Eyes on Henderson, N.C.: Reminiscing about September 2003 (part 1)

February 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 17, 2015

On Sept. 20, 2003, I drove over to the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh and bought a ticket at Carter-Finley Stadium. It was a beautiful warm day, and I wanted to watch the N.C. State Wolfpack host the Texas Tech.

The previous year, in a game hosted by the Red Raiders, State had raced to a 38-24 lead after three quarters, only to be outscored, 28-7, in the final period. The Wolfpack was able to win the game in overtime, 51-48, when freshman tailback T.A. McLendon scored his fifth touchdown of the day.

The 2003 rematch proved to be a much more one-sided affair. State took a 28-0 lead and cruised to a 49-21 victory behind four rushing touchdowns from three different players and a solid 18-for-22, 257-yard day from future NFL quarterback Philip Rivers.

But this story really starts after the game. I was ready to drive back north after an extended tour of Florida and other southern venues. First, however, I had to escape the postgame road jam.

That took quite a long time. After sweating through a great deal of stop-and-go traffic — I do mean sweating; I remember it being a very hot day — I eventually found myself on U.S. 1. After a time, the cars around me thinned out, and I was able to drive without having other vehicles on seemingly every side of mine.

There comes a point when the urban trappings on 1 fall away and you’re just driving in the country. The road is reasonably straight, but the terrain is pleasantly hilly, and the sights are varied enough to keep things interesting.

For much of the drive north from Raleigh, U.S. 1 is a four-lane road with a wide median separating the northbound side from the southbound side. For the bulk of this stretch, however, U.S. 1 is not a controlled-access road: Every so often, there are stoplights controlling traffic at intersections with other roads, and one can pull off into strip malls of various sizes.

There is a particularly dull area in Vance County where 1 does become a controlled-access highway. It starts in an industrial zone south of Henderson, not far from where the main U.S. 1 route intersects U.S. 1 Business.

This part of the road isn’t very picturesque, and there aren’t many landmarks there, but a few things stand out. There is (or at least, there was) a giant Wal-Mart warehouse facility on the east side of the route. Also, there are churches on either side of the highway — lots and lots of large churches with large buildings and enormous parking lots.

Henderson is a small town in a rural county. In 2000, the Census recorded a population of 16,095 there; a similar number of people likely lived immediately outside the city that year. It’s a predominantly Christian community, with little in the way of immigrants. It also is, or at least was, dominated by three industries: Textile mills, tobacco farming and the headquarters for Rose’s, a successful North Carolina chain store that was eventually absorbed by larger businesses.

In most of these ways, Henderson is very different from the place where I grew up: A New York City bedroom community with a heavily Jewish population and a not insignificant number of immigrants. (For some years in elementary school, I was close friends with a boy whose parents had been born in India. And as I recall, in the 1980s, a large group of migrants from Haiti settled in and around the town where I lived.) My hometown was smack dab in the middle of a county in which towns bled into one another and there were a wide variety of businesses and shops.

So as I drove along this unlovely stretch of U.S. 1 for the first time in my life, I muttered something uncharitable about how bleak and unappealing the town of Henderson appeared to me.

Of course, the joke turned out to be on me. More on that in my next post…

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