by David Cecelski
Yesterday my daughter and I visited the Railroad Cafe in Eden, in Rockingham County. It’s on the corner of North Main Street and NC 770, next to a concrete plant and an abandoned textile mill. It’s one of the last relics of the old mill village of Draper and I just fell in love with the place as soon as I walked through the door.
Early in the 20th century, Draper was one of those “planned” Piedmont mill towns. Fieldcrest Mills built the town from scratch and owned the mill, the homes, and everything else.
Homer Wood is the Railroad Cafe’s very gracious, 70-year-old proprietor. He visited with us while we sipped our coffee. (I think he visits with everybody.) He told us that his father and mother both worked at Fieldcrest, but his dad left the company and opened the cafe next to the railroad tracks in 1955.
A lot of the Fieldcrest workers had come from Appalachia and he tried to serve food that suited them—mountain food.
Two years later, in 1957, Homer Wood’s father moved the cafe to its current location, a white brick building that used to be a Pure Oil gas station and a Cadillac dealership.
In those days, half a dozen diners like the Railroad Cafe served the Fieldcrest employees. The mill ran 900 looms and 3 shifts a day. Noon was quiet at the cafe, but you could barely find a seat at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when the shifts changed at Fieldcrest.
Homer Wood’s mother wanted him to work at Fieldcrest, too. She thought that the mill was more of a sure thing than a restaurant. “Now I’ve outlived Fieldcrest,” he told us, “so you don’t ever know.”
The Fieldcrest mill shut down in the ‘60s. The company sold off the mill, the houses, and everything else. The mill village’s downtown has yet to recover. All those other diners that Mr. Wood told us about are long gone.
Even the town of Draper closed its doors. After Fieldcrest left, the town government merged with two other nearby towns, Leakesville and Spray, and together they reconstituted as Eden.
For many of its customers, the Railroad Café is an enduring link to that mill village past. It’s a special place, too. Everybody knows everybody. Old men sit at the counter talking and eating beef stew and collard greens, while young kids and their moms sit in booths enjoying pancakes made in the shapes of dinosaurs and birds. One of the kitchen cooks, Robin Gayle, is a Picasso of pancakes. I’m not kidding—she deserves a show at the Museum of Art in Raleigh.
The walls are plastered with family photos, kids’ drawings, pictures of NASCAR legends from Fireball Roberts to Dale Earnhardt, and lots of trains. I especially liked a photograph of the Norfolk & Western Railway’s legendary Powhatan Arrow coming around a bend sometime in the ‘40s or ‘50s.
In Eden the Railroad Cafe is famous for its hot dogs, “breadburgers,” and country ham biscuits. If you go, though, you have to try the “Henry County Special,” too—Henry County, Virginia, is just a few miles north. The “Henry County Special” is a homemade beef stew mixed, half and half, with pinto beans and onion, a classic Appalachian dish.
The Woods started serving that marriage of beef stew and pinto beans a half-century ago, when road building crews from Henry County asked for it. Then, in the 1960s, Henry County workers came down for jobs at the new Miller Brewery, just up the road, and they started ordering it. Now it’s a mainstay on the menu.
When we finished our breakfast, we thanked Mr. Wood’s daughter, who was our waitress, and paid at the counter. On our way out the door, Mr. Wood offered to give us a ride back to our car when we got off the river—we were in Eden to canoe the Smith River. We had already made other arrangements, but it was a nice gesture. I took it as just one more sign of how the Railroad Cafe has kept alive a spirit of family and community born in the old mill village of Draper.
The Railroad Cafe is located at 239 N. Main St., Eden, and is open from 6 AM to 8 PM Monday to Saturday. Cash only. To see Ms. Robin Gayle’s amazing pancake art, check out the cafe’s Facebook page.
Photos by David Cecelski, except pancake photos, which are courtesy of Amanda Crawford.