Travel

Rockingham

  • By Jeremy Markovich
  • Photography by Chris Edwards

Richmond County’s seat has a long history of perseverance, generosity, and teamwork. Now it has NASCAR back, and new hope.

Rockingham

The savior of Rockingham wore a black ball cap and a loose, blue polo shirt. He stood on a lovely September day at a podium set up on pit road, in front of a small crowd of locals and TV cameras. The governor looked on.

It took four hard years for Andy Hillenburg to do something nobody had ever done: lure NASCAR back to a track it left. In 2007, he bought the old North Carolina Speedway at auction for $4 million. Then he slowly but steadily brought racing back to The Rock, first with ARCA and now with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, which will race at the renamed Rockingham Speedway in April.

The knock on The Rock had always been its distance from the big cities. It could be cold for February races. Sometimes, it would snow. Racing left in 2004 when, through a series of sales and lawsuits, Speedway Motorsports ended up with this track and moved its last remaining race to Texas. With NASCAR’s steady march out of the South toward bigger cities, many felt it would never come back to a small, out-of-the-way oval like Rockingham.

Hillenburg smiled that day to say: They were wrong.

The speedway does not sit in the center of the town that provides its name. The asphalt oval and steel grandstands rise up among the pine trees and farm fields that line U.S. Highway 1, a full 10 miles from downtown.

Rockingham itself has, like so many other towns in North Carolina, a split personality. It sits along an ancient coastline — the dividing line between the Piedmont and the Sandhills. There is the standard business strip along Old U.S. Highway 74, with a Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, chain restaurants, and hotels. The downtown has squarely gridded streets among the beige and tan brick buildings. There is a courthouse and churches and a square with a fountain. Every other storefront is empty.

It is akin to many other North Carolina towns, quiet and a shell of its former self. But here, there is something you cannot see, stirring not on the sidewalks or streets but in conversations and hearts. There is hope. Hope for rebirth.

You can see rebirth in the ruins. As you come into town from the west through the soybean fields and pine trees on Old 74, an old cotton mill sits on the right, overgrown with kudzu and weeds. It was left there after it caught fire in 1970 and the firefighters couldn’t do anything but watch the heart-pine floor feeding the flames. Two walls still stand, their bricks red, white, and green, with windows arched and spaced consistently like an old Roman aqueduct.

The mill hummed along 150 years ago, pulling in cotton from the fields for miles around, using the slow but powerful water from Hitchcock Creek to power the looms and weave together uniforms for Confederate soldiers. Gen. William Sherman, on his way back from Atlanta, Georgia, burned it. After the Civil War, the townspeople pulled 200,000 handmade bricks from the rubble and rebuilt it. The Great Falls Mill kept running for another hundred years.

Murder and atonement

Rebirth is the only way to describe how a murder case from 1925 led a man to give millions of dollars of his own money to make Rockingham a better place today.

W.B. Cole had his office in the white-brick, two-story Manufacturers Building, which still sits today on East Washington Street. Cole had the corner office. His daughter, Elizabeth, had been dating the son of a Methodist minister, a young World War I veteran named William Ormond. They broke up. Afterward, Ormond started writing letters to W.B. Cole. Ormond claimed he and Elizabeth, who were unmarried, had been “living together as man and wife” for more than a year. That’s how they put it back then.

“I must have fainted when I read the — the — slander part,” Cole later said on the witness stand. “I lost consciousness, and when I came to, I awoke in a clammy sweat.” He thought his daughter and Ormond must be married if it was true. He decided it was not. He wrote back to Ormond, calling him a “damnable, contemptible cur.”

One day, Ormond showed up at W.B. Cole’s office, demanding that he and Elizabeth be married. Cole said no. The young man walked out and stepped into the Ford convertible parked in the street. Cole followed him, pistol in hand. “I shot three times,” he said on the witness stand. “I later learned they all took effect.”

W.B. Cole said he fired in self-defense, although none of the four witnesses saw a gun in Ormond’s hand. Cole pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Jurors had to be brought in from Union County. It took 22 hours to acquit.

The drama led to a Broadway play called Coquette, which made New York audiences weep. It later became a movie. Mary Pickford, in her first speaking role, won an Oscar. Some people are still furious with the trial’s outcome. A few years ago, the historical society wanted to reenact the shooting. The locals responded with a resounding no.

