If you’re looking for a fun place to escape from this dreadful COVID summer, take a drive to Murray’s Mill Historic District near Catawba. You won’t be sorry.
Since late May, the Catawba County Historical Association has revamped and restocked the old Murray & Minges General Store and what a wonder it is!
Open seven days a week, the store is more than a museum. Staff has stocked the upper shelves with nostalgic artifacts, but the rest of the shelves brim with specialty canned goods, spices, soaps, toys, snacks, local photographs and cards, walking sticks, t-shirts, local honey, fresh eggs, hand-crafted wooden bowls and more. Most of the merchandise is made in North Carolina, including the store’s hottest seller: Cackalacky Cheerwine Barbecue Sauce from Greensboro.
The Murray & Minges General Store, originally run by O. D. Murray, is part of a 24-building complex spread over 15 acres. A flour mill has existed on the site since the 1880s. The centerpiece of the district is the flour mill built by John Murray, whose father, William, had operated a mill on the site since the 1870s. The present structure, erected in 1913, housed a family enterprise until its closing in 1967. The complex is a rare surviving example of rural life in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Due to COVID-19, the flour mill, wheat house, historic homes and outbuildings are temporarily closed to the public, but the grounds remain a welcome escape from the stresses of 2020. Bring a packed lunch and stay a while. There are picnic tables under shade trees and plenty of cold drinks for sale in the nearby store. Meander over to the bridge to watch water spilling over the dam beside the mill wheel. If you’re up to hiking, a section of the Carolina Thread Trail crosses the property
When I was there last Thursday, staff was working on the water line to a soda fountain in the “candy room.” The Virginia Shipp Hotel that once stood in downtown Newton was built with lumber from the Murray property in the last century. So the soda fountain does have a direct connection to Murray’s Mill.
The candy room was built as warehouse space for the local Catawba Candy Company during the Great Depression. Shelves, racks and barrels with everything from horehound candy, peanut butter logs, chocolates and other types of candies we enjoyed as children.
Jennifer Marquardt, site coordinator, points out that the soda fountain was constructed from lumber milled at the Murray property in the last century. So it does have that direct connection.
When I enter the store, I imagine myself as a barefoot 4-year-old, walking across the dusty planks of the Lockart & Sons General Store I knew growing up in the Midwest. It was a gathering place as well as a spot to buy necessities, pick up mail (there was an actual post office in the back corner) and most important to us kids, draw a cold drink from the water-bath cooler or buy penny candy. Lockart’s smelled of smoked meat and ripening fruit—scents I suspect were part of the Murray & Minges General Store experience back in the day. Fewer things were pre-packaged back then—meat was sliced to order and fresh bread was delivered before sunup.
Compared to convenience stores and supermarkets, Murray’s is like stepping back in time. I can even find my favorite “penny” candy: peanut butter bars.
If you think the Murray’s Mill complex would make a great movie set, you’re right. The site has served as the backdrop for two made-for-TV movies in the 1990s. NBC’s “The Lottery,” was based on a short story by Shirley Jackson. Another film, “Wildflower,” was directed by Diane Keaton and starring Beau Bridges and a young Reese Witherspoon.
These days the mill site is enjoying a starring role as a venue for weddings and family reunions. This summer, a farmer’s market has been held on Thursday evenings.A socially distanced event is planned midday on Saturday, Aug. 29 when the rock/blues band, The Crossroad Outlaws will perform from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. A food truck will be on site. All are invited to bring a lawn chair or blanket and keep at least six feet apart.
To visit Murray’s Mill, take Hwy 10 East of Newton and drive nine miles to the Smith Setzer & Sons property at Murrays Mill Road. Their large metal pipes make a distinctive landmark. Turn right and go .7 of a mile. Murray’s Mill will be on your right.