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Atlantic & Yadkin Railway

History &


J.A.C. Dunn
Winston-Salem Journal
, Winston-Salem, N.C.
December 14, 1980
Pages B1, B14

Requiem for a Store

 A week ago yesterday, Sue Isley walked out of the store and locked the big old single-pane glass doors for the last time. She said she hated change, but the time had come for change. The time had come to stop running a country general store. So she retired herself before the malls and the convenience stores retired her.

In the wings of Belews Creek’s current events waits a possible buyer for the A.W. Preston & Son Store, lock, stock and battered old brick building. A deal may or may not be struck, but one way or another, for the first time in more than a century, the store will not change hands within the family. It will be sold outright.

When did it all start? Envision thoughtfully scratched heads. Let’s see, they say, it would be pretty soon after the Civil War, but … well, you, see, no records survive.

That failure doubtless irks the very soul of Talmage Preston.

“Daddy always told me,” says Sue Isley, “’Never trust your mind. You’ll always forget. Keep records.’ And he did. He was always working at that high desk in back, on a stool, keeping his records.


I.A. Roberson, Sue Preston Isley’s great-grandfather forsook Belews Creek for Indiana rather than fight in the Civil War. When the war ended, he came home and started the I.A. Roberson Mercantile Co. on the banks of what was then Belew Creek. His daughter became the local postmaster – until the administration of President Gerald Ford, the Belews Creek Post Office had always been in the store.

Roberson left the store to his son-in-law, A. W. Preston, Sue Isley’s grandfather. When his son Talmage joined him in the 1920s, the business became A.W. Preston & Son.

Back then, when Sue was a girl and Belews Creek had a grain mill and children swam in a real running millrace, Preseton’s Store was far more than a sleepy pack-a_Nabscan’-an’-fi’-gallons-a-reg’lar enterprise. The store was the cornucopia from which flowed all the necessities of life in Belews Creek, and use of the Sears and Roebuck catalog was mainly confined to Belews Creek’s outhouses.

The railroad had come through Belews Creek before 1900. The store stood right beside the tracks. Things people needed came on the train, and people bought almost everything they needed at the store. In fact, because of the railroad, “the city” was for Belews Creek people not Winston-Salem but Greensboro: The train went there.

In the store were bolts of cloth, men’s and women’s and children’s shoes, overalls and hats, hardware and tools of all kinds, fertilizer and seed in bulk, plow points, planting machines and all the groceries a family of 10 could want. In the fall, people bought 100-pound sacks of flour and cornmeal, and coffee, coal, sugar and kerosene, new shoes and winter coats. In spring, they bought seed and fertilizer, but until September they bought on credit. After the tobacco harvest, they paid their bill at the store, and then started over.

T.R. Preston advertised only on Ramon’s “Little Doctor” calendars and in semiannual typewritten letters to each of his customers, thanking them for their past custom and informing them of current prices and new stock. In the early 1920s, the store did very well. T.R. Preston built a big brick house nearby and bought a Buick.

In 1930 and ’31, Belews Creek had a bad time. The Depression generated more credit purchases, some of which remain on the books today as accounts receivable. Once during that dismal period Talmage Preston, ordinarily a mild-mannered, unadventurous man, drove his Buick to Charlotte, confronted the president of a fertilizer company that had threatened legal action if its bill wasn’t paid, and dropped a bunch of keys on the man’s desk.

“I can’t pay you,” said Preston. “Here’s the keys to the store.”

“I don’t know what I’d do with your store,” said the fertilizer baron. “Keep your store. Pay me when you can.”

The store was Belews Creeks answer to the Central Intelligence Agency and Southern Bell Telephone combined, the place to talk politics, swap lightning and blizzard anecdotes, gossip about your neighbors, read your mail. The Junior Order, a very old fraternal organization, used to meet on the second floor of the store. T.R. Preston stayed open late on Saturdays to accommodate the meetings. He was a teetotaler and never sold beer, but for 50 years the store had been a Shell oil dealer. For many years, it took three men and a fourth driving the company truck to deliver the coal and fertilizer, stock the shelves, man the post office and tend to customers. The store was an anchor in the lives of children, a crucial gear in the community mechanism. Messages were delivered via the store. “The sawmill hands were paid off at the store. If you went on a trip, you boarded the train at the store.

But the creation of Belews Lake in the early 1970s left the store on a dead-end remnant of road. Then the Post Office moved to a spiffy new building out on the rerouted NC 65, where Postmaster Conrad Parham now spends his days in air-conditioned but solitary splendor.

For the last few years, the store has had some paint, some nails, a few rakes and shovels, a row of work shoes, beekeeping supplies (Sue’s husband, Elwood, is a beekeeper), motor oil, begetable seed, light groceries, and at lunchtime you could make yourself a cheese and bologna sandwich at the back counter. But gradually, the non-perishable stock gathered more dust than customers.

The store was all Sue Isley knew, growing up, and when she married she brought her husband into it, and in the mid-1940s they took over together and for a while it was all their children knew.

“I don’t like to sound like I’m sprounting wings,” says Sue, “but I thought of the store as a service. When people found what they wanted and were satisfied, I felt good. But lately – well, I didn’t feel good about it when people couldn’t find what they wanted there.”

None of her four children, or any of their cousins, wants to be storekeeper.

“I feel lost,” she says. “Absolutely lost. I hate change. I don’t know what I’ll do now. But I’ll tell you one thing: For 40 years, I’ve never had my Saturdays free. Whatever I do now, I’m going to keep my Saturdays for me.”

© 1980 Winston-Salem Journal


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