Robert Cole took over the textile mill after his father’s death in 1954. Robert was quiet and shy. “If you met him on the street, he would look down,” says City Councilman Steve Morris. “He wouldn’t look at you.” Quietly, he started making donations to Richmond Memorial Hospital. Cole eventually sold his family’s mill to Hanes, and the company started making L’eggs pantyhose.

An attorney in town got a call late one night. Robert Cole was on the line and said he needed to set up a foundation by the morning. The next day, Cole took more than $14 million from the sale and set it aside. The money built a plaza next to city hall. It paid for the auditorium down the road at Richmond Community College. It’s helping fund the Discovery Place KIDS-Rockingham that will open next year in downtown Rockingham, in the old McKenzie Furniture store on East Washington, just across the way from the Manufacturers Building.

Why did Robert Cole do this? Atonement, says Neal Cadieu. Cadieu is a Cole Foundation trustee and the former publisher of the Richmond County Daily Journal, the kind of guy who knows everybody in town. He knows the score here. “None of the rural areas can attract new industry,” he says. “But we can be a better place to live.”

Real community

Cadieu, the de facto historian, sits in his office — an old barbershop on Hancock Street. W.B. Cole built it. Cadieu tells the story of Rockingham’s past: Ten mills were up and running in 1915. Some people got rich off the backs of cheap labor. The jobs left when the labor in China and Mexico became cheaper. First, companies like J.R. Stephens, Lowenstein and Klopman bought out locally owned mills. In 1957, Hannah-Pickett became the first mill to close. Nobody saw the beginning of the end. “It changed so gradually,” Cadieu says. “Most of us didn’t realize it was changin’.”

By the mid-1990s, nearly every mill was gone.

Cadieu walks out the door and down the street, past a once-bustling Belk department store that now houses a church. He points out an empty yellow-brick building on a corner of Harrington Square. That’s where Family Dollar founder Leon Levine opened his first dry-goods store. It’s at the head of Lee Street, which used to be known as the Star of the Sandhills, he says. In good times, people came from miles around to shop there.

Up the street is Arts Richmond, full of pottery and papier-mâché monsters made by kids and local artists. On the other side of the square is the Richmond Community Theatre. It’s one of the oldest continually running community playhouses in the state, open for 35 years.

Cadieu steps inside and walks among the seats, under the balcony. When he was a kid, it was “colored only” up there. There was no dressing room. Performers changed under the stage, where city workers dug a basement for them. Actors couldn’t talk or flush the toilet, lest the audience hear.

A theater worker sees Cadieu and walks up. “This is a real community theater,” Merrie Dawkins crows. This man has put his money where his mouth is, she says.

She looks at him. “Your mama would’ve been proud,” she says. Neal Cadieu blushes.

What local means

The town is quiet at 9 a.m., except for a man on a bike who waves, unsolicited. Off South Hancock Street across from a parking lot, a waitress walks across the worn planks at Henry’s Uptown Cafe. The wood-paneled walls are painted white and red. There are 13 tables; only two are taken. Their occupants wait for breakfast, reading the paper, checking their phones.

“Havin’ breakfast?” the waitress asks the guy who just breezed in the door.

He looks up from his cell phone. “Yup,” he says. “Can you believe it?” They know each other.

The waitress mentions a bagel, egg, and cheese sandwich for $1.50. There’s a breakfast burger for $4.75. It doesn’t matter what’s on the menu, really. Henry will make whatever you want.

Henry Antos III is a gentle-looking man in his late 30s with a black ball cap and black, wire-rimmed glasses that match his dark hair. There’s an out-of-focus picture of Antos on the wall, smiling, thrusting forth a plate of fries. You can hear his metal spatula scraping the griddle in the back over the Christian music coming from the silver plastic radio in the corner.

Antos is preparing the chicken salad and burgers. He makes small batches to keep things fresh. Lunchtime is always the busiest at Henry’s. It’s hard to find a seat. Lawyers, judges, and sheriff’s deputies pack in here.

Antos has a philosophy. He buys local. He can find a case of lettuce for $14. He can usually ask around and get a dozen eggs for a dollar. The meat comes from Fayetteville, the paper products from Cascade Tissue out on Midway Road.

Antos, his wife, and his four kids have lived in Cary and Myrtle Beach, but they like it here best. They like the weather and the hills and their 167-year-old house, which he said God led him to. “This has been like home,” Antos says. He corrects himself. “This is home.”

