Bynum Front Porch: tradition kept vibrant with high tech

Online global communities keep this former mill town a cornerstone of traditional culture in central North Carolina

Critics, left and right, who seek new laws and regulations to stifle the impact of social media technologies should pay a visit to Bynum, North Carolina. Residents of the former mill town, between Pittsboro and the Fearrington community in Chatham County, show how online communication can bring thousands virtually to the front porch of a general store to enjoy traditional songs, stories, and fellowship.

I spent last Friday with my old friend Cynthia Raxter, who worked alongside me at the front desk of the Carolina Inn for most of the 1980s. When I left the Inn, I entered the wild and wacky world of policy journalism. She moved to UNC Health Sciences Library, and retired from the university in 2012.

Cindy’s now the head honcho at Bynum Front Porch, a nonprofit set up to sustain the Bynum General Store, which opened during the Great Depression and could have been lost to neglect unless a dedicated group of locals had pitched in to save it. 

And perhaps the Bynum community, all 300 or so residents.

The store is a local landmark, the center of a once-vibrant township that refuses to lose its sense of place and purpose even though its economic engine, the cotton mill, closed nearly four decades ago. Bynum is rebounding thanks to the love and dedication of the locals … and social media.

Twenty years ago, locals began hosting the Bynum Music Series, scheduled performances of primarily traditional music to drum up business for the store and highlight the community. Five years later, the store operator retired. Locals again came together, first by contributing $250 each — enough to pay a year’s “rent” (aka property taxes) for the building and property. Then by creating, a nonprofit to maintain the store and its surroundings and host cultural programming and workshops.

Over the years, music performers have included local Tommy Edwards, founder of the Bluegrass Experience, which operated almost continuously from 1971 until Edwards’ death in May; Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, who had a Bynum P.O. box; ad Joe Newberry, an award-winning old-time songwriter, instrumentalist, and storyteller who’s played shows on both sides of the Atlantic. 

More recently, Bynum Front Porch music has branched out to include Piedmont blues, rockabilly, honky tonk, traditional country. And the Durham Ukulele Orchestra.

The summer series is on an outdoor stage, unless it rains, then the crowd moves inside the store. The winter series is indoors. Along with the bands, Bynum Front Porch hosts storytelling sessions (oral history meets improv) and workshops, open bluegrass jams, and more. Much more.

The nonprofit has grown enough to sponsor a $1,000 scholarship for a graduate at each of Chatham County’s three public high schools. To qualify, students must be the first in their families to attend college.

A fourth high school recently opened; the nonprofit wants to add a scholarship for one of its graduates — and perhaps more scholarships per school if the money allows.

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Bynum isn’t a wealthy enclave. The nonprofit succeeds thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the principals behind the events. But it also needs megaphones to reach those who may never set foot on the front porch of the store. 

Those megaphones? Facebook, YouTube, email. That Durham Ukulele Orchestra YouTube video? More than 2,500 views. The Facebook page has several thousand followers. 

Bynum punches way about its weight. In Friday’s newsletter, we’ll look at how livestreaming on a shoestring budget kept the front porch busy during COVID, when in-person visits weren’t possible.

For now, enjoy some of Friday’s performance from Swift Creek.