When Angie Staheli arrived in Holly Springs four years ago from Seattle, she wondered how a growing suburban community so overrun by newcomers could still feel so much like the rural crossroads she’d heard it once was.
“I lived in a lot of places, and I’ve never been somewhere that felt like this,” Staheli said. “People said they were drawn here. I heard that so much from people, and I wanted to know why.”
In a drug store one day, Staheli came across a book that fed her curiosity: an illustrated history of Holly Springs by Barb Koblich, who works in the town clerk’s office and has become the town’s de facto historian.
Staheli, a 37-year-old actress and former sociology major, devoured the book and saw an opportunity to share what she’d learned with other transplants in her new town of 33,000 people.
Koblich’s book became a key resource for a play Staheli researched, wrote and produced during the next three years. “Finding Patience” begins its 11-show run at the Holly Springs Cultural Center on Monday.
The play tells the history of Holly Springs from the 1850s to the present day through the eyes of an emancipated slave, Patience. It touches on divisive issues of slavery, the Civil War, civil rights and gentrification.
And it reflects a belief that civility and kindness have made Holly Springs’ present and history special, even in times of racial and political upheaval.
I realized that if somebody doesn’t share the history, it’s going to be lost.
Angie Staheli, who wrote “Finding Patience”
“It just blew me away that someone who isn’t from here could get it right like she did,” said David Adams, a sixth-generation Holly Springs resident whose ancestors are depicted in the play. “It humbles me that someone from the outside could come here and have so much genuine interest and feeling for the town.”
Holly Springs’ earliest farms began with grants to settler families from the British crown when North Carolina was still a colony. Missed by the railroad’s first pass through central North Carolina, the humble farming community developed slowly.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, many white landowners left to seek fortune elsewhere, leaving freed slaves and their ancestors to till the land. Until the late 1980s, Holly Springs remained a predominantly black community. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that modern plumbing overtook septic tanks and outhouses.
“It was forgotten about,” Staheli said of the town. “People skipped over it and went straight to Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina. Nobody thought much of it. People forget that they’re living on land where slaves were, and so many people here are from the North that I don’t think it even crosses their mind.”
Holly Springs has grown so much over the past couple decades as more families move to the Triangle to work in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. Staheli said she wants newcomers to engage with the complex and sometimes difficult truths about the land their subdivisions were built on – especially as signs of that past become fewer and farther between.
“I spent a lot of time speaking with the people who are old-timers in town, though there are less and less of them every year,” Staheli said. “I realized that if somebody doesn’t share the history, it’s going to be lost.”
The Leslies, a prominent Holly Springs farming family, gave their emancipated slaves land along Holly Springs Road after the Civil War, some of which remains in the care of their ancestors, Koblich said. During the last 20 years, much of that land has been bought and developed to serve the needs of Holly Springs’ growing population.
“You’ve got somebody who’s had the land in their family for more than 100 years and Walmart wants to come in and buy you out, or they want to widen the street,” Koblich said. “Even though they can go take the money and buy a nice house in Twelve Oaks (subdivision), they’d be losing that final piece of the past.”
80 cast members
The play’s scope is ambitious for community theater. It features more than 80 cast members and dozens of other volunteers in various technical and administrative roles.
“There is something special about Angie,” said Nicole Meggerson de Martinez, a Holly Springs resident who volunteered her expertise as a publicist. “She’s an incredibly giving, generous and warm person, and anything you give to her, she appreciates. But it’s not only Angie. I think everyone can identify with some aspect of the story.”
Staheli, who is white, said she knew she’d have to make every effort to listen with respect and sensitivity to the black residents she consulted for the play, some of them descendents of the slaves “Finding Patience” depicts.
“I’ve learned that many of the members of the African-American community in Holly Springs have felt, ‘Gosh, all of this gentrification is coming, and we’re not being included,’ ” Meggerson de Martinez said. “Hopefully this multicultural production will not only welcome them but show them that this is yours, that you’re very much part of this.”
“Finding Patience” will begin at 7 p.m. June 5 through June 17, except Tuesday, June 6.
Tickets, which cost $19, can be purchased online at hollyspringsnc.us, at the Holly Springs Cultural Center at 300 W. Ballentine St. or by calling 919-567-4000.
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan