Heather and Tom LaGarde were being selfish when they returned to North Carolina eight years ago. With a toddler and an infant, they had grown weary of their apartment in New York's Lower East Side, especially given the city's new specter of terrorism. Their rent had been raised, too, and the corporate funds that had helped drive the nonprofits for which they'd been working had started to disappear. It was time to leave the city.
They met in New York, on a Saturday in 1993, in a park where one of Tom's charitable projects was being filmed for CNN, but they both had Chapel Hill roots. Tom, a Detroit native, played basketball at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill before playing professionally in Denver, Seattle, Italy and Dallas. Heather had grown up in Chapel Hill, though her nonprofit work eventually took her to Switzerland, Africa and New York to live.
She was so desperate to return to the open spaces of her youth that, as Tom jokes, she'd spend hours staring at "farm porn"—images of verdant farmland, with rustic houses and massive barns. During one of those online fantasies, she saw a photo of an abandoned farmhouse just outside of Chapel Hill, in Eli Whitney, about four miles away from the largely neglected river mill town Saxapahaw. She sent her mother and her sister to look. Shortly thereafter, the LaGardes packed up their lives and headed home.
For the last decade, though, Heather had been coordinating celebrity appearances on behalf of organizations like Human Rights Watch, War Child and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She shares stories about Uma Thurman's crotchety manager and organizing benefits with Pavarotti and his pals. After basketball, Tom sold bonds before starting a well-publicized league of inline-skating basketball. Culture shock was inevitable, and that's where the selfishness enters.
"We were still going back and forth from the city, because we weren't sure if we'd actually live here or go between both places for a while," remembers Heather, sitting with Tom on a wooden deck that overlooks the Haw River as it winds through Saxapahaw. They smile often in the afternoon sun, sharing stories about their early days as a couple and frequently touching hands.
The LaGardes soon started daydreaming about Saxapahaw and the sort of amenities that might work in its old mills and might compel them to spend less time traveling back to New York and more time at their new home. One afternoon, Tom was hunting the owner of an abandoned house near Graham for his new salvage obsession and business when he happened across John Jordan, who purchased the Saxapahaw mill buildings in 1994. His son, Mac, had been busy converting them into condos, with a vision of building an expansive, eclectic mixed-use community. He wanted the LaGardes to help.
"We'd been doing events all over for years, together and separately, so we thought we could do something that, one, would be something for our family," says Heather. "We could bring music out here, maybe have a farmers' market in the evening. We tried to get our kids to help by telling us what they would like, so it would be fun for them."
So they started a music series and farmers' market in the summer of 2005, just above the banks of the Haw River on a wide, short hill that made for a perfect little amphitheater. Their ambitions and their budget were small. The stage was an old hay wagon, and the sound system was borrowed from a nearby church. Tom, who had no professional production experience, became the ad hoc sound engineer; Heather, once a fundraiser for massive multinational charities, began walking through the crowd, asking the steadily growing crowds to place donations in a white plastic swan that her daughter, Hadden, had suggested would be perfect for paying the bands.
"People just laughed from the first day. The bands thought it was funny to talk about feeding the swan. Now we have something called the swan dive, because people will sit on the hill on precarious little chairs. When they reach forward to give us money, they tip over," she says. "I am better known as the Swan Lady than for any of my jobs in the whole world. In Washington recently, someone called me the Swan Lady. That's my legacy in life."
Indeed, the Swan has become a Saxapahaw celebrity, and the Saxapahaw Rivermill Farmers' Market & Music Series—from May to Labor Day, free every Saturday evening at 6 p.m. since 2005—has become a Triangle entertainment staple. Kids zip down a massive Slip-n-Slide at the top of the hill as the band plays at the bottom on a new stage built by community volunteers. The glut of farmers now creates a rivalry for the best spaces, and the swell of the crowd makes arriving early a must if you want to see the stage. Essentially, the series has taken a forgotten little country outpost and expanded the Triangle's (and, for that matter, Triad's) cultural reach and boundaries.
And, really, the LaGardes are just getting started with Saxapahaw: In May, they finally opened the Haw River Ballroom, a 700-capacity music venue that's arguably the most elegant and interesting nonmunicipal performance space in the state. Along with their partner, Margaret Jemison, the LaGardes spent the better part of the last four years turning the bastard section of the mill—a windowless, awkwardly partitioned space—into a room that uses an old dryer tank for sound and lighting and whose three-level layout mirrors the experience of watching music on the nearby hillside. Almost everything in the ballroom is salvaged, like the iron-and-wood benches taken from a Myrtle Beach amusement park and the floor rescued from an abandoned industrial site in Sanford.
"There's a little bit of every small town in the state in here," says Tom, laughing.
If the Saturday series has offered evidence that culture can occur in Saxapahaw, the ballroom is a proclamation that it can live here, too. As a financially solvent music venue, the ballroom still has a lot to prove. Heather's an admitted novice when it comes to the language of booking agents, wondering aloud if the money gets split between the venue and the band after the bar has paid its expenses or before. After six years of free entertainment, she admits that she first bristled at the thought of forcing people to pay for music and not simply passing the Saxapahaw Swan through the crowd.
But they've already started building smart relationships, depending on people who already book bands in the Triangle—like Frank Heath at Cat's Cradle—to help fill their club. In the first clear Saxapahaw programming coup, Stephen Malkmus, the former leader of the band Pavement, will play the ballroom in October. Heath booked that show, and it should test that hypothesis of people's willingness to drive outside of their comfort zone and into the country for a show they'd see anyway.
Still, even if people don't and the ballroom must serve more like a year-round extension of the amphitheater and less like a welcome change in setting for touring bands, the LaGardes have built a room that raises the bar for area entertainment. A wonder of concept, design and execution, the ballroom perfectly mirrors its surroundings by repurposing the old and trashed into bold, functional space. It's a brilliant work of art, meant to serve as an outlet for more of the same and an anchor for the community, their community.
"This is very much," says Heather, "where I choose to be for the rest of my life."