Tucked Away Just Far Enough
An insider’s guided tour of Jamestown
By Ogi Overman
Photographs by Sam Froelich
Beloved real estate agent, civic booster, mandolinist and man about town, Bow Stafford, used to call it “the pivot point of the Triad.” Situated and serving as a buffer between Greensboro and High Point, and a straight shot down U.S. Highway 311 to Winston-Salem, Jamestown is, incongruous as it seems, both off the beaten path and dead in the middle of it. As Stafford asserts, one can pivot in any direction and quickly wind up in a major city, which Jamestown clearly is not — because its 3,000-some citizens want it that way.
No matter which direction one is headed, the character, charm and historical significance of Jamestown reveals itself immediately. I know this personally, as I was the editor of the Jamestown News from 2006 to 2013 and traveled these roads daily. I spent countless hours talking to its citizens, from painters and plumbers to small business owners and captains of industry to two of its favorite sons, former Gov. Pat McCrory and current Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes. I made lifelong friends there and memories I’ll cherish forever.
So, let’s roll, shall we?
From High Point to the southwest, the first sight one will see is the Richard Mendenhall Homeplace (Jamestown was named for his father, James), which is on the National Register of Historic Places. For a burg steeped in history — Quaker and otherwise — the property is its most hallowed ground, in part for its role as a stopover on the Underground Railroad.
From Greensboro to the northeast, one must pass under a railroad trestle known far and wide as “Lydia’s Bridge.” Ghost hunters visit periodically, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous specter, attired in her prom or wedding dress, trying to catch a ride on a foggy evening. As the legend goes, once the passing motorist picks her up and takes her to her destination, she has by then disappeared. The befuddled Good Samaritan then discovers that Lydia had passed away years before.
OK, no one I know ever saw her, but by now Lydia is a part of Jamestown lore, so let’s let sleeping ghosts lie.
Venturing closer to downtown, one of my favorite vistas is a white fence corralling several horses and the finely manicured acreage of Magnolia Farm, home of the George Ragsdale family, the seventh generation of the patriarchal family. Across the street reside his brother Will and father Billy, a five-term mayor and current town councilman (who, ironically, in 2015 beat incumbent Will for the seat by a handful of votes after sitting out three terms).
Coming from I-85 Business to the south, I’ve passed the entrance to the village surrounding Oakdale Cotton Mill a million times. Until finally being shuttered a few years ago, it was the longest continuously running hosiery mill in the state. Founded in 1865 and bought by Joseph S. Ragsdale in 1873, it was by far Jamestown’s largest employer for many generations.
Just up the road sits Oakdale School, a one-room schoolhouse for first- and second-graders that was built for children of the mill village and looks much the same today as it did back then. One of my best Jamestown buddies, singing cowboy Jerry Campbell, attended Oakdale School, and says there are still a couple dozen of his classmates left.
From there they graduated to the “Old School,” a neoclassical structure built in 1915 on a hill in the heart of town. It has since been renovated and saved from destruction, serving as the town library since 1988.
Finally, from the north, College Road passes through an upscale, brick-sidewalked neighborhood and dead-ends at Main Street. The first sight one sees is an abandoned service station, considered an eyesore to uninformed passers-by, but to locals a fond reminder of the colorful Hughes family and still referred to affectionately as “Peanut’s,” a reference to the last of the Hughes who finally closed the place around 2008.
Beside it sits a lovely, century-old, two-story gray house, originally home to the Wrike family, which sold it to the aforementioned Bow Stafford, who used it as his realty office. His estate then sold it to the Jamestown News, which in April put it up for sale and moved its scaled-back operations to Adams Farm.
I still get a little pang in my heart every time I pass by it. I hope whoever buys it maintains it in its natural beauty.
All these roads lead to the tiny yet classic downtown, a winding, slightly inclined, four-block stretch from Town Hall to Jamestown Elementary School. From the outside, it seems not to have changed much since World War II, but in reality it has. Businesses, mostly mom-and-pops, come and go, but within the last five years, once-sleepy little Jamestown has developed a vibrant nightlife. I’d like to think I had something to do with that, but, truth is, it developed organically.
