Falling in Love with Hillsborough


By Michael Malone

Note: The Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau commissioned local authors to write stories about Orange County for state and national media. The following article, written by Hillsborough resident and author Michael Malone, appeared in such newspapers as The Chapel Hill News in 2006.

In Casablanca, “Everybody comes to Ric’s.” In Hillsborough, everybody comes to Churton Street, where now, on curiously balmy winter days, sidewalks bustle with outdoor diners under umbrellas and with shoppers carrying parcels. Everybody comes, and more and more, they fall in love.

Hillsborough, the seat of Orange County, has a past. Its downtown blocks commemorate so many crucial scenes in our nation’s founding that drivers do not have time to read the historical markers, even in traffic, as they go through town. It had a past in 1000 A.D. when Occaneechi Indians lived and traded here. It had a past when Revolutionary firebrands chased away the Royal Governor and fought the Battle of Alamance, years before Paul Revere galloped into Concord, Massachusetts, yelling that the British were coming.

Hillsborough was already a flourishing Colonial capitol when the North Carolina delegation met here to demand that the Convention in Philadelphia add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Back in the ante-bellum South, Hillsborough was already famous as an educational center for young men and women both, and it was from Hillsborough’s Dickson House (now at the corner of Cameron and King) that General Johnston rode out to surrender the largest army of the Confederacy to General Sherman.

But, as the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough proclaims, listing the sights and sites on view in the town, “It’s not JUST about history.” The truth is all kinds of people love Hillsborough who don’t know Mrs. MacDowell Hogg from Hog Day or Thomas Day (free slave brilliant furniture designer) from Thomas Ruffin (first chief justice of the state’s supreme court who wrote the cases — in the one-room office in our front yard — articulating the principles of eminent domain and, in State vs. Mann, the legal ramifications of slavery).

The town keeps reinventing its major enterprise — farms, academies, mills, law and government — while holding onto some quintessential quality that makes people want to come here to tour — and want to settle. They fall in love.

“It must be something in the water,” muses photographer Elizabeth Matheson about all the artists who’ve moved to Hillsborough in recent decades. Throughout its history, the town has welcomed newcomers of all sorts, even writers, without losing its small-town feel, its easy-going Main Street mingling that makes it so authentically a community. “Community” is the word I heard most often when I asked people what they most liked about Hillsborough. And when I asked them, “If you could add one thing to this town, what would it be,” their answers invariably spoke to a desire for some new, or restored, addition to that communal space:

“We need a performing arts center in town.”

“I can’t wait for the Riverwalk.” 

“Where’s Weaver Street Foods?”

It may be apocryphal that Hillsborough turned down the chance to be the Rockefeller reconstruction that instead would become Williamsburg. But what’s undeniably true is that Hillsborough takes pride in its genuineness. “Who wants to be a reconstruction? We’re real.” In Hillsborough, it’s okay to dine on caviar in a dinner jacket at a private fundraiser and it’s okay to dine on fried dough in a sweatshirt on a Ferris wheel. There’s a way in which the town makes everybody feel comfortable and connected, as if they’d gone home to visit their grandmother. Resident Nancy Demorest (Emmy-winning former head-writer of The Guiding Light) put it this way: “Living here takes me back to childhood, when I traveled by foot on broken sidewalks to friends’ houses. Folks here in town work hard. But if you hit the doorbell at just the right time, somebody MIGHT come out to play.”

And Hillsborougheans do play. They have festivals, fairs, contests, concerts, reenactments, dances, readings, plays, tastings and talent shows.

In vibrant contrast to the strip malls and urban complexes that stretch indiscriminately from state to state, there’s a particularity to Hillsborough, a human scale to its brick storefronts and frame 18th- and 19th-century houses that feels authentic, local. You wouldn’t to be surprised to see Tom Sawyer whitewashing the Colonial Inn (which could use it) or Scout Finch and her father, Atticus, shopping at Dual Supply, a hardware store that looks as it did 50 years ago — the way a hardware store ought to look.