Oases of hope

Hitchcock Creek gurgles. Mountain laurel hangs overhead. Waterfalls trickle in. The water drops through what’s left of the dam that burst here in 1945, when the storm pushed the lake behind it through the brick and mortar. In the years since, elms and birch grew up in the old lake bed. The forest closed in. The Pee Dee No. 1 Textile Mill used to be here, until somebody tore it down to get at the timber and brick. Only the old generating station remains.

John Massey parks just off Steele Street, walks back to the bank, and looks into the future. A few years from now, this area will be full of canoers and kayakers. The state just came up with the money to clear the debris out of the creek. Sometime soon, there will be trails and footbridges and picnic tables and a place to park.

Massey is the planning director in Rockingham. He lives here with his wife, daughter, and son. They have friends in Charlotte who call sometimes when they’re stuck in traffic. They can have it. “You’ve got everything you need within a five-mile drive,” he says. “I don’t want to spend my day living in a car.”

Massey peers out from behind his plastic sunglasses as he turns his white Crown Vic onto Fayetteville Road, which is lined with hundred-year-old houses that used to belong to textile barons. One of the nicest, the white-balconied Leak-Wall House, now houses the Richmond County Historical Society. People get married in the gardens.

Past there, Massey sees more hope. The car cuts back to Washington Street and turns down a gravel driveway, coming to a stop at the tree-lined shore of Lake Hinson. There are places to fish. The tamped-down trails are good for runners. One stops for a drink of water. The Rotary built a lodge here near the dam that separates the lake from the marsh. The Cole Foundation helped pay for it.

The idea is to make a one-stop outdoors destination, one that offers a little bit of a lot of things. The creeks and lakes will bring paddlers. The game land will bring hunters. The Pee Dee, anglers. They don’t expect people to come from thousands, or even hundreds of miles away. They just hope, at first, that people will come.

Old-time revival

Once again, the speedway may be the key to rebirth.

Robert Ingraham remembers when Andy Hillenburg called him in 2007 and said, “I bought a racetrack.”

“You did what?” Ingraham said.

Ingraham lived in the area at the time. He worked on Ken Schrader’s pit crew as a gas man. He came in for the race, worked, and left. He did that for 10 years.

Now he runs the Rockingham Speedway for Hillenburg. Most days here are quite boring. There is grass to cut, grandstands to tidy, walls to paint. “It’s OK to be old,” Ingraham says about the track, “but it’s not OK to be old and dirty.”

The speedway opened in 1965. L.G. DeWitt, a peach farmer, was its first president. Richard Petty won here. Eleven times. You can see the whole track from anywhere in the stands.

Ingraham unlocks the gate that leads to Turn 3 and keeps the gawkers out. They still get a lot of those, he says. They all want to get a closer look at history.

He starts picking up speed and comes down the front stretch in his white pickup truck. The pavement sparkles in the sun. “Watch this,” he says, keeping the wheels in the groove, staying low in Turn 1 and then moving back to the outside in Turn 2, where the 26-degree bank levels out. “Then all of a sudden, watch this wall jump out at you,” he says, and the wall is suddenly there, right in the spot where the truck wants to be. Past there, skidmarks line the wall, a visual history of bad decisions and costly mistakes.

You have to be a good driver to win here. Everyone says that. The sandy asphalt is rough to the touch. It chews up tires after 15 or 20 laps. But the surface wears down quickly. It gets slick, especially in the heat. A good driver has the touch to keep his car from losing control. A bad driver might end up in the wall after Turn 2.

The speedway is small and intimate. Its stands hold fewer than 35,000 fans since the previous owner plucked out the backstretch grandstands and used them for the seating at zMAX Dragway in Concord. The concrete pillars reach skyward, aching for something to hold.

Ingraham resists the urge to take his truck out on the track every day. “If you work at a racetrack, you can’t be a fan,” he says. Fans love to watch. Guys like him love to serve them. And for years, Ingraham says the fans have been saying the same thing to him. We lost our race. When are you going to go get us another one?

Now, they have their answer — April.

There is work to do before then. There are safety barriers to install at the track. In town, there are streets to clean, storefronts to spruce up, doors to fling open. There is a second chance to be had.

You might have never seen this coming. Rockingham saw it all along.

