Around Towns: Waxhaw
Historic buildings, a pedestrian bridge, and a debate over a presidential birthplace are just a few of the treasures in this small town
Waxhaw is a town is full of contradictions.
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It is a cold Saturday—the type of morning that makes you tuck your chin into your chest when the wind blows through what’s left of the fall leaves. I duck into a coffee shop to warm up.
Not surprisingly, it smells sweet and nutty inside Crossroads Coffee House in Waxhaw, with its exposed-wood ceiling beams studded with hooks holding dozens of mix-and-match ceramic mugs. Before I notice any of that, though, I’m hit with the unmistakable sound of Lou Reed’s twangy guitar and boozy voice.
This is a couple of weeks after Reed died, and the coffee shop is playing old Velvet Underground records all day as a tribute. It is jarring; this isn’t the experience I expected in Waxhaw.
The town is full of contradictions.
Years ago, a convenience store just outside the downtown area set a simple message in the marquee sign out front: Fish Bait and Cappuccinos.
“The old folks would stop in there on their way to fish, and the yuppies would come in on their way to work in Charlotte,” says Gay Diller, a Waxhaw native and graphic designer who can trace her roots in town to the late 1880s. “It couldn’t have described Waxhaw better.”
Diller, 45, with a big smile and chestnut-colored hair, nearly joined the yuppies in Charlotte, just 30 miles up Providence Road. When she and her husband married in the early 1990s, they both had jobs in the city, and they contemplated buying a home there.
But her family history—and her grandmother’s beautiful historic home—drew the couple to Waxhaw.
“We started out saying, ‘Gosh, this or that is stupid. Why would they do that here?’” she says. “But after a while, we became pretty protective of Waxhaw.”
Other than a few spandex-clad bicyclists, downtown is empty today. The sun shimmers against the water tower that sits back from Main Street. For the most part, Waxhaw’s downtown is the usual mix of small-town shops: watch repair, antiques, barbershop. Across the top of one building are five words, painted in big, white block letters: GROCERIES, HARDWARE, FURNITURE, WAGONS & BUGGIES. But there’s also a children’s art studio, complete with a big sign in the window asking passersby to “like” the shop on Facebook.
Most of the buildings in the downtown bear a small brass plaque, about the size of a postcard, affixed at eye level on the weathered brick. This property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of Interior. The marker is more membership card than badge of honor. A building without one stands out far more than those that have them.
“The historic buildings are sacred to us,” Diller says. “We fought off a Walmart a few years ago. We fought off an apartment building that looked kinda crummy.”
I try to remember the last time I saw one of those little brass plaques on a building in uptown Charlotte. It’s hard not to notice the difference between this town’s regard for historic buildings and its big-city neighbor’s disregard. Waxhaw is proud of this distinction, although the locals don’t make a big stink about it.
Waxhaw grew up as a railroad stop, a place to load cotton into carriages bound for big cities such as Richmond and Atlanta. Today, the railroad tracks slice through the center of town, and when a train cha-chunks through, it still brings the town to a stop, just as it must have then.