Bynum North Carolina is an unincorporated community perched on a hill above the Haw River, found just off of Highway 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, in North Carolina. Bynum is there because a textile mill used to be there, one of the many that dotted the languid rivers of the Piedmont region of North Carolina starting just after the Civil War; dominating the region’s economy until the early 1980’s, when labor and power to run the mills were found cheaper overseas. As a textile mill it is a bit unique, in that it is alone. The mill, and small community that grew up around the mill starting in 1872 when the first mill building was built, is remote, just built on the side of a river in the woods. Most mills, from Rutherfordton to Greensboro to Burlington to Durham to Raleigh, were built at the edge of a small town. Those small towns, in the past 150 years, have ballooned into cities, enveloping the mill community. Nothing ever grew up around Bynum.
Someone unfamiliar with Bynum may drive through the town, maybe on their way to a Carolina football game, and think to themselves that Bynum has seen much better days. It may be true that Bynum as a mill town is gone. What is interesting is that Bynum is growing more than ever. The economies are different, but vibrant just the same.
An anthropologist from the university, or maybe someone out of the urban planning department would use the word “gentrification.” The definition of gentrification is “the restoration of deteriorated urban property by middle-class people, often resulting in the displacement of the lower-income people whom have lived in the area for many years.” I am not sure if this really works for Bynum. In plainer language, the holdover hippies of the 1970’s and 80’s and the hipsters exiled from Chapel Hill 10 miles north of the 1990’s and 2000’s have rented or purchased homes in Bynum as the mill families, many living there for generations, have moved or died out. The other difference, Bynum isn’t a place of lower, middle and upper income families. Income or wealth doesn’t seem so important as elsewhere, and more than likely, a younger family moving into a house many have been the same, or of lower income status that the family moving out.
Bynum is more about a state of mind it seems. You want to live there if you like a very tight-knit community, but don’t like the big population centers this type of lifestyle usually involves. You may have moved there to get closer to the Haw River, and its nature walks and canoe trips that are in your back-yard. Or to be nearer a vibrant music and art community.
If you have never been to Bynum before, let me suggest you visit on a Friday night at 7pm, anytime May through September. You will have a grand time, and be able to personally meet everyone whom lives in Bynum, as well as 50 other like-minded people from the surrounding 15 mile radius. Friday nights in Bynum, everyone gathers at the old General Store building, and sits out on blankets and beach chairs in the side yard, to see a local band play on a small wooded stage crowned with twinkly Christmas lights. You might see Dave Quick play in one of his bands, or Sarah Shook sing her folk tunes, or see Tom Maxwell playing whatever type of music he’s been working on lately. You can bring a picnic, or buy a Coca-Cola and candy at a small table (the Store is closed, two years now). If you don’t happen to like the music, you can watch the young kids dance, and the older ones chasing each other around in a field behind the stage.
I’d rather visit Bynum on a Saturday afternoon. I regard Bynum as one large county park. I walk around the little 4 or 5 square block area, and stare at the old movie theater, and a few other old commercial buildings. I marvel at the two huge houses on the highest hill, the ones you see as you drive or walk in on Durham-Eubanks Rd. Were these the owner’s homes?, or the superintendent of the mill and his family? I enjoy the cozy feeling you get walking down Bynum Hill Road; the more modest one story mill homes sit right on the road. The front yards are spitting distance deep and you feel like you are intruding on everyone whom lives there. If they do anything outside, they are going to be standing right there with you.
A focal point is the bridge, built in 1923 to barely accomodate two lane traffic through Bynum, the road from Chapel Hill to Pittsboro. The State has put in concrete barriers, barring car traffic, but encouraging foot traffic. You will always encounter someone on the bridge, staring off at the Haw River on the North or South side, or maybe walking accross the bridge to walk down to the river beach on the other side to fish, or drink a beer.
I have two very good friends who are husband and wife. They have lived in a few places in the Triangle together, and for 2 or 3 years rented one of those mill houses on Bynum Hill Rd. I think they look back at this time in their lives as their salad days. Each evening they would walk their dog all over town, or down to the river, and in the process met everyone. They became part of the community, which is hard to do these days, become part of a community. Ruritan Club benefit suppers in the fall, music shows on springtime friday nights, and sweaty 4th of July cook-outs hosted in their backyard for their friends in the summer were a lean life they enjoyed. Even today, 3 years away from being a Bynum resident, they still talk fondly of those days every time they get a chance.