I created a copy/paste doc of the text and reproduce it here for those who enjoy such items. Jim hoped to visit the area while Ralph and Dean Whitehurst were alive-they died in 2012 and 2010 respectively.
By Mike Grizzard
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, December 02, 2006
Early Monday morning, before light hits the stretch of road between Bethel and Stokes, Dean W hitehurst may have to stop himself from walking out the door and over to the old, faded buil ing a few yards away.
He's been coming here "50-something years," along with his older brother, Ralph, to run the general store their father, W.K. Whitehurst, started in 1916. For years, they've hinted at closing Whitehurst Grocery, better known as Whitehurst Station by the locals, but keep coming i n day after day, week after week, mainly because those who walk through the screen door are like family and raise a fuss each time talk of shutting down pops up.
"They don't like it much, but times are changing," Dean says.
After today, closing becomes a reality. Dean is 75. Ralph is 77 and needs to spend more time with his wife, whose health is failing. Come Monday, when the door doesn't open, they're no t sure exactly what they will do.
"I'm liable to get up and come right here," Dean said.
The gathering place
By 3 p.m. each day, the seats are filled around a table near the back of the store, past th e counter and a rack of snacks. Retired farmers and businessmen drive from Bethel, Stokes an d Robersonville to talk about politics, sports, food, their latest doctor visits, the goings- on in Greenville, you name it.
"If you can think about it, it's been said or going to be said," says Marvin "Baby Ray" Butler, who lives about 3 miles from the store.
This has been a gathering place as long as they can remember. Folks like Butler, Billy Staton , William Earl House, Ed Jones, David Bryan, Kenneth Manning, Charlie Manning, Mike Keel an d Charles Jenkins still stop by. Several other regulars have died, Bull James and Melvin Hawkins just in the last couple of months.
Health problems prevent others from coming in. Thurston James from Stokes had a leg amputated after developing a blood clot; Robert Bright suffered a stroke and is in a nursing home in Greenville.
"We've lost so many," Dean says. "They've passed away."
In its heyday, this was the place for farmers to stock up on supplies. Whitehurst Station sold most anything the community needed: bib overalls, tires, batteries, feed, shoes, plows for mules, gas and general grocery items. A sawmill and blacksmith shop operated just across the railroad tracks not far away.
The trade these days is mostly cold drinks, snacks and blocks of cheddar cheese that Dean buys in round, wooden boxes and sells by the pound.
"We call it rat cheese," Staton says as he cuts off small chunks for an afternoon snack.
"He's got five dollars worth," Dean says.
The gas tanks have long since been pulled up, although one sits idle under the shelter out fr ont. The cost to upgrade the 10,000-gallon storage drum was too much, Whitehurst says.
"I remember selling gas for 13.9 (cents)," he says. "We used to sell right much gas."
"Gas went up to $2.21 today," Staton pipes in. "The sun don't come up right, gas has to go up ."
Friendly banter is never in short supply. Games of hearts and checkers once stirred the chatter around the small table in the back. Now, it's the news of the day.
"During the winter time, there would be 15 or 20 people out here (playing hearts)," Dean says . "When you lost, you had to get out. I loved to play hearts, but we don't play now because most of the old ones are gone."
Where to go?
Whitehurst Station will be missed. There's no debating that among the regulars. Their dilemma is where to congregate to pass the time when Monday rolls around.
For Charles Jenkins, this has been his lunch stop every weekday on the same 90-mile mail rout e he has driven for 28 years.
"I've got to find a new place to stop," he says.
Only, there are no other stores in the area.
"He's going to have to bring it with him," Dean says.
David Bryan has an idea what he might do.
"Bring me a drink from the house, get me a chair and sit out there under the shelter," he says, munching on a brownie and sipping a Diet Coke.
Bryan retired from Burroughs Wellcome in 1994 and from farming in 1996. He usually drops in every day, "twice a day sometimes."
"You bring any chicken livers out here to eat today?" he asks Billy Staton, 67, who worked in tobacco for 43 years and has been a daily visitor for about three years.
"No, I ate collards today in Williamston," Staton says. "Made a special trip. They cook the best collards I ever ate. They always taste the same."
"About time for Kenneth Manning to come back in," Dean said. "He came out and got a can of sardines and went back home."
The door swings open, and Marvin Butler strolls in. He settles into one of three connected black-and-yellow seats he picked up a few years ago at a yard sale.
"Smoke bother you?" he asks.
"Don't make no difference," Bryan says.
The door opens again, and Ed Jones heads for an empty chair. He and Staton were in the same grade in school, but he headed west at age 17, to Iowa, then Wisconsin, before coming back i n 1996. Staton asks if he has seen William Earl House, who has had "a case of walking pneumonia."
"I saw William Earl over at the Filling Station (in Robersonville) eating lunch today," Jones says. "I tell you what, he didn't look all that good, but he said he was feeling fairly well. Had him a great big bowl of chicken pastry, and he was working on it."
A few minutes later, House makes an appearance.
"How you feeling?" Staton asks.
"Right fair," says House, who lives in Bethel.
John Pritchard comes in, and Dean hands him a bottle of water from a rusting cooler that still works like a charm. Dean says it was used when he bought it from J.C. Kirkland in Stokes i n the late 1950s or early '60s. All he has done is replace the compressors.
"I believe it's one of the first one's ever made," Dean says. "But it keeps it ice cold. People get water out of there and say they've never seen no water that cold."
The talk then turns to the store's closing.
"What you going to do next week?" Staton asks Pritchard.
"I'll probably spend a little more time at Crawford Hardware Store," Pritchard says. "He's got the seats in there and all."
"I'll probably go to Crawford's," House adds. "Gotta leave home once in a while."
The rest of the afternoon gang begins filing in. Kenneth Manning, who will be 80 in January , grabs a Coke and sits on what used to be a school bus seat and now has cushion poking through in all directions.
"We've had them a long time," Dean says. "It takes a good, sturdy one to hold people such as them."
Charlie Manning walks in, orders an orange soda and joins the conversation. Mike Keel follow s him a couple of minutes later.
"What time y'all closing Saturday?" Pritchard asks Dean.
"Probably 6 o'clock," he answers matter-of-factly.
He and Ralph have had the doors open six days a week like clockwork.
"Never open on Sunday and never sold beer and wine," Dean says. "Not many places like that."
Each of the brothers has been robbed once. Dean was hit on the head with canned goods, and the cash register was taken on Dec. 12, 1997; Ralph was stabbed in the side with a long knife almost a year later and missed almost two weeks of work.
That knife still sits on a shelf in the back of the store.
"It's scary," Dean says. "I lock my door in the mornings when I come out about 6 and read the paper."
Dean will work the entire shift today while Ralph and his wife attend a reunion in Dunn. He expects his most frequent customers to stop by for at least one more visit.
"Well, I'll see y'all again before the week's over," Pritchard says as he leaves. "I got to g et out here at least one more time. But I've got to wait 'til Monday morning to see if it opens up."
Dean vows that's not going to happen. He has no plans for the well-stocked shelves of merchandise untouched for years and gathering dust. "I don't know. I might just leave it in here.” Or for the store itself ?
"I don't know. You rent it to somebody, they'd put in beer and wine and all. I might just leave it right here."
He does know it will be tough not to show up for work Monday morning
"I've got mixed emotions," Whitehurst says. "When you stay that long, you've got to kind of miss it."