photograph by Doris Rudd

Here, there are bright lights where there once was darkness. Huge windows where there once were blank walls. Music where the sounds of machinery once filled the air.

At Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom, nothing is quite the same as it once was. But the venue’s owners, Heather and Tom LaGarde and their friend Margaret Jemison, know that there is beauty to be salvaged from this old mill town, and together, they’re helping to give it a new identity.

Heather grew up in Chapel Hill. When she was a teenager, she learned to drive in Saxapahaw. She fell in love with this “beautiful, mysterious place,” and though she lived in Africa and Switzerland and New York City, she kept thinking about the little mill town. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, she and Tom couldn’t shake their unease, and they moved to an old dairy farm near Heather’s home place.

The LaGardes set out to show people what they loved about their town. They started with a combination farmers market and concert series, but they soon made plans, with Jemison, to buy and renovate what was once the dye room of the defunct cotton mill.

“It was a scary place,” Heather says, recalling the pigeon-filled dye room before the renovation. But she and her partners had a vision: This would be a welcoming place, a place for concerts, for weddings, for homework sessions and tech conferences alike. This would be a place for people in the community to share with the rest of the world.

Now, former mill workers visit the ballroom and laugh at how different the place looks. They see a floor-to-ceiling window opposite a grand stage. A coffee shop. A few Ping-Pong tables. Acoustic panels on the walls. Only two dye vats remain — one houses the venue’s sound equipment and lighting controls, and the other stands outside, lit from the inside, welcoming visitors like a beacon. Locals call it the moon.

The LaGardes take pride in these details. It’s important to them to reuse materials, so there’s a bit of floor from a Sanford mill, benches from a Myrtle Beach music venue, and a turnstile from UNC’s Kenan Stadium. Tom LaGarde created the coffee shop’s tables and counter from a salvaged barn floor.

Often, when those mill workers visit, they bring gifts — spindles, cotton from the old mill, and stories about the way this place used to be.

Haw River Ballroom
1711 Saxapahaw Bethlehem Church Road
Saxapahaw, N.C. 27340
(336) 525-2314

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Saintsing is an associate editor at Our State magazine and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.