All Aboard! Revitalizing a Southern Railroad Town

29 Sep 2020

Charm and commerce have Aberdeen riding new rails into the 21st Century

By Crissy Neville  »  Photos by Melissa Souto

The southern Moore County town of Aberdeen is a jumping junction of both time and place. A modern mashup of railroads and retail. Highways and byways. Culture and charm. Past and present. A conflux of industry and manufacturing, small shops and startups, neighborhoods and city sidewalks, Aberdeen is both a hometown to nearly 8,000 and a hot destination to tens of thousands more annually, drawing visitors from all over the region and state to its events, historic properties and bustling businesses. And the ever-so-amicable Aberdeen’s heart is its downtown.

Conveniently located between the neighboring Sandhills towns of Pinebluff, Southern Pines and Pinehurst, Aberdeen sits at the intersection of US Highway 1, US Highway 15-501, NC Highway 211 and NC Highway 5. While seemingly all roads and even railroads — Aberdeen & Rockfish, Aberdeen Carolina & Western and CSX — lead to Aberdeen, it’s a sharp turn-of-the-wheel off the beaten path of big box stores and the town’s general commercial district to arrive in the blocks of the old town. Veer off North Sandhills Boulevard, aka US 1, to follow the tree-lined streets of Main, Knight or West Maple to find what locals say is Aberdeen in the truest sense.

Downtown History

“When people speak fondly of Aberdeen,” said Christian Haas, a Town of Aberdeen planner, “they refer to the downtown district and its iconic landmarks like the old Union Station Depot, which is now a railroad museum, and adjacent red caboose, but also the interesting local places to visit, shop and eat. In recent years, the focus on revitalizing downtowns, both here and across the country, has helped generate a lot of energy and growth in Downtown Aberdeen.”

“Downtown Aberdeen was called ‘the shopping center of the Sandhills,’ back in the day,” reflected Town of Aberdeen Mayor Robert Farrell, now in his seventh year after serving as a town commissioner and mayor pro tem for the preceding 14. "Dating back to the completion of the Raleigh and Augusta Railroad in 1877 through what became Blue's Crossing, Allison Page from Wake County and John Blue from Cumberland County soon arrived to create thriving lumber businesses. By the early 1890s, the Page family constructed Aberdeen and West End Railroad, and in 1892, the Blue family organized the Aberdeen and Rockfish Railroad eastward. The town was in the unique position of having three railroads, which it still does today, making Aberdeen a center for industry, manufacturing and retail. We had the first big department stores — Belk, first, and then Collin’s Department Store opened, which later merged with Peebles — in Moore County. The tobacco markets of the past also brought farmers and their families here in droves to shop.”

Continuing, Farrell recalled the downtown’s heyday. “The town was booming up until the 1960s, particularly during World War II, when Fort Bragg was bursting at the seams. Camp Mackall opened south of Pinebluff to train the new paratroopers, and we had not one, but two, USOs here in Aberdeen for the soldiers. Those were the high times of activity in the town’s past. Everything changed with the advent of shopping centers, chain stores and large-scale commercial development. Some of the small downtown shops limped along, but most of the storefronts shuttered. These conditions created a low point in our downtown’s history. Thankfully, with the modern building boom, population growth and town-limits expansion — the borders of Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst now all touch, making us more of a tri-city region — the downtown is coming back up the hill.”

In looking at the uptick in Downtown Aberdeen’s economic development and the town’s nearly doubling in population over the past decade, it’s easy to share the excitement of town leaders. Still, one of the best parts of Aberdeen is its history. Originally settled by Scottish emigrants in the 1700s, the town adopted the name of Aberdeen in 1888 and incorporated in 1893.

Encompassing over 100 historic residential and commercial properties, the Aberdeen Historic District predates World War II and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The properties boast architectural styles from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, finely exemplified in the Postmaster’s House of 1880, the Aberdeen and Asheboro Railroad Building of 1906 and the former-1906 Union Station-turned museum and depot display. Of note, the circa-1907 Page Memorial Library, functional yet small at only 960-square-feet, is the second oldest continuous-use public library located in the same building. While closed during the pandemic, it is still open to the public four days a week. Only 1.5 miles out of downtown is the Malcolm Blue House and Farm, one of Moore County’s oldest properties. The living history site is an educational and historical gem
in Aberdeen.

Downtown Revitalization

The oldest building in downtown proper is the Farrell Building, the former year-1900 home to Farrell’s Grocery. Newly painted and ready for renters, a new historic cast-iron plaque adorns the building, replacing the previously deteriorated signage. According to Haas, this initiative is a matching program from the Town
of Aberdeen.

“About 40 property owners participated in the first run,” he said, “and we offer the program in phases until all the old signage is replaced. We also encourage the business owners to apply  for the town’s facade grants to help fund upgrades to paint, windows and signage.”

“Only a small number of buildings are vacant,” said Haas of the over 50 downtown property sites, “which creates an interesting role for the town.”

The Town of Aberdeen is doing its part to get new and varied businesses into downtown alongside long-standing neighbors such as 120-year-old Aberdeen Coca-Cola and the circa 1892 Aberdeen Rockfish Railroad. According to Farrell, other mainstays of varying tenures include Garner’s Insurance, Aberdeen Supply Company, Aberdeen Exterminating, McNeil Oil Company, The Bakehouse, Quality Upholstery, Renee’s, ETC/Eloise Trading Company and Davenport’s Galaxy grocery store. New businesses, services and restaurants pop up frequently.

A major boost to the Town of Aberdeen’s vision for an eclectic and economically stable downtown happened in 2017 in its being named a North Carolina Main Street community, as designated by The NC Main Street & Rural Planning Center. This statewide program is affiliated with Main Street America™ — a 40-year-old initiative to revitalize older and historic commercial districts across the nation.

However, Farrell explained that the town’s revitalization efforts began some 20 years ago with a master plan for renewal, which it renews and updates periodically, most recently in 2017. Over the years, capital improvements such as widening city sidewalks, burying overhead power lines on the streets of Sycamore and Main, laying brickwork, landscaping, recruiting new businesses, adding attractive wayfinding signage and pubic art via a 65-foot mural of all-things-Aberdeen painted on the side of the downtown Stella Decor & More building, have dressed up downtown.

“We are seeing a downtown resurgence right now,” Farrell said, “like with Mason’s Restaurant and Railhouse Brewery— they’re going gangbusters. We have new, younger businesses showing up and
going strong.”

Downtown Today

To traverse the quaint streets of Downtown Aberdeen today is to feel the upbeat aura the locale exudes. Consider starting the day with breakfast at Mason’s Restaurant & Grocery. Located at 111 N. Sycamore Street, Mason’s is named for owners Brian and Alison Hainley’s six-year-old son. They point to “the restaurant’s location across from the railroad tracks” as what sealed the deal in their opening last year. Serving up creative breakfast, lunch and brunch cuisine with dish names like The Train Wreck, Mason’s Jar and The Sassy Southerner, Mason’s also has full ABC permits for beer, wine and cocktail options, among other beverages.

People like to sit around, chat, drink coffee or have a beer over at High Octane on the corner of 140 South Sycamore. The former 1930s Pure Gas Station, today owned by three local businesswomen, was likewise a local hangout spot as well as political stop in its early days. Today it is a great place to congregate and enjoy a game night, food truck or some live music. For more breakfast options, try the fresh pastries brought in daily to High Octane from local icon and eatery The Bakehouse. Make your way down to 120 North Poplar to try The Bakehouse’s full menu of artisan bread, specialty cakes or breakfast and lunch line-ups. A fifth-generation bakery with Austrian and Spanish roots, The Bakehouse is owned and operated by the Kurt Brunner family.

Others like to get moving in the mornings. Get physical anytime in Aberdeen at Thrive Pilates Studio, Carolina Barbell or with a yoga session at Indigo Yoga & Healing Arts studio, whose owner Heather McKeithan, cheers for the “new, refreshing vibe” in downtown.

Open for lunch and dinner with a great pub-style menu and a full bar is Railhouse Brewery at 105 East South Street. Veteran-owned with 10 years of history in town, Railhouse is an Aberdeen destination for its relaxed atmosphere, live entertainment and great food and drinks.

For a little bass guitar — or keyboard, drums or vocals — to chase the brew, visit Aberdeen’s most “popular knight spot,” The Rooster’s Wife live-music venue at 114 Knight Street.

La Familia Mexican Restaurant at 106 West South Street is another lunch and dinner option for all your favorite south-of-the-border foods and flavors. Top off any meal or take in a just-because treat with a stop at Sweet Carolina Ice Cream at 108 West Main, where proprietors Michelle Viecelli and Chris Clayton whip up cool confections by the cone, cup, sandwich, cake or bowl — homemade waffle bowls, that is — as the town’s only independent ice cream shop.

Perhaps shopping or services have brought you into Downtown Aberdeen, and with that, too, the town has got you covered. Charlotte’s Furnishings & Finds has a seven-year proven track record in town — six spent on the corner of Main and Poplar and this past one in its new home at 114 West Main, the original Belk building. Owner Charlotte Williams showcases in-stock and custom-ordered home decor and furnishings from contemporary and farmhouse to midcentury modern and more to outfit every room of your house.

More savvy shopping abounds thanks to businesswoman Leslie Habets, who opened Jack Hadden Floral & Events and accompanying home and gift boutique store Lily Rose in side-by-side stores at 120 and 122 West Main Street. Both stores were under previous ownership before Habets bought and rebranded them in 2016 and 2019, respectively. Jack Hadden Floral & Events is widely known for its wedding work, and both stores offer creative services and customized orders for large scale events or individual needs.

If not about the business of fun or special finds, then maybe you’re downtown taking care of business. In Downtown Aberdeen, you can select services ranging from auto repair and real estate to marketing and screen printing. Stock up at stores selling hardware, hobby items, pet supplies, clothing ― new or consigned ― or appliances, such as from the successful Kee's Appliance Center at 104 East Main Street. Culture up at art venues like Serendipity Art Studio, Twigg & Co. or the Artist League of the Sandhills.

What’s more, the Town of Aberdeen features an array of annual festivals — this pandemic year withstanding — for all ages and tastes. Music enthusiasts like the warm weather Sunday Exchange outdoor-concert series, while Harry Potter fans go “hogwarts” for the Fall for Aberdeen fest. Holiday celebrants move the cheer needle forward with the charitable Reindeer Fun Run, downtown shops’ open houses, Christmas parade and more. Post winter ushers the Spring Festival into town with the recent addition of the Downtown Aberdeen Dog Fair. Finally, Aberdeen is synonymous in the Sandhills with July 4th fun ― the fireworks at Aberdeen Lake are hands-down the best around. Collective downtown stores sponsor events year-round — the Cocktail Crawl, Wine Walk and Bread Bowl soup-cook off, to name a few.

Whether you need art or antiques, a haircut or hot cup of coffee, food or flowers, beer or baked goods, this track-side town delivers. Juxtaposed between a step back-in-time and a nod to the mod is today’s Downtown Aberdeen.

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