Claxton Johnson runs Johnson’s Burgers, a town landmark that draws loyal patrons from the Triangle and beyond.
photo: Ben Tuttle
Promoting a new identity
Various groups work to advocate Siler City’s assets
by Jonathan Tuttle
At noon on a cold late winter day, a line develops outside the door of Johnson’s Burgers, the Siler City restaurant that has been serving lunch since 1946.
Owner Claxton Johnson stands behind the counter chatting with customers over his shoulder, salting patties of freshly ground, USDA choice beef and slicing hunks of Velveeta cheese. It’s exactly where he’s been since he was five years old.
“When we were first here, there wasn’t anything,” he recalls of this western Chatham County town, which has experienced its share of ups and downs over the years.
Johnson recounts the curbside service that the eatery had offered before the state widened U.S. Route 64, as well as how area restaurants suffered after citizens were afraid to go out during civil rights marches.
Since his father opened the restaurant, Johnson has seen his community move from downtown to around town, and Siler City move from an industrial center to the victim of a recession that’s only now showing signs of a new identity.
“Everything changes,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of water under the dam.”
When a railroad was built between Sanford and Greensboro in 1884, Samuel Siler donated the land for a train depot in western Chatham County. Three years later, the general stores that had developed around Siler Station were chartered together as Siler City.
With the railroad and two highways running north to south and east to west, this new town became an ideal spot for manufacturing. Textile mills and furniture factories brought work and residents to Siler City for much of the 20th century.
At that time, the town was a kind of Mayberry, a similarity that did not go unnoticed by Frances Bavier, the actress who played Aunt Bee on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Although she was born and raised in New York City and was ready to move beyond her image as a small-town aunt, Bavier nevertheless retired to Chatham County’s own Mayberry.
“I have a great deal to learn from Siler City,” she said at the time.
Zoann Adams, president of the Siler City Merchants Association and a Siler City native, remembers a downtown of dime and clothing stores situated beneath law firms and doctors’ offices.
“There was industry everywhere,” she recalls.
A changing landscape
In 1970, Adams left with her husband, but they returned together after 16 years to retire there. At that point, however, Siler City was a different world, she says.
The mills and factories had shut down, as they had in many other small towns throughout the U.S. Two chicken-processing plants — Townsends and Pilgrim’s Pride — had moved in and by then were major employers. Shopping centers also had opened along Route 64, luring customers away from Siler City’s historic downtown area.
The town was hit with another setback when the Pilgrim’s Pride plant closed in 2008, dealing a substantial blow to its budget.
“It knocked us out of 800 or so jobs in one fell swoop,” Adams says.
Many of those who lost their jobs were among the Hispanic community, a population that currently makes up 39 percent of the town’s 9,000 residents. According to Elizabeth Jones, an assistant at Saint Julia Catholic Church — where the congregation is 85 percent Hispanic — many of the people who lost jobs fortunately had a spouse on which they could depend.
“Contributions went down by $5,000,” she says. “But we were expecting double that amount.”
That year, several business owners created the Siler City Merchants Association to promote and support small business as the town worked to bring in larger business.
“Through our revitalization efforts to improve the look of Siler City, we’ll be ready for new industry with retail and service-oriented businesses firmly in place,” Adams says.
A drive to succeed
Bringing this new industry to town is the job of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation and Joel Brower, town manager. A native of Siler City, Brower has stayed close out of a love for the rural area and its nearby city amenities.
“Siler City is blessed with a good labor force,” he says. “We just need the jobs.”
Fortunately, Brower has seen signs that the economy is improving. A new business campus now is home to the Siler City branch of Central Carolina Community College and the UNC-operated Chatham Hospital. Carol Straight, the hospital’s president, also sees her role as attracting new business to Siler City.
“Potential industries coming into the community look for education and health care,” she notes.
Siler City’s downtown area, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has seen tenants move in from as far away as Wisconsin and Connecticut, thanks to the work of the N.C. Arts Incubator. Funded through a grant, the incubator buys and updates unused buildings to offer studio space for artists.
“Artists are attracted to the area by the incubator, then they buy Siler City homes as a result,” says volunteer Mary Helen Moody.
The incubator currently occupies an entire downtown block, and other galleries have been inspired to purchase buildings for themselves. These studios draw an average of 200 people downtown for an Art Walk with live music each third Friday of the month, opening Siler City up not just to the heads of potential industries but to tourists as well.
Five miles from the downtown area, the Celebrity Dairy and Inn has been drawing visitors to Siler City since 1990. Frustrated with an allergic reaction to cow’s milk, Fleming Pfann began researching goats at a neighbor’s suggestion. She soon was making fresh chèvre with goats that her daughter jokingly named after celebrities.
Seven years later, Pfann’s husband, Brit, opened the dairy as an inn, a move Pfann attributes to a midlife crisis. The inn expects to host 20 weddings this year.
While Siler City might not be on the short list for spontaneous weekend travelers, places like the inn draw tourists who know exactly where they want to go.
“People come to Siler City with their destination in mind. They plan,” says Neha M. Shah of the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Shah travels throughout Chatham County promoting Siler City’s galleries, cafés and especially the Farmers’ Alliance, a general store that has been in business downtown since 1888.
“On a quick glance, Siler City is one thing, but it’s much more upon further examination,” she says.
The aforementioned Johnson’s Burgers is another draw. Angela Akeman was in town recently for a doctor’s appointment but made a point of driving by to see if the place was open for lunch. In the past, she has waited in line for up to 45 minutes, but luckily she found a seat at the end of the counter.
“It’s the cheeseburgers,” she says. “You crave them. You can watch him and go home and try to do it yourself, but it’s not gonna happen.”
Sandra Anderson, another counter patron, drove from Apex to have what she considers the best burger she’s ever had. It appears that after 65 years — despite the loss of major industries, the emptying of a downtown and an economic recession — Johnson’s Burgers does more than its fair share of keeping Siler City in the Triangle’s spotlight.
“We have doctors from Raleigh who come here every week,” Johnson notes.
Now that’s good for business, no matter how you slice it.
Jonathan Tuttle is a freelance writer based in Carrboro.