Don’t Miss

Rockingham Fish Camp — On a stretch of road that includes a feast of fast food, this place has a down-home feel with meals to match. There’s no shortage of fried fish, and handpainted images of North Carolina lighthouses decorate the walls. 532 East Broad Avenue, Rockingham, N.C. 28379. (910) 997-4006.

Buck Baker Racing School
Rockingham Speedway
2152 North U.S. Highway 1
Rockingham, N.C. 28379
(800) 529-2825
buckbaker.com

Leak-Wall House and Garden
405 East Washington Street
Rockingham, N.C. 28379
(910) 895-1660

Arts Richmond
123 East Washington Street
Rockingham, N.C. 28379
(910) 997-6008
artsrichmond.org

Jeremy Markovich is the special projects producer at WCNC-TV in Charlotte. Jeremy’s most recent story for Our State was “The Keepers of Our Communities” (November 2011).

This entry was posted in January 2012, Piedmont and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Rockingham

  1. George "Sandy" Browder says:

    It was a good article indeed about a great little southern town that now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. When all of the textile mills went out of business that had been the heart and soul of the area for over a hundred years it certainly did leave a huge gap to fill. Thanks Ray Jones for correcting the spelling on the name of what was once the 2nd largest textile company in the country, J.P. Stevens. It is a shame that so few remember what it was and what it did for folks in Rockingham and other towns. And, yes, to David Rush’s comment ( who by the way is the grandfather of the husband of one of my daughters ) there are many, many untold stories about Rockingham, but fortunately there are a few people such as Joel Bailey that run blogs and other sites that are full of local rememberances and are places where one can go to not only read, but add your own thoughts and memories about small towns in North Carolina such as Rockingham.

  2. Richard H. Monroe says:

    Deep within the caverns of my mind, there will always be those wonderful memories of growing up in Rockingham prior to NASCAR but after the Cole murder trial. OUR STATE did a very nice article on the town, but there were so many other good things that made Rockingham a grand place to call home. The education offered by the public schools was exceptional—with teachers like Kay Crosland, Doris Baxley, Jim Miller, Dot Ormsby, Rachel Shores, Virginia Dockery, Jim Beam, Ella Mulkey and so many others. They provided a foundation upon which I was able to have a successful career and a happy life. I pay tribute to them.

    I am reminded of key business people who enabled Rockingham to thrive and prosper during the 1940′s through the 1960′s. There were business women who were ahead of their time—Kay Whittemore, Mrs. Barwick, Mrs. Gaddy, Mrs. Harmon, and others. Business men like Watt Long, Joe McLaurin, R.W. Goodman, Ed Chishom, Mr. Maske, Mr. Kurtz, Mr. Futterer, Russell Bennett, and many more contributed not only to the economy, but to the community as well. These men and women were the people who could be seen on the ball field, in the churches, at club meetings, and doing volunteer work. They formed the backbone of what every community desires to become. Unknowingly, even they made an impact on my life in one way or another.

    I recall beautiful Fayetteville Road with its lovely homes and tree lined sidewalks. How many times did I walk that route to down town to see a movie at the Richmond Theater or the Strand Theater? Who could forget Mr. Smith’s little grocery store at the other end of Fayetteville Road? I can still remember my mother sending me to Mr. Smith’s to pick up a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk. Whether on foot or bicycle, i grew up traveling around my “world” of Rockingham. Safety? Never a problem. Kindness? Always a presence. Positive influences? Everyday of my young life.

    The First Presbyterian Church on Fayetteville Road was my religious home. Sunday school and church with family and friends instilled a value system and a moral obligation to others. Playing games under the street lights at night, going to various swimming holes, watching the Christmas parades and the high school homecoming parades, visiting in your neighbors’ homes, having friends over, and so many other activities added such a richness to my life. So what is Rockingham to me? It’s more than just a town or a home. It’s a part of who I am today. I am the lucky one because of it.

    Richard H. Monroe
    Whispering Pines, N.C.

  3. Michaelle Goforth says:

    I grew up in Rockingham ,graduating from RSHS in ’77. I married Bill Goforth at the First Baptist Church of Rockingham. As a child I went to the races at North Carolina Motor Speedway with my grandparents, Pat and Thelma Brooks. They loved to “camp out” in the infield in their travel trailer. Plywood put on top of the trailer was our birds eye viewing spot for the race climbing up there on a ladder. Cotton balls stuffed I’m my ears served as hearing protection! My Granddaddy loved to go to the “time trials” the weekend before the race and to the open house where you could drive around the track in your car!!
    My husband, mother Patricia Watson and sister Dawn, went to the last race. Although we didn’t know it was the last at that time. What a beautiful day it was in Feb. On Thursday that week there was a snow/ice storm and we had to fly back to Germany where my husband was stationed at the time.
    So many memories of fun times at the race track. I even got the chance to ride around in a race truck with the Buck Baker Racing School!!! That was great going 141 mph!
    Thanks for a great story about my home town !!

