HILLSBOROUGH - On a recent Friday night, the former Bellevue Manufacturing Co. buildings standing in the shadow of the old mill itself at the corner of South Nash and Eno streets in West Hillsborough hopped with beer, music and dancing, with a whiff of summer barbecue.
At about 6 p.m., things were coming to life at The Depot, the general store and music venue in the former Leland Little auction house, as the Durham band Ellerbe Creek set up. In bygone days, it was a pool hall with a rough-and-tumble reputation.
It was an old-fashioned biker bar, Phil Culton said as he poured glasses of malbec for a pair of ladies at the little wetbar under the art deco ceiling. Almost 20, Culton is too young remember West End Billiards or Ernies, the watering holes lodged on this block, and is at least a generation removed from memories of when Bellevue Manufacturing created fabrics and employed scores of families in Hillsborough.
This grim block of old mill company buildings stood for little more than the textile industrys declining fortune, and several people said they once avoided this hardscrabble corner of town.
When the mills would let out, youd go to the train station and fight, and people would bet on fights for money, said Mark Tenney, who grew up in Chapel Hill. Tenney, of Tenney Opticians, did not work in the mill, but as a youngster in the 1970s he knew to avoid the bars.
I wouldnt have gone there on a Saturday night, he said. You didnt go there if you didnt know the people that were in there.
By contrast, a sense of welcome wafted through Hillsborough BBQ Company on a Friday night in June, where newlyweds Sarah and Jody Boyce talked about the blocks transformation over a pitcher of Mystery beer, brewed just down the road near the crumbling Eno Cotton Mill.
This place used to be the Wild West, Jody Boyce said. The West End, its all millhouses. It got pretty run down.
The building retains its old industrial character, but its cozy dining room and attractive bar have made it a popular place to congregate at the end of the work week.
A plate of pork nachos made the beer go down easy, and vice versa.
We love these guys, Sarah Boyce said. We decided to get them to cater our wedding.
The table was presently joined by Scott Pasley, a broker with Churton St. Realty, who took a seat and shared more history.
This building youre sitting in right now, it was the movie house, he said. It was called the Hollywood Theater.
Just two years ago, Pasley said, this block sat fallow. Churton Street Realty recently moved its offices between The Depot and Hillsborough BBQ.
Basically, this was an empty block of buildings, he said. And now weve got seven thriving businesses in the deepest recession of our time.A busy block
The coin-laundry has been replaced by Paws at the Corner, a pet store. Next door, The Depot proffers local music and a general store. Down the block, the realty office; the Health Center at Hillsborough Station advertises acupuncture, nutrition and massage. A brewers supply store and the BBQ Company are a stones throw away.
The Eno Cotton Mill was started in 1896, and Bellevue Manufacturing Corp. opened in 1904, said Sarah DeGennaro, the acting executive director at the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.
Bellevue Manufacturing made yarn; they were textile production and fabric, she said. These mills came down in Hillsborough at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries as the railroad came through. With the railroads, you started turning away from this agricultural-based community to this manufacturing and textile-based economy.
Textile production is largely a distant memory, and these days, groundhogs scout the old Bellevue mill a stones throw from Hillsborough BBQ. At one time in the middle of the 20th century, though, it employed close to 350 people. The train station across the street is gone, and its footprint provides parking for the new shops in the Old Mill Village.
The hops flowed on at the Mystery Brewery long into Friday night; folks from Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham made fellowship at a special opening for friends and neighbors. The party rolled on, the beer poured, and West Hillsborough buzzed with life again.
Weve always had a home-grown type of band. And no place is more home-grown, said guitarist Wes Council. He compared the setting to Mayberry, the fictional community of The Andy Griffith Show.
Its the revitalization of America, Council said, as Ellerbe Creek warmed up for its well-attended show at The Depot. This is it, and when it boils down to it, its almost recession proof. Its a beer, its a band, and its comfort. Correspondent Matt Goad contributed to this article.