Southern Roots restaurant started the trend, followed in rapid succession by Potent Potables, capitalizing on the craft beer movement, and The Deck at River Twist, an eye-catching outdoor bar-music venue that figured out a way to stay open year-round. In close proximity to each other, all three offer live music and provide a pulsating scene not unlike downtowns much larger. Wine and Design, where groups turn blank canvases into two-hour works of art, adds to the after-hours ambience.
More recently, two more restaurants, an oyster bar and a bakery-coffee shop, have opened, all within easy walking distance. They complement a half dozen locally owned retail shops, which can make for an enjoyable afternoon of browsing. Interestingly, almost all are owned by women.
One of the selling points Bow Stafford and his successors would no doubt point out to potential newcomers is the Jamestown Park Golf Course. Jamestown holds the distinction of being the smallest town in America that boasts a municipally owned, 18-hole golf course. Recently renovated and upgraded, it may not compete with nearby Sedgefield or Grandover, but it holds its own with virtually any other links in the Triad.
One year, on the Wednesday before the Wyndham Championship, PGA star Bubba Watson came out and gave a driving demonstration. He’s probably the longest hitter on the tour, and some of those balls have still not been found.
Another amenity is downtown’s Wrenn-Miller Park, across the street from Town Hall. Completed a couple of years ago, it is an inviting gathering space for concerts, picnics and special events, as well as a tribute area for the town’s many armed forces veterans. I watched it take shape from the front porch of the newspaper office, and it is something the town is justifiably proud of.
A sometimes overlooked part of Jamestown’s charm is its miles of brick sidewalks, not only downtown but through many of the neighborhoods, even as far as Ragsdale High School. Accentuated by dozens of turn-of-the-century replica gaslights, a stroll through town evokes memories of a bygone era.
And that too is by design. Priding itself on its history, the town council years ago passed a restrictive — some business owners would say overly restrictive — sign ordinance that limits size, lighting, height and placement. Jamestown will never be known as J-Vegas, despite the lively weekend scene and frequent food truck rodeos.
While Jamestown was settled in 1762 and founded in 1816, it was not until 1947 that it was incorporated. Mayor Bill Ragsdale Jr. (Billy’s father) had the foresight to realize that eventually the burg would be annexed by either High Point or Greensboro and called for a referendum, which, if passed by 90 percent of the citizens, would allow for it to be incorporated. Obviously, it passed.
Old-timers will jokingly tell you that the most important date in Jamestown history is August 11, 1961. That is the date the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board approved, by a vote of 223 to 190, the opening of an ABC store just inside the city limits. It opened on December 16 of that year, just in time for Christmas, making many residents of dry High Point very happy. And Jamestown residents even happier, as the revenue generated from that store essentially paid for the golf course and the new Town Hall, as well as paying off the debt for the water and sewer system.
For a town of just under 3 square miles, Jamestown may rightly lay claim to many alluring features nearby. It is home to Guilford Technical Community College and the Piedmont Environmental Center. It boasts the longest stretch of greenway in the state, and the High Point City Lake is a boaters’ and fishermans’ paradise. The Deep River, which bisects what is still sometimes referred to as Old and New Jamestown, has become a popular put-in point for canoeists.
While it may never become a destination for anyone other than history buffs, diners, curio shoppers and weekend revelers, this pleasant little village seems perfectly content with its place in the scheme of things. It has all the necessities and amenities found in a big city, with far less congestion, crime, traffic, noise and light pollution, plus a lower tax rate.
And, most important, welcoming and friendly people who take pride in their community and its denizens. Again, I know this personally and can prove it by one event.
A few months after I left the paper, my wife, who is wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis, became eligible for a new chair. Problem was, our insurance only picked up a portion of the cost. So a group of citizens, led by Kelly Irvin, owner of French Twist Beauty Salon, organized a benefit for us. They titled it “Jamestown Rocks and Janet Rolls,” and it featured 10 bands at two venues, a double-decker bus shuttling patrons back and forth, both a live and a silent auction, bake and wristband sale, and an outpouring of love like nothing we’ve ever experienced. The daylong benefit raised $10,000, which was more than enough to pay for the chair.
Perhaps Bow had it wrong. Instead of the pivot point, maybe this is paradise. h
Ogi Overman writes about music, art and culture for Seasons’ sister magazine, O.Henry, among other Triad publications.