Runs in the family
The phone rings in the office on Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road. Sherry Graves, wearing lavender eye shadow to match her scarf, picks up the receiver. “Hello, Rivermill Village Apartments, how may I help you?” She listens. “Honey, I wish I had something to show you, but we’re all full.” She pulls up a spreadsheet on her computer. “Uh huh, it’s possible we could show you something in the fall, but right now we have 40 people on a waiting list.” She hangs up and points to a pile of papers on her desk. “I haven’t even put these in the computer yet. We’ve had a waiting list for more than a year. Some people still pay the application fee and are on file, just waiting.” She shakes her head. “I feel so bad for them.” The secretary for Rivermill Village Apartments is used to delivering bad news. The phone rings a lot, and it doesn’t look like any of the 75 units she helps manage will be vacant anytime soon.
Completed in 2005, the apartments are another chapter in the history of Saxapahaw, a village on the Haw River in southeastern Alamance County. Eighty-six years ago, B. Everett Jordan, who would one day be a U.S. senator, and his family bought the mill there. Workers shopped at the company store, went to the village school, prayed at the village church. In 1994, the mill, no longer owned by the family, closed. That’s when the senator’s grandson began trying to revitalize the place. With his father and brother, Mac Jordan, 51, has spent nearly two decades and more than $10 million turning the spinning mill into apartments and its dye house into a general store, charter school and pub, plus 29 condos slated to open later this year. Together, the mixed-use development is known as Saxapahaw Rivermill, and it’s received acclaim from locals as well as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
A flood nearly drowned the project soon after it got under way, and a fire raged through the lower floor of the apartment building shortly before it was to open. But the biggest obstacle was finding funds to do it. Potential investors, banks and even locals laughed when they heard his plans. He kept working, remembering the words of his grandfather, who was fond of reminding people that when racing the hare, the patient, hard-working tortoise got the last laugh.
There has been a mill here since 1848 and people a lot longer than that. No one knows when they came, but the Sissipahaw had a village in the vicinity before Jamestown was settled in 1607, and English Quakers and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians began trickling in during the 1740s. Everett Jordan and his wife arrived in 1927 from Gastonia. Joining his uncle, Burlington merchant Charles Sellers, and other family members in buying the assets of bankrupt White-Williamson Co., which in one guise or another had owned the mill for more than 50 years, he was tasked with running newly formed Sellers Manufacturing Co. Though he struggled with dyslexia and read slowly, the company prospered under his direction, introducing new processes and products with its high-quality yarns. In 1937, all the old buildings came down, replaced by brick and steel. The mill added a dye house in the ’50s and, at the height of its success in the ’60s, employed about 500. “He was the father figure of the community,” says Don Bolden, retired executive editor of the Burlington Times-News. “The mill owner was the patriarch.” Prominent in the Democratic Party, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1958, serving until 1973.
Former employees recall the village as a place teeming with workers and machines, spindles and bobbins whirring, miles of yarn running through the 120,000-square-foot mill. Betty Lou Wilborn wore her hair up — she didn’t want it caught in a machine — and an apron stained with grease. Her brother O.D. Thrift remembers best the dope wagons, which, before vending machines, peddled food and drinks from mill to mill. The men would swig Coke and Bromo Seltzer to facilitate loud belches. The good times didn’t last. Everett Jordan died in 1974, a year after he left the Senate, and his children, including son John, sold the mill in 1978 to Dixie Yarns — now Chattanooga, Tenn.-based The Dixie Group Inc. But it didn’t want the mill village. John knew Saxapahaw’s location and Alamance County’s lower tax rates made it a cheaper alternative to Chapel Hill, only 16 miles away, so he bought 66 houses from Sellers Manufacturing and started Jordan Properties LLC to rent some and sell others. Eventually, people from the college town started moving in, injecting a liberal vibe. “The community has changed about 98%,” John says. “We have acupuncture, a fitness center and — what is it called — yoga?”
Mac Jordan, who grew up in Saxapahaw and went to high school in nearby Graham, graduated from Duke University in 1983. After working four years for Jordan Properties, he enrolled at N.C. State University to study architecture. Getting his master’s in 1990, he moved home to handle sales for his father. He was living in the company’s office trailer in Carrboro in March 1994 when a tornado blew through Saxapahaw. He didn’t expect damage to be bad, but driving through the next morning, he realized the mill, as a going concern, was finished. Its roof had been torn off, and pieces of pink insulation lay scattered on the road. That October, the president of Dixie Yarns told residents the mill would close. All 168 workers were laid off. “People cried. … It was devastating,” one of them, Melinda Ruley, wrote at the time in The Independent Weekly.
John and Mac Jordan had talked about doing something with the buildings. Mac had studied mill renovation at State and knew apartments with a view of the Haw — the boulder-strewn river that once powered the mill — would rent quickly. His dad agreed and formed B. Everett Jordan and Son 1927 LLC, which Jordan Properties owned 25% of and Sellers Manufacturing the rest. John, in a partnership that included his brother, Ben, and sister, Rose Ann Gant, bought the spinning mill and dye house in 1995 for $385,000. “It’s one thing to rent houses to folks from Burlington and Chapel Hill,” Mac says. “Then try to renovate a mill in Saxapahaw into apartments — people thought we were crazy.”
