NC town tries to survive after tobacco

REIDSVILLE, N.C. — On the day in 1946 when his ashes were scattered from a plane, the wind sent the remains of Jeff Penn halfway back to Patrick County, Va., where he was born.

At least one part of him stayed at his mansion, Chinqua Penn, just outside Reidsville. As he had instructed, his heart was buried on the grounds, where it lies still, entombed in a small vault inside a water-meter box.

Many a heart has been left in this place, where century-old buildings seem full of possibility even when empty of everything else.

The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that the town was described as one of three centers of tobacco manufacturing in the state when “A Guide to the Old North State” was published by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939. Reidsville got into the tobacco business in 1858 when William Lindsey started making Lindsey’s Level Best. Others followed, including the Penns of Virginia, who later sold to American Tobacco, makers of Lucky Strike cigarettes.

By the time the WPA breezed through, 10 million cigarettes a day were made in Reidsville, along with silk, rayon, cotton and shoe polish.

Reidsville is notable now for what it has kept and what it has shed. Like small towns across the state, it’s in transition again, looking for ways to bring jobs to its 14,600 residents by bringing life back to the historic buildings built by tobacco and textiles.

The town recently celebrated the opening of its new Market Square; where a tobacco warehouse once stood, farmers will offer seasonal produce and residents can gather for concerts. Artists and their work are appearing in some of the once-shuttered shops on Market Street. Tourists again marvel at the money and creative energy spent building and furnishing Chinqua Penn, which looked for a time like it might be mothballed or turned into a conference center.

“I was worried,” says Ann Toler, who has worked at the 27-room mansion off and on for more than 30 years. “We didn’t know who was going to buy it or what they were going to do with it.”

It took Betsy and Jeff Penn two years in the 1920s to build the house on 1,100 acres of rolling Piedmont farmland, using labor, materials and designs from all over the world. Enthusiastic travelers with seemingly limitless resources, the couple incorporated almost every architectural style into the stone-and-timber structure and its grounds, including a bedroom from Shanghai, a replica of King Tut’s throne and a copy of Marie Antoinette’s powder room.

Betsy Penn stayed in the house until she died in 1961 and was buried, whole, alongside her husband’s heart. The house and most of its artifacts, from its 17th-century Flemish tapestries to its 1926 Skinner organ, went to the people of North Carolina.

Unlike the Penns, however, the people had limited means. First, UNC-Greensboro was responsible for the upkeep, then N.C. State University. Finally, in 2003, the state put the property on the market. Three years later, Lisa and Calvin Phelps bought it and reopened it for guided tours for up to $20 a pop.

With another era still on their minds, visitors to the rambling estate might head downtown for a bit of browsing in Dale McCracken’s store. A Backward Glance occupies three adjacent buildings, including one that served as a second-floor boarding house.

“Thirteen rooms up there,” McCracken says, “and I got ’em all filled with junk.”

His enterprise is one of the last survivors of Reidsville’s “Antique Alley,” a 1990s downtown revival effort. It worked for a while, but one by one the other dozen or so shops closed.

The Carolina Cafe, just down from McCracken’s shop, seems to have found its niche. The narrow tunnel of a restaurant is jammed from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., and through August is offering “Granny’s Recession Special,” a gravy biscuit with hash browns for $2.99.

Some regulars who perch on the red-vinyl stools are on their way to work at the cigarette plant, which was sold in 1994 to Commonwealth Brands but still bears the Lucky Strike name on its smokestack. Before the sale, 1,200 people worked there, and the air around downtown had the sweet smell of tobacco. Now, 232 people work in the complex, and a visitor is more likely to get a whiff of cafe burgers than of cured tobacco leaves.

The WPA guide mentioned the “new” 1936 federal building in Reidsville, with its brick-and-limestone exterior, frosted glass and silver-toned eagles over its doors. The book said nothing of the Gordon Samstag mural painted in the post office lobby in 1938, under a U.S. Treasury program to bring quality art to public buildings. It depicts men and a woman harvesting a verdant tobacco crop.

The city took over the building years ago. Customers pay their water bills under the mural today without looking up to notice the reapers’ hands are perfectly clean.

Reidsville still has enough historic homes to string together three walking tours. As a contractor, Tony Bachman worked on some of them until a stroke adjusted his threshold for stress.

Bachman says he did what he could to save historic buildings, but often that meant renovating one house with parts salvaged from another. He and a friend fought to keep the old passenger train depot from being demolished a few years ago, but they lost.

Bachman doesn’t fight much anymore, he says. He even gave up arguing with the owners of the new coffee shop in town, the Backstreet Buzz, who kept asking him to come play guitar while they serve grilled mozzarella sandwiches and lattes.

He’s there on Thursday nights, with his Alvarez. As Bachman strums, the sun goes down on a Confederate soldier on a granite obelisk a couple blocks away, in the middle of an intersection, facing downtown.

© Copyright: Shelbystar

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