COMMUNITY; GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT
By Michael Schwalbe
Special to The Local Reporter
At one time, travelers on the main road between Chapel Hill and Durham could gawk at caged bears while they got their cars refueled. Or they could get a bottle of Eastlake, North Carolina, moonshine to wash down their pork barbecue.
All that was gone before the end of World War II, along with the egg factories that employed many women who lived in the area. The automobile junkyard and horse farms lasted a few more decades.
Today, what passersby see at the corner of Old Chapel Hill Road and North White Oak Drive, about half a mile east of Wegman’s, is the remnant of a rural gas station and grocery store next to a weary little house and a better kept cottage on one side. The cottage began life as a one-table pool hall.
Architectural historians who surveyed the property for the Durham-Orange Light Rail (DOLR) Transit project dubbed the old station the “Ruth-Sizemore Store” after two prior owners, Lloyd Ruth and William Sizemore. According to the survey, the house was built in 1910, the store in the late 1920s. The pool hall was built shortly after the store.
John McKee, who bought the property in 1993 and lives nearby, dates the station to 1927. It was originally a Sinclair franchise and later sold to Gulf. McKee thinks the structure might have been delivered to the site as a kit provided by Sinclair.
The gas station survived until 1942 when Ruth sold the property to Sizemore. According to McKee, Sizemore never sold gas. Much of the metal associated with the station had been requisitioned for the war effort. Sizemore never ran the pool hall, either; he converted it into a residence for his sister-in-law.
About a dozen or so years ago, McKee removed boards on the east side of the former pool hall and found a sign advertising pork barbecue and fried chicken. When the workers who widened Old Chapel Hill Road saw that sign, they thought they had it made, McKee said.
They were just about 85 years too late for lunch.
Sizemore was a barber by trade. His wife Martha ran the store. It’s hard to say precisely when it closed. McKee has childhood memories of the store being open in the early 1960s when his family moved to Chapel Hill.
Judith Duval, whose family moved into a nearby house in 1966, when she was 15, said the store was closed by that time. McKee thinks the store probably limped into the early 1960s with scant inventory and erratic hours, before closing in the mid-1960s, when many mom-and-pop groceries went under.
North White Oak Drive—formerly Old Mt. Moriah Road—is still unpaved. The land on both sides of the road is heavily wooded, dotted by a few modest houses. A tiny stream splits the woods. It’s as rural a nook as can be found within the town limits of Chapel Hill.
The neighborhood exists in something of a geographic twilight zone. Chapel Hill annexed the area, which is in Durham County, in 1987 (a bit earlier, according to Duval). McKee’s house is in Chapel Hill, but you can’t send him a letter there. The post office says he lives in Durham.
Duval still lives in the house her parents bought 57 years ago when she was a teenager. At the time, Duval thought her parents were moving the family so far out into the country that she might never see her school friends again.
Before Interstate 40 was built, Old Mt. Moriah connected Old Chapel Hill Road to U.S. Highway 15-501. “It was such a race track,” Duval said. “It was the way people made the shortcut to 15-501.”
During construction of I-40 in the early 1980s, a huge mound of dirt was piled at the end of the road, attracting wannabe motocrossers. “We joked about finally having a ‘Mt. Moriah’ in the neighborhood,” Duval said. The road is quieter today, ending in a cul-de-sac a hundred yards from the backside of the Red Roof Inn.
It’s all likely to change in the next few years.
Several major developments are in the works for the area. If all are approved, the land around the North White Oak Drive and Old Chapel Hill Road intersection could soon see the addition of over 700 housing units, most of them rental apartments.
Land-use planning for the area, which is considered part of the North 15-501 corridor, has long called for higher-density, multiuse development. The Durham-Orange Light Rail project would have placed a train station and parking lot where Duval’s and McKee’s homes now sit. When the rail project folded in 2019, developers began making offers.
Duval’s land is optioned to Southern Village developer D.R. Bryan. Bryan plans to build 308 market-rate apartments and 72 affordable senior apartments in multiple midrise buildings. McKee and Duval think higher-density development is the right way to go in the long run.
“The residential, the mass of trees—all of this is not the proper use for land between two major highways. It needs to be developed to be economically viable,” Duval said. “The streets will be upgraded; there will finally be water and sewer. It won’t be while I’m living here, but other people will benefit, and it will be good.”
Some area residents are less sanguine about the impending changes.
Last April, Davis Developments of Atlanta, which until recently held an option on McKee’s land, presented its concept plan to Chapel Hill’s Community Design Commission. The plan called for building 381 apartments in two multistory buildings.
Public comments on the plan were critical, citing aesthetic discord with the surrounding neighborhood, strain on local roads, lack of tree preservation, and loss of old buildings. Members of the commission were also skeptical.
A summary of the commission’s review of the plan reads, “No action was taken. Project too dense, overwhelms the site, and generally not acceptable.” In early February 2023, Davis Developments abruptly dropped the project and canceled its option on McKee’s property, offering no explanation.
It’s not clear what will happen next. McKee said he likes living where he does and isn’t eager to move. But he also recognizes that it’s designated as a high-density area and is bound to be developed accordingly. “Something beautiful will be here in a hundred years,” he said. “Something smart and beautiful.”
The other projects proposed for the area have likewise raised concerns about increased traffic, loss of green space, stormwater control, and incompatibility with surrounding single-family homes. On the advice of the Community Design Commission, town planners are now looking at the projects more comprehensively, assessing how they will, altogether, affect the character of the area. As yet, however, no formal project applications have been made.
A past worth preserving?
The architectural historians who evaluated the Ruth-Sizemore store deemed it eligible for National Historic Register listing as “a rare surviving representation of a rural Durham County store.” Further study and a formal nomination would be needed to seek National Register listing. In view of that possibility, DOLR planned to protect the building. But no one has since expressed interest in its preservation.
Even McKee, who describes himself as a history buff, is ambivalent. “They’re not extraordinarily significant,” he said of the store and pool hall. Nor is the history of the place entirely uplifting. McKee noted that the store and the pool hall were built during the Jim Crow era and likely operated according to Jim Crow rules. “It’s not all a pretty story,” McKee said.
Yet McKee has put much work over the years into keeping the buildings intact. “Certainly they’re worth trying to keep from falling down,” he said. He thinks the old store would be a great place for a bike shop.
Duval, too, is looking back and ahead with mixed feelings. “It’s a wonderful neighborhood. It really is. When the time comes to turn the house over, yeah, I’ll cry,” she said. “But it will be good to get rid of some of the memories that come with these four walls and open a new page, whatever that may be.”
This article was updated Feb. 16, 2023, to remove specification of the types of metal at the gas station that were requisitioned for the WWII war effort. A previous version specified “signage, underground tanks.”
Michael Schwalbe regularly writes the Bike Beat column for The Local Reporter (TLR). He is a retired professor of sociology and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990. TLR is pleased to publish this news and history piece from him.