A hip college town maintains its old-fashioned soul.
What are those things hanging from the ceiling in Boone Drug Fountain and Grill? They look like paper lanterns, or beehives, or fragile musical instruments. Store manager Scotty Prevost hears all kinds of guesses about the archived, yellowing prescription papers, which hang, stacked like pancakes, on coat hangers. “They sure are conversation starters,” she says.
Ironically, Boone Drug no longer fills prescriptions at its downtown location, which celebrated its 90th year of business last year. The store, the flagship of a chain, is now half soda fountain and half sundries. Just before 8 a.m. every weekday, the fountain’s grill calls out in a timeless rhythm — clang, sizzle, bang, bang — as workers fry eggs and sausage for regulars, or Coffee Club members, who arrive one by one, as they have for generations.
Today, Faye Rhymer is one of the first to show up and take a seat in front of the grill. Rhymer can’t remember how long she’s been coming, but she thinks it’s been 30 or 40 years since her father started bringing her for breakfast when he was a regular. She runs her finger along a tiny plaque in front of her seat and points to a chair across the bright yellow counter. “My dad’s name is over there,” she says.
Many deceased Coffee Club members are memorialized with their names etched onto brass. Phil McGuire, who helped install the first plaques, soon joins Rhymer. The bits of brass represent people he grew up around, people who made him want to return to Boone after a 30-year career in Washington, D.C. When he mentions a name that’s affixed to the Formica, he always has a detail about the former regular’s life. He remembers where the person worked and who his children are. Coffee Club members do more than break biscuits together; they bear witness to each others’ lives.
“When I was in D.C., people would say to me, ‘You’ll never move back to a small town,’” McGuire says. “I said, ‘Watch me.’” He takes a bite of his usual breakfast — half of a waffle smothered in syrup. “My mom had breakfast here every morning until she was in her 90s. … You wouldn’t think it by looking at what I’m eating, but I think having breakfast here is good for your health.”
Wade Wilmoth, a former town mayor who has shown up at Boone Drug faithfully each morning since the 1970s, often says he learned more about what was going on in town at Boone Drug than in his board meetings. “There’s something about Boone,” he says. “I’ve traveled all over the state, and no matter where I go, people know about it. They like visiting the Mast General Store, or they went to school here. Just mentioning it makes people smile. Boone’s magic.”
As the Coffee Club members begin to recall all the changes they’ve seen through the soda fountain’s plate-glass windows, they eventually spiral down to a favorite discussion — bemoaning the parking situation. At this, Wilmoth puts up a hand. “The worst problem a town can have is no parking problem,” he says. Boone is a town overwhelmed with visitors. It has approximately 15,000 residents, not counting tourists and the students that fill Appalachian State University every fall, and everyone seems to crave time downtown.
It’s getting late in the morning when Wilmoth looks around and spots a table of people whom he doesn’t recognize. They look like they’re biding time. “I wonder where those people are from,” he says.
Tony Isaacs, another regular, says, “You’d go ask ’em, wouldn’t you?” He shakes his head, gestures toward Wilmoth, and teases, “That’s Wilmoth, Will M-O-U-T-H.”
Wilmoth playfully shrugs. “The other day, I went over to a table, and two of them were from Florida and two were from Ohio,” the former mayor says. “I think people like meeting locals when they’re here. If you show interest, they’ll tell you about their town, too.” Finally, Wilmoth can’t contain his curiosity. He leans in and says, “Excuse me. Where are you from?”
One of the women in the group replies, “Fort Mill, South Carolina.”
Wilmoth smiles. “Well, welcome to Boone. We’re glad to have you!” And, just like that, the Coffee Club temporarily gains a few extra members.
Boone is a difficult town to leave. For many years, that was more literal, due to two-lane mountain roads. But even with the widening of area highways, it’s still true in an emotional sense. There is a term locals use to describe it: Boonerang. If you leave, you’re probably going to come back or, at least, you’ll long to.
Ged Moody, director of sustainability at ASU, hasn’t been through a Boonerang cycle himself. When he moved to Boone to attend graduate school a few years ago, he intended to put his knowledge to use elsewhere. But, when it was time, he couldn’t bear the thought of moving away. This is another pattern in the picturesque mountain town. ASU graduates many students, but a good number of them never leave.
When Moody, an energetic man with shocking white hair and clear blue eyes, tells his neighbors what he does for a living, they often bring up the wind turbine. Erected in 2009 next to ASU’s Broyhill Inn & Appalachian Conference Center, the 153-foot tall machine stands watch over Boone — which, at 3,300 feet, is the highest town of its size east of the Mississippi — and creates enough electricity to power 10 to 15 households per year. The turbine, the largest of its kind in the state, came to be because of ASU’s Renewable Energy Initiative (REI).
The turbine’s clean lines and compact structure are a far cry from the windmill that once stood on the peak of Howard’s Knob, just above town. That 10-story structure, built in 1979 and managed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was the largest windmill in the world. It brought the town a great deal of national press before being dismantled in 1983. Its noise was notorious, and its large, metal blades were substantial enough to disrupt radio frequencies. In many people’s minds, it was a failure, but Moody says it was a successful experiment because it taught researchers what didn’t work. The new, smaller turbine is also there as a teaching tool. “This is also a research piece of equipment,” Moody says. “It’s not here to make money. It’s not here to solve ASU’s or Boone’s energy needs. It’s to help our students learn.”
The Town of Boone and ASU — which rub up against each other with downtown real estate — often inspire each other in innovative, sustainable ways. Boone, incorporated in 1872, was named after pioneer Daniel Boone, who supposedly camped on a site near what is now the ASU Duck Pond. The town has long attracted adventurers willing to push boundaries and explore the unknown — and much of modern exploration takes place in the form of research. “We’re asking questions; that’s how we learn,” Moody says. “Go into Espresso News [another local shop with an unofficial Coffee Club] on any morning and you’ll find a group of professors hanging out. You can engage with them if you want. That intellectual conversation is there. Some of us participate in it directly, but as residents of Boone, we all participate in it indirectly. It shapes our community.”
