Ferry Road to Old Greensboro Highway, left at Snow Camp and on into Siler City. It seemed a pleasanter way to go on a rainy winter Saturday, and no less direct than if I took 15-501 South to Pittsboro, and U.S. 64 West straight on in. I called my friend Robert Donnan, who lives near the small unincorporated community of Eli Whitney, and he generously agreed to accompany me on short notice. Robert serves as a community development consultant to rural towns, which, even in recent better economic times, have struggled to find creative ways to survive. It is a disappointment that the still-nascent Internet Age seems to have fallen short on its promise to provide more geographical freedom to its human resources, in terms of where they live and work.  Real jobs in North Carolina continue to flow toward metropolitan centers like the Triangle and Charlotte, leaving small towns, which are particularly vulnerable because of their exposure to job losses in small-base manufacturing, increasingly gasping for new employment opportunities. In places like Siler City, where 830 jobs lost in a population of 8,500 seems an especially cruel turn of events, the effect of such economic losses may be devastating.   

siler city NCOn the way, Robert informed me that he had just recently spoken with Sue Szary, a former senior staff administrator and self-described “graduate artists’ den mother” at Yale University, who has helped to jump-start the North Carolina Arts Incubator in Siler City. Sue’s husband Richard is the director of the Wilson Library at UNC. They purchased their stake in Siler City—the building at 128 Chatham Avenue, when they moved to the area after Richard’s appointment in 2006, and have set about continuing to energetically establish a local arts and crafts movement in downtown Siler City.

At first glance, Siler City fits neither the stereotype of village charm nor small town squalor. The downtown is considerably larger than those of other nearby towns, and has been, for many of its years, a regional commercial hub. Founded as a railroad and agriculture center after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, it grew slowly but steadily as North Carolina emerged from its dire impoverishment as a self-reliant state with a strong agricultural, textile and manufacturing base. There are a number of commercial buildings, warehouses and factories in Siler City, but many of them are now derelict, and in dire need of care.

But there is something else going on in Siler City. Dotting the downtown grid are at least a dozen tiendas, small grocery stores which cater to the Latino community, selling beans, rice, cellophane packets of chilies and spices, cans of Jumex nectars, bottles of agua minerale, bright red and orange Jarritos sodas, plastic gallon jugs of sugary-sweet juices, and Coca Cola bottled in Mexico and sweetened with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup. There are bins of jicama andsturdy 25 lb. sacks of onions, strange-looking candy, pastries, piñatas, detergent, cleansers, and Chupa-Chups. The tienda may have any number of ancillary businesses operating out of it, like income tax preparation, or a butcher, or at least a small grill. In the Hispanic community, there are no supermercados yet—just these small, intimate, busy little stores which dazzle with their strange bright flavors. And there are still a large handful of the older businesses that continue to operate in Siler City as going concerns. The beauty shops, appliance repair shops, the farm equipment store with its array of John Deere and Cub Cadet lawn tractors, the beautiful, stately, two-story hardware store and the lovely murals on the broad sides of brick buildings remind us of the town’s thriving past. The big boxes may actually be dying along the main drag, but they haven’t yet completely dragged down the day-to-day commerce of this town.

siler city artistsWe find the center of Siler City, at the intersection of Raleigh and Chatham Streets, and park the car in the 100 block of North Chatham, across from the old Hadley Hotel, an unusual 1908 folly of rusticated block and what I would describe as a Moorish set of arches framing the second-story porches. The 100 and 200 blocks of North Chatham are filled with galleries and studio spaces. Some are privately owned, but at least four buildings  are owned by the NC Arts Incubator. We pass a little bodega across from the Central Carolina Community College Arts Center and head up North Chatham for a cup of good coffee and a pastry at the specialty coffee place within the NC Arts Incubator building, which features a newly-designed courtyard. The coffee shop opens into a craft gallery. I poke around, surprised not only at the reasonable prices of the work, but by the craftsmanship and imagination with which the ceramic pieces and wooden bowls have been wrought. Robert knew the town, but hadn’t been there in over two years, and the transformation of the two blocks along North Chatham was something of a revelation. A nearby gallery is overseen by an odd array of blue mannequins perched atop its façade. Around the corner, another gallery, Against His Will, features textiles and other locally manufactured arts and crafts. We walk in, and meet the proprietor, Sue Szary, the current director of the NC Arts Incubator. Compact and bursting with energy, she describes the transformation of the building in which we now stand. It had been a dairy many years ago, and in the vault where they kept the milk cooled with blocks of ice, she now sells the stained glass, ceramics and fabric art produced by the fifty members of the Arts Incubator. She takes us into another room, where various clumps of raw, untreated fleece—Angora, Alpaca, Merino, Peruvian Highland—await washing and drying. She shows us the hand-operated pickers, carders and spinning machines used to prepare the yarn, and the looms used to create the fabric.

siler city north carolina She takes us out, in the steady rain, to show us some of the other components of this amazingly plucky arts community that is re-focusing the energy of Siler City. We walk over to meet Linda Person, another member of the Incubator, at The Other Person Gallery, where whimsically imagined pieces of small sculpture and ceramic fill the gallery. Linda takes us in the back and shows us some plaster casts of legs and torsos which her husband Roger Person has been fabricating.

