Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2012.
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.”
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.
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.
Buck Baker Racing School
2152 North U.S. Highway 1
Rockingham, N.C. 28379
Leak-Wall House and Garden
405 East Washington Street
Rockingham, N.C. 28379
123 East Washington Street
Rockingham, N.C. 28379