The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

General Stores Enjoy High Country Revival

By NC Department of Travel and Tourism

Issue: May, 1986

Editors Note....In this article, "General Stores Enjoy High Country Revival," it is interesting to note that the folks bringing this new life to the Blue Ridge are often seeking to escape the hectic rush of big city living. After taking this peaceful tour it will be apparent why folks like Joe and Sheila Morgan from Los Angeles, California (owners of Todd General Store) found their dream on a little mountain back road in the Blue Ridge.

Time was when there was hardly a wide place in the road - as the folks call the tiny communities that dot the landscape of the North Carolina High Country - that didn't have its own general store.

But the coming of the roads and the rise of the chain store spelled disaster for the general store whose specialty was Serving its community's every need, from sixteen penny nails to calico. In days when a dollar was hard to come by, the general store was a swap shop of sorts, where chickens, galax, ginseng and yellowroot were taken in trade for the sugar, salt and other necessities that couldn't be produced on the farm. And there was no place better for talking politics and swapping lies, as any old-timer will tell you.

For years the general store has been an endangered species threatened by extinction. But today in the High Country three enterprising storekeepers have turned back the clock and revived that venerable landmark. For those who find a combination of sightseeing, shopping and tapping the nation's rural roots irresistible, a weekend tour of the three establishments is highly recommended.

The three stores - Mast Store in Valle Crucis, Todd General Store in Todd, and Old Hampton Store in Linville - have retained their original names, atmosphere and charm. And though none of their owners is a native North Carolinian, the out-of-staters have taken to life beyond the fast lane like ducks to water.

John Cooper was an insurance agent in Florida when he happened on Mast Store during a spin through the mountains. "I nearly had to be dragged out of it," he recalls with a smile.

He purchased the rambling old building, built in 1883 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1979, a couple of years after it closed. Now, seven years later, John Cooper Enterprises ("which is Mast Store," Cooper says) is number 234. on "Inc. Magazine's" most recent list of the 500 fastest growing businesses in the nation.

Storekeeping was far from Jeff McManus' mind when the Florida builder and yacht captain came to the North Carolina High Country during the summer of 1984 to buy a couple of lots. Instead, he ended up investing in the Old Hampton Store (formal name was Hampton-Perkins General Merchants in the store's heyday).

The store opened in 1921 during the lumber boom, when the area "was known as Stumptown, because all you could see from here was the stumps of the trees that had been logged out." It closed in 1967, but McManus decided, after learning its (and the area's) history from local old folks, it was worthy of restoration and revival. After extensive remodeling, the store reopened last August.

A year ago Joe and Sheila Morgan came to the High Country from a suburb of Los Angeles, California, where Joe was a rehabilitation therapist and Sheila worked as a legal secretary. When another business opportunity they came to explore in the Boone area didn't pan out, they bought the Todd General Store on the Watauga - Ashe County line.

Like Mast and Hampton stores, Todd's general store, established in 1914 by the Cook Brothers, was closed when the Morgans bought it last February. They spent two busy months paneling the interior with rough sawn lumber, sandblasting and repainting a woodstove from the basement to install in the "bullpen" with its accommodating "liar's benches" in the store's center and filling the place with a pleasurable combination of antiques, crafts, canned and dry goods.

One display case in the store is given over to a historical display (there's a similar case in Old Hampton Store) of some of the establishment's old books, photographs of former owners and customers, and a salute to the community of Todd in its glory days. Now a mere shadow of its former self, Todd was once a boom town sporting two hotels, nine stores, a bank, four doctors, a dentist, a Masonic lodge and Odd Fellows hall, a post office, drug store, mill, a rent-a-buggy service for hotel guests, and the end of the line for the Abingdon, Virginia to Todd spur of the Norfolk and Western Railroad.

Cooper and the Morgans have left the outside of their store buildings (Mast is white clapboard; Todd is painted tin) untouched, and the interior walls of Mast Store still sport the big cardboard advertising posters Cooper discovered there when he bought the place. The Valle Crucis post office, which Cooper revived after long and complicated negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service, occupies a corner of the store, which is crammed from floor to ceiling with an astonishing and seemingly infinite inventory.

More renovation work has been done to the Old Hampton Store, where McManus sandblasted the old beadboard ceilings and walls, and paneled other walls with cedar. The Morgans have used rough-sawn lumber to cover the interior walls of the Todd store, and have put the old display cases, candy counter and storage bins back in use.

Both Mast and Old Hampton stores sell clothing as well as groceries, boots and buckets; the Morgans may add flannel shirts, overalls and other clothing their clientele need sometime in the future.

All three stores rely on local as well as tourist trade, especially during the off-season. Both the Morgans and Cooper said they began rebuilding their businesses by providing services residents had been having to do without locally. In Cooper's case, it was reviving the post office that did the trick; Morgan says just making sure there is always gas in the pumps has made a difference.

"The local people had quit coming, even before the store was closed by its last owners because the stock was so low," Morgan said. "But we're rebuilding the local people's confidence that we'll have animal feed and milk and bread. We feel we're on the right track blending local and tourist traffic."

Mast Store has already outgrown its floor space, and has opened an annex in another old general store just down the road. Last fall Mast expanded in yet another direction, when Cooper published the store's first catalog and established it as a mail order business.

Both McManus and the Morgans Have expansion plans as well. McManus is trying to develop a "village concept." Already he has opened Hampton Lodge (a bunk and breakfast establishment) next door in the home of former storeowners, Jim and Mary Hampton, and he plans to set up a grist mill on the property this spring. The Morgans hope to open the house next to Todd store this spring - also the home of one of the store's original owners - as a craft center.

The pride of the owners in keeping a tradition alive is evident when they talk about local reaction to the opening of the old stores. "People come into our store now whose grandparents used to shop here in the old days," Morgan says. "They tell us the way we've got it is the way it's supposed to be."

Old Hampton Store is located off NC 181 near the intersection of US 221 and NC 181 in Linville; Mast Store is located on NC 194 in Valle Crucis (between Banner Elk and Boone); Todd Store is 11 miles north of Boone off NC 194.