Historic Pittsboro: Proposed Plaques Provide Perspective

by Cindy Schmidt

The history of the buildings and businesses in Pittsboro include a hardware store, a men’s haberdashery, stables, several saloons, a movie theater, and department stores, among others — but how would anyone know that now?

In this photo by Dorothea Lange, locals gather in front of a store on the west side of Hillsboro Street believed to be what is now Roy Underhill’s Woodwright Shop.

In January 2017, Kay Judge walked along Hillsboro Street with a group discussing the buildings and businesses that were there, and those that had come before. Given the inevitability of change, the group — which included Pittsboro Commissioner Michael Fiocco, Barber Holmes, and architect Taylor Hobbs — talked about how interesting it would be to have a historical record of business to share with visitors in real time. Kay had the idea to place plaques on the buildings that tell their brief histories. The idea was roundly supported.

Ms. Judge took the building plaque idea to Paul Horne, the Pittsboro Parks Planner. Paul encouraged the project and Commissioner Michael Fiocco continued his support.

Kay realized she’d need to do several kinds of research to ensure the information on the plaques was accurate. She found accounts of what Hillsboro Street looked like in 1915. She also found John London’s 1986 booklet “Since Then: A Short Illustrated History of Pittsboro” which describes most of the businesses along Hillsboro Street at the time of its writing.

But where was the information from the ’80s to the present?

Looking south on Hillsboro Street at the intersection of Salisbury Street

Kay searched in vain for written sources until she realized she could conduct interviews for the missing information. In the following months, Kay took oral histories from people originally from Pittsboro and Chatham County, especially those involved in local businesses. “This was a very rich experience for me,” Kay said. “I became acquainted with many people who shared their stories so willingly and in much detail. I have been impressed with the dedication of local business people to their businesses and to the people of Pittsboro.”

Kay’s idea is to list businesses that were in a particular building for more than 2 years. The plaques will be interesting conversation pieces for visitors as well as residents. She suspects that current businesses may gain new visitors when pedestrians stop to read about the building’s history on the plaques and become interested in what’s there now.

Kay presented the fruits of her research work to Grimsley Hobbs, president of the Chatham County Historical Association. Grimsley and his team at Hobbs Architects are responsible for many buildings in Chatham County and across the state but most notable is the restoration/rebuilding of the iconic Chatham County Historic Courthouse after the 2010 fire that devastated it.

Gov. Charles Manly’s Law Office has been in the care of the Chatham Historical Association since 1965. Read more about him at the link below.

Grimsley is enthusiastic about the plaque project and has thoughts on getting the plaques produced and installed on the Hillsboro Street buildings. Members of Main Street Pittsboro are also enthusiastic about the building plaques, as are the Pittsboro Commissioners and Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry. So with all that support, Kay’s great idea and research, the plaques may become a reality in 2018.

“I really loved doing the interviews and am so appreciative of the many hours that people spent talking to me,” Kay said. “I  hope that people will find this information interesting and that the plaques will help preserve a part of Pittsboro’s past. I appreciate everyone’s support.”

Pittsboro will change for many reasons: in response to Chatham Park; from projects planned by the NC Department of Transportation; the arrival of new businesses; the closing of others, and simply the march of time. Isn’t it comforting to know that thanks to Kay Judge, the history of downtown commerce and the architectural record won’t be lost?

Thank you to our collaborating partners at the Chatham County Historical Association, who wrote and edited this, and provided images.

MORE INFO: Read more about Gov. Manly and his Law Office at the PDF at this link

QUESTION: What kinds of stores or amenities would you like to see in downtown Pittsboro? What will help keep downtown Pittsboro active? Leave your comments below.

2018-04-26T13:59:26-04:00February 1st, 2018|


  1. Patty Blanton February 1, 2018 at 6:54 pm - Reply

    The black and white “undated” photo shown above is from the Depression Era series of photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Pittsboro and the Chatham County area were fortunate in that the photographer they hired for this area was Dorothea Lange! Here are the Library of Congress notes for this photo:

    Title: Main street, Saturday afternoon. Pittsboro, North Carolina
    Creator(s): Lange, Dorothea, photographer
    Date Created/Published: 1939 July.
    Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.
    Reproduction Number: LC-USF34-019851-E (b&w film nitrate neg.) LC-DIG-fsa-8b33863 (digital file from original neg.)
    Rights Advisory: No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs(http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/071_fsab.html)
    Call Number: LC-USF34- 019851-E [P&P] LOT 1495 (corresponding photographic print)
    Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

    Another photo in the series shows more detail as to which building it is and also shows Pilkington Drug Store. There is an entire series of photos that Lange took of Pittsboro’s downtown in the summer of 1939:


  2. lesley February 1, 2018 at 7:02 pm - Reply

    Good work Patty. Thank you.

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