We walk over to the NC Arts Incubator, where Sue shows us some of the studio space. The offices of the Chatham Camera Club are out front, and the walls are filled with the works of its membership. The studios are in the rear of the building. Terry McInturff, who is one of the world’s leading fabricators of custom electric guitars, has moved his studio here from Raleigh, prompted by the extremely affordable space that is still in ample abundance all over Siler City. One of the great advantages of having such a concentration of studio spaces available downtown is that the artists who work here also live here, and thus the day-to-day activities downtown are conducted by its resident artists, as opposed to other craft centers which pull from a much more diffuse region, where you may never actually see the artists going about their daily routine.

artist, siler city ncAcross the street, we meet Roger Person at Person to Person Gallery, where we have already seen the blue mannequins on the roof. Roger is a retired Wisconsin-based engineer and entrepreneur of boundless and diverse creative enthusiasm. He has been an instructor at the Incubator, and says he is encouraged that the number of martial arts schools has dropped from three to one since the arts district has blossomed in Siler City. When I find out that he has only been creating art since he retired from business, I find the output no less than staggering. We see ceramics of beautifully delicate glazes and matte finishes, sculptures of found objects giddily re-imagined, multi-media pieces including objects embedded in acrylic paintings. He is at this time creating a series of Australian-inspired didgeridoos, one of which I futilely attempt to squeeze a foghorn drone out of. I suggest he sell the whole mess of them to the denizens of the Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, who are always up for another means of engaging in mystical expressions of communal ecstasy. Hoop path? Yeah, I tried it, dude. Drum circles? Like, so 90’s. But didgeridoos? I’m like, wow. The next wave. Awesome.

siler city artIt’s raining hard, I’m hungry, and I still haven’t found any goat meat, so we get back in the car and drive a few blocks east, where Sue thinks we might find a tienda with a butcher on premises. We finally locate the Tienda Loma Bonita at 214 Martin Luther King Blvd., where a strong-smelling hive of mid-afternoon activity reveals a butcher counter in the back of the store, but alas, they have no goat meat. I am not terribly disappointed. There is a window at the front of the store where you can order some food from the kitchen. I grab a can of Jumex from the cooler, and minutes later, I’m digging into an enormous plate of barbacoa, rice, and beans. The cook brings by a steaming covered dish of tacos, and I’m happy. It’s hot, fresh and tasty, and there are about eleven different bottles of hot sauce on the table. I recommend the visitor to Siler City try them all.

I ask Robert about other communities he’s worked with which have may have turned a corner in re-creating themselves as arts centers. We fret about how the sagging economy may completely undermine many of the efforts of these small places to save themselves from the wig shops and karate schools. All any of us can do is make the honest effort to persevere. In the case of Siler City, my most ardent hope is that the imagination of the arts community can somehow synthesize the energy of its burgeoning immigrant community to create something different. Something lasting, vital, and not so precious. Siler City has an opportunity to create something more meaningful and new, and rooted in the fertile ground of a newly transplanted people. I hope it happens. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did?

Mitch Virchick

The North Carolina Arts Incubator

North Carolina Arts IncubatorThe North Carolina Arts Incubator is located in five buildings nestled in the heart of Historic Downtown Siler City and currently features 24 artists working in a variety of media from pottery to glass to fiber.

The idea for an Arts Incubator started in 2002 with a series of conversations among Siler City business persons and the directors of the Central Carolina Community College Small Business Assistance Center (CCCC). The focus was on re-development of the Historic Downtown and fostering small businesses in Siler City.  As discussions progressed, it became clear that Chatham County had a wealth of artists, many of whom were struggling as small business people.  An Arts Incubator could provide low rent studio space, business assistance, and an inspired, cohesive environment for artists as they worked to develop professionally.  From this concept a strong thriving arts community was born.

A non-profit corporation was formed and in 2004 the first downtown property was acquired.  A home for the new organization was created at 138 North Chatham Avenue.  Since that time, the Incubator has grown and expanded into five buildings, a landscaped courtyard and performance stage located just across the street from its original location (now a hub of activity for the CCCC ceramics and sculpture degree program and Gallery.)

Feel our energy!  Plan a trip to the Incubator where you will find open studio doors and artists busy creating art.  In addition to working studios, the Incubator boasts a quality Gallery store and the newly dedicated PAF special exhibitions gallery.  We are a community of artists within a community: you will find another half-dozen galleries, the Chatham Camera Club and studios with artists eager to share their passion.  Join us on our 3rd Friday ArtWalk, every month from 6-9:00p.m.

We are located a comfortable driving distance from the Triangle or Triad, just minutes off Hwy. 64 and 421. Groups welcomed. Call ahead for a tour.
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See also Matt's Siler City Photo Album

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