Hillsborough is full of unexpected finds. From the town’s Occoneechee heritage and historical roots, it comes as no surprise that even the walls of Hillsborough homes have a story to tell. For Erin Campbell, the tales of her neighborhood were found right below her feet.
While renovating an old shed in the backyard of her Hillsboro Heights home, Campbell uncovered the tattered remnants of local billboards. With much of the wood weather-worn and rotted, one brightly colored piece of plywood shined through the rubble. With its yellow background and stenciled lettering, the sign read ‘C&R Furniture 129 E King,’ an advertisement for the local furniture store operated in the 1950s by Marshal and Virginia Cates.
Developed as affordable housing in the 1950s, Hillsboro Heights was one of many local neighborhoods developed during the post-war housing boom, helping to create a first-time home-buying experience for many. Before the war, banking and loans operated much differently than today, making it nearly impossible for persons of color and lower-income families to own their own homes. “After the second world war, the GI bill made provisions to allow all veterans to purchase a home,” explained Mark Chilton, register of deeds for Orange County. The GI bill created a new market of buyers and the demand for affordable housing projects. Local builders such as James Freeland and Bobby Roberts built houses to fit the budgetary needs of each individual. “Sometimes the buyer would purchase what they could for the home to be livable yet unfinished, move in, and finish it as they got money,” said retired Hillsborough land surveyor Alios Callemyn.
During a time with few building codes, builders were able to keep construction costs to a minimum by being resourceful with materials. “Some [developers] would buy all new lumber, some would go out to a farmer with a mill, and it would be rough-cut lumber which you can’t use anymore,” said Callemyn. “The other way they would get lumber is to find a dilapidated barn or a house or go out to the interstate and tear down a sign. Some of the flooring or joists used were older than the house being built.”
The billboards discovered by Campbell are only a glimpse into the history of Hillsboro Heights, a memoir that has also been covered for decades.
Tucked away, on the edge of the historic district, lies the tightly-knit community of Hillsboro Heights (today spelled ‘Hillsborough’). One could fill a book with the stories to be told by the neighborhood families, but the land itself has a chronicle to share. Digging through deed records and documents, Chilton discovered the land was first granted in 1779 by the Revolutionary Government to Nathaniel Rochester, a merchant and revolutionary leader. Rochester played a pivotal role in the many developments of Hillsborough, serving as county clerk, supervising the construction of the old courthouse, and helping to establish an academy. Rochester eventually left North Carolina and landed in New York, founding the town of Rochester. Upon leaving the state, Rochester sold the Hillsboro Heights property to William Courtney, a Hillsborough farmer best known for the “yellow house” on historic King Street. The land is estimated to have served as a family farm.
“The creek was the boundary of the farm. You can still see the old barbed wire fencing buried under years of life,” said Campbell. “I have really old cedar trees in my backyard. I had an arborist come out to inspect them for safety and asked him to estimate their age. Similar in diameter to the ones downtown, he said, ‘your trees are probably in the range of 100-150 years old.’”
The farmland changed hands throughout the centuries before becoming an investment property for the Forrest family. Eventually, the land was divided into lots, sold to local developers, and in 1952 the journey of Hillsboro Heights began.
Today, the streets of Central, Freeland, and Forrest are home to a mix of incomes and ages, creating a community of their own. Generations have remained in Hillsboro Heights, children taking ownership of the family home after their parents have passed and raising their own families. Becky Lamb, who moved to the neighborhood as a youngster in the ‘50s, remembers the area’s early days.
“I’ve watched [Hillsboro Heights] grow from when this road was dirt, and there was nothing but trees and woods. My friend lived on the next street, and we would cut through the woods to the [artesian well], stop, and get us some water.” Lamb eventually married a military man and ventured out of Hillsborough, moving back in the ‘90s to take care of her mother. After her mother’s passing in 1999, Lamb and her husband remained in Hillsboro Heights, surrounded by her childhood friends who had done the same.
“This is a neighborhood where I could pick up the phone at 2 a.m., and it’s, ‘whatcha need?’ no questions asked,” explained Kathleen Ferguson, who moved to Hillsboro Heights in 2001. “This [neighborhood] is one where I have personally seen a level of unselfish, immediate, ‘you need help, we’re there.’” At times the neighborhood’s charm has been overshadowed by elevated crime and precarious activities. Ferguson helped form a neighborhood watch in the early 2000s, a welcomed change that helped recapture the community vibe well known to the area’s oldest residents.
An underdog to some of Hillsborough’s hot spots, Hillsboro Heights and other surrounding neighborhoods have created a haven of family and legacy. The land, the houses, and the people all have a rich story to tell, making communities such as Hillsboro Heights another unexpected find of Hillsborough.