  4. Libby (Bolton) Taylor says:

    So many memories of long ago times…small things, sometimes obscure things, but all imbedded in my mind and on my heart for a lifetime! Neal Cadieu did provide historical insight but he missed the true grit, the hearts and souls of those who lived and worked in the area and called Rockingham home. I could relate to so much that was written (and probably add much). I also, went to school with Neal Cadieu (and David Rush), and I agree with him that the heart of our small southern town would be found in the small things….the personalities, involvements, visions, directions, and yes even misdirections and involvements!
    I started school at L.J. Bell in first grade and graduated from RHS in 1951. Our class still holds a class reunion every year. I believe only 17 were in attendance this year (60 years down the road). The numbers diminish each year but the friendships remain. And, while I am many miles removed from those days and that place, and the town has redefined itself to the point that I really don’t recognize it as home, the memories of the people will always remain, and I enjoyed reading the article. Good job!

    My husband and I live in Texas, but we continue to receive the Our State Magazine.

  5. C. Ray Jones says:

    Loved the story and the enthusiasm about the town…….my sister forwarded this to me, and by chance our local paper carried a feature today about the NASCAR schedule, and imagine my surprise to see ‘Rockingham’ show up. Best wishes to the Rock.
    Just FYI, the textile firm that ran Hannah Pickett ( and put me through college) was “J.P. Stevens” (not ‘Stephens’)…now known as West Point -Stevens.

  6. Tony Anderson says:

    Richmond County does have a colorful history and the valuable potential of our community is continuously being revealed. The county’s future holds an abundance of opportunity for optimistic visionaries. As a young man growing up here, it was easy to overlook the value of our great location, the small town charm, and the wisdom shared by many of our life-long residents. A day trip to the mountains, a day trip to the coast, five minutes to the church of your choice and a smile from anyone you meet, are some of the many attributes Richmond County has to offer.
    Our residents and friends mentioned in the article are truly optimistic visionaries. They lead with not only their minds, but their hearts as well. Our county has many people just like these and I salute their positive attitudes and efforts in creating opportunities for Richmond County to prosper.

  7. David Rush says:

    As one who grew up in Rockingham, I found the article more than interesting. It made me relive the days as a teenager, and as a young radio announcer on WAYN (When I left for greater pastures, Jimmy Smith replaced me. I went to Rockingham High with Cadieu. I know that space wouldn’t allow everything, but I felt that Markovich missed the boat on some of the more interesting events of the past, like the day the football team and some classmates walked out in protest over the firing of Coach Fant Kelley and marched down to the center of town, thus as far as is known is the first protest march the town ever witnessed. We used to have an annual Peach Festival, which attracted B movie stars to be marshalls. And the 1947 attempt by the Textile Workers Union to organize the mills. It turned neighbor against neighor and the Governor was forced to send in the Highway Patrol to keep the peace. Or, as we all used to talk about at reunions, rival newspaper Publisher Ike London of the Post Dispatch, getting arrested by the Feds for gambling. He handed out diplomas at my 1949 graduation, and joke was, after each graduate was handed his or her diploma, Ike would wave his hand to a Fed offstage and whisper “I’ll be there in a few moments. As for the Richmond County Journal, the Cadieu paper, a weekly at the time, we would take bets as to how many mistakes would be in that week’s issue. Years later when I became an NBC-News Corrrespondent, I would wonder how a local paper could commit so many errors. But, thank you Jeremy Markovich, for helping a former Rockingham boy relive his youth. Dave Rush (retired)

    • ourstate says:

      Hi David,
      Moderation of comments simply means that someone from Our State reviews them before they go live on our website – we simply want to make sure that the comments do not contain profanity or other objectionable material.

      Thank you for your comments on this story!

      Sincerely,
      Laurie Weaver
      Online Media Manager

  8. RidinWind says:

    Nascar is fun, but the Motorcycle rallies at Rockingham are awesome!

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