Forty years ago my husband Tym and I moved to Catawba County.
We had both grown up in in rural Illinois, a land platted in a grid. Directions were given by the compass. Go a mile north, turn left and go three miles west. But in this booming place with a gentler climate, we learned that locals navigate by where things used to be.
Directions were given from the “old mall” (Catawba, which was still operating) and the “new mall” (Valley Hills, in the middle of nowhere.) Driving to Valley Hills sat in no-man’s land between Hickory and Newton. The only other thing out that way was Po Folks Restaurant on the corner where, later, Sagebrush and Fire Bonz used to be, before the building caught fire, literally. Today it’s where Five Guys is, not far from where Krispy Kreme used to be before it moved to Startown Road, down a piece from the big intersection near the furniture mart where the Mull’s motel, restaurant and drive-in theatre complex used to be.
After 40 years, we’ve learned how to give local directions.
Recently Tym and I drove through southwest Hickory and reminisced about what used to be along Highway 64-70. Yes, we still call it that, though the “64” was dropped years ago.
Amazingly, the former Kroger Building is still there next to Roses discount store Back in the day, if you drove toward Hildebran, you’d find Kathryn’s Cheese House, which seemed to be half way to Morganton. Back then there were massage parlors and adult book stores around town—not tons of them, but enough to make us wonder if the Bible Belt was a mirage.
In 1979 there were three Belk stores: the old mall, new mall and an empty shell of a place downtown that met disaster before we arrived. I think it burned, but it was before our time. But oh, that new store! At Belk Valley Hills you could actually shop, have your purchases giftwrapped and eat lunch without leaving the store. Kathryn’s ran the eating establishment for a time. As newlyweds, we spent a lot of time in the Belk’s Budget Shop on the lower level.
For the budget-conscious, there was also Kmart and Sky City next to the A&P in the strip mall. That mall included Village Inn –the place for pizza.
Walmart wouldn’t arrive until well into the 1980s, building the store where Hamrick’s is now—that later housed Media Play.
Two of our first restaurants still exist. One is Max’s Mexican Eatery that stands alone near where Mom & Pop’s restaurant stood on real estate now occupied by the Randy Marion Sav-A-Lot dealership. On up the highway was Western Steer steakhouse and a Chinese restaurant called Fang’s.
The first breakfast we ever ate in Catawba County was at McDonald’s across from where Everett Chevrolet Buick used to be and Quality Cleaners that has cold storage for woolens and furs—which should have told us something about the local insect population. Behind McDonald’s was a textile mill, Joan Fabrics. On hot summer nights, when the doors were open, you could see people inside, running looms under florescent lights on second shift.
When we came to town in June 1979—before we rented an apartment—we stayed at Howard Johnson’s, where the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market is located on Highway 70. I remember pickup up a copy of what I thought was the main local newspaper, the Hickory News. It was jam-packed with society news, which felt as if we’d stepped back to say, 1949.
It took us a bit of looking to find Hickory’s downtown—up 4th street between the Chamber of Commerce and Hickory Motor Lodge. It seemed more than strange for the downtown to be so hard to find. Maybe the town hadn’t gotten used to the fact that 64-70 had become Hickory’s front porch that had an extension out there: Interstate 40.
Of course Hickory and Catawba County were experiencing a lot of growth and change, which made the navigation by vanished landmarks such a fool’s errand. All the “used to be” references meant two things. 1. The place had grown and changed a lot before we got here, and 2. There was a difference between in-the-know locals and befuddled newcomers.
We came to live here on a trial basis, and the fact that we stayed four decades says something about the friendly nature of Catawba County.
Recently, I called up All Glass to have my windshield repaired. The place had moved, Tym said, so I called ahead to verify where the business was. They were behind the McDonald’s on 70, the lady said. My mental map honed in.
Are you where Joan Fabrics used to be? I asked.
Why yes, the lady said.
I may not be a local, but I’m sounding like one.