Before they pitched their idea to investors, the Jordans had to clean up the property. The electric bill was $5,000 a month because the transformers weren’t operating properly. Vines covered the walls. Mac couldn’t afford to hire contractors, so he called his brother Carter, who was in Wyoming building log cabins, and asked for help. Carter flipped a coin to make the decision. The brothers and a hired crew replaced old wiring and refinished flooring. At night, Mac dreamed of flames racing up the walls. “If I slept, I didn’t sleep well.” Carter and 10 men earned certifications to remove asbestos from the lower mill, and they hired a company to remove petroleum found in the soil during an environmental assessment. Mac invited five Burlington banks to Saxapahaw and gave a presentation, hoping to secure a loan. No one was interested.
In September 1996, less than a year after the Jordans bought the mill, Hurricane Fran tore through North Carolina. Seven inches of rain fell on Alamance County in less than 24 hours. Mac and Carter climbed to the roof and watched the river inch toward them. The next morning, they discovered water had warped the floor of the mill so badly it looked like the belly of a boat. Repairs took two years. About the same time, Mac began the process of having the building declared a historic landmark. The distinction would qualify it for tax credits that could pay up to 40% of the renovations. But by January 1998, they had run out of money. “I wanted to give up more times than I can count. But each time after something bad happened, something good happened too.”
In early 1998, he got a phone call from a charter school in Chapel Hill that was interested in relocating to the dye house. He finally had a potential tenant he could dangle in front of financiers. He landed a $1.5 million loan from Rocky Mount-based Centura Bank — now Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank — enabling renovation of 26,000 square feet for the school, a restaurant, his office, a sheriff’s station and a salon. But he had to complete the work for the school by August. The bad dreams returned. “There was always the fear that it wouldn’t work. It was the fear I wouldn’t be able to get financing. I always was confident that once it was built, it would work.”
But his luck seemed to be turning. He finished on time, and in October 1998, the mill was on the National Register of Historic Places, though the tax credits didn’t kick in until renovations were under way. Nevertheless, the project ran out of money again in 2002. He went back to school and earned a certificate to teach elementary school. He did his student teaching in Saxapahaw and, on the last day, received a call. The project had been approved for an $8 million, 40-year loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — enough to finish the apartments. His father was dubious. “I’m not sure I would have done that,” John says. “But any entrepreneur always expects to succeed. Any risk-taker expects to succeed. But the word risk means exactly what it says — you can lose.” In 2004, Fannie Mae bought the state and federal tax credits. Considered an equity investment, $3 million was delivered to the Jordans, 40% of what they had spent on renovations. By February 2005, the apartments were nearly complete. That’s when Mac’s dreams proved premonitory.
He was in his office about 8:30 on a cold March morning when his secretary looked out the window and began screaming. “Fire! Fire!” He saw plumes of smoke billowing from the mill. “I just knew everything was over.” A fuel line on a generator had ruptured. Flames spread from the parking garage, destroying wiring and plumbing for the entire building and damaging some five units on the second floor. About half the apartments had smoke damage. Heat warped steel beams in the parking garage. Luckily, insurance covered it. A contractor began working about a week after the fire and re-engineered the steel beams in the parking garage, repaired the damaged units and used special paint to rid the others of smoke stench. The fire delayed the debut by seven months, but Rivermill Apartments opened in December. Rents for the 75 one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments and 11 town homes ranged from $675 to $1,575 a month. Within 10 months, all were occupied.
The two-story house with light-green siding sits on Jordan Drive next to the post office and Jordan Properties. The view from the long, wooden porch is serene: the Haw River flows behind the red-brick mill buildings, families and cyclists sit outside on the patio of The Eddy Pub sipping coffee and beer. On quiet nights, you can hear music from Haw River Ballroom. The house was once Everett Jordan’s, though parts of it date back long before his arrival, and inside there are still traces of him: original wooden floors, tile and a fireplace from the 1930s. But Mac is making it his — or at least his daughter is. Her room is decorated in princess pink.
After the apartments were rented, he turned to finishing the dye house. The General Store, a restaurant opened by Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff in 2008, became a popular dining spot. Mac wanted a pub and music venue to join it but had no money to invest. About that time, he met Doug Williams and Claire Haslam. Williams, a former Saxapahaw resident who had returned to live in Rivermill Apartments, is president of Buckner Cos., a steel erection and crane company in Graham. In 2009, Williams — who has invested about $16 million in the property — bought the dye house. (Williams and Haslam opened The Eddy Pub a year later.) But Mac couldn’t let it go completely. He and Williams formed Rivermill Village LLC, of which he owns a 1% stake. He also gets a monthly developer fee from Williams and his share of the condo sales, which range from 1,200 to 2,300 square feet and are priced between $300,000 and $600,000.
Mac also became friends with Tom and Heather LaGarde. Tom, a UNC Chapel Hill basketball star in the 1970s and first-round NBA pick of the Denver Nuggets, had moved to Saxapahaw from New York after a career on Wall Street. The couple opened the Haw River Ballroom, a concert hall, and Café 22, a coffee shop, in 2011.
The companies involved in the project — Jordan Properties, B. Everett Jordan and Son 1927 and Rivermill Village — have created about 150 jobs. Before it began, Jordan Properties generated about $25,000 a month in revenue from the rental houses and other real-estate ventures. That figure has quadrupled. Mac isn’t surprised. On a recent evening, sitting in what was once his grandfather’s house, he looked out a window toward the mill buildings and crossed his arms. “I always knew it would work.”
Katherine Archer is a Greensboro-based freelance writer.