These literary analogies are pertinent. Hillsborough is chock-a-block with writers, perhaps more novelists, poets, essayists, scholars and historians per square foot than any other small town since, well, Concord, Massachusetts. Within shouting distance (“Free for lunch?” or “There’s a reading at the Burwell School tonight” or “Let’s put on a play together!”) gather such talents as Allan Gurganus, David Payne, Craig Nova, Frances Mayes, Nancy Goodwin, Randall Kenan, Bob Richardson, Annie Dilliard, Lee Smith, Hal Crowther.

Apparently if you build it — a good bookstore (Brick Alley Books), a good wine shop (Hillsborough Wine Company), a good coffee house (Cup A Joe), good downtown restaurants (Panciuto, Saratoga Grill and Tupelo’s among them) — if you throw in a Poet’s Walk and a chance to put on a play in a church or an auction house, writers will come. And so will painters, potters, jewelers, musicians, lawyers, bankers, organic farmers and NASCAR fans: The first professional speedway has been preserved here near the banks of the Eno River.

For decades, a giant statue of a frontiersman has welcomed visitors to the Shops at Daniel Boone, where they can find everything from an unusual antique collectible to an excellent blacksmith. Today more and more original Hillsborough stores are joining that pioneer.

The music and sounds you hear from time to time in Hillsborough speaks (sometimes loudly) to its diversity. Freight trains whistle past the old mills. Children clang an antique school bell at Hughes Academy. The great 1769 Georgian clock in the Old Courthouse cupola bongs the hours. On Saturday night, John Lee Hooker Jr.’s guitar wails out of the Blue Bayou Club, while on Sunday, in the Flying Fish, the Jazz Tones play Billy Strayhorn tunes.

Mayor Tom Stevens says of his town, “Historic Hillsborough is happening.” His remark, folksy and wry, captures the way the town manages both to stay in touch with its roots while to looking to the future. “When I go to conferences, meetings or simply visit other towns and someone hears I’m from Hillsborough, the phrase I hear over and over is ‘I love Hillsborough!’ ”

Barbara Mandrell once sang that she “was country when country wasn’t cool.” Like her, Susan Frankenburg, owner of an elegant Asian antiques business in town, remembers when a Chapel Hill Realtor advised her against moving to Hillsborough because it wasn’t cool here, wasn’t uniformly upper-middle-class. She ignored that advice and has lived happily in the town’s historic district for 32 years now watching Hillsborough grow into a cultural center without ever losing the gritty authenticity, the social, economic and political range that first drew her.

People come to Hillsborough for all sorts of reasons. To shop, to eat, to hear blues; to see Montrose Gardens; to study the Revolutionary War; to stroll along that (now sadly rare) phenomenon, a walkable downtown. They visit the Old Cemetery where signers of the Declaration of Independence lie buried. They go to the Burwell School where Elizabeth Keckley lived as a slave. After buying herself out of slavery, Keckley went on to become dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln — and so the pre-eminent couturier of 19th-century Washington society.

People who visit come back, more and more often, to look for a house, a business, a project, a dream.

There are sometimes arguments between those who would preserve the past and those who would clear a path for the future. But from its picture-perfect old courthouse to its sleek new Italian restaurant Panciuto, whose young owner Aaron Vandemark is one of the most talented chefs in the state, Hillsborough looks to have a past and a future both.

Brooks Graebner — rector of St. Matthew’s, a venerable Episcopal church bursting at its Federalist seams with a thriving congregation — is a passionate advocate for historic preservation, for the arts and for modern Hillsborough. He believes that the town is destined to make an “ever larger contribution to the cultural resources of the area, the state, the region and the nation.”

Sooner or later, everybody comes to Hillsborough. It’s not just about the history. But we’ve got that, too.

Michael Malone’s best-selling works of fiction include Handling Sin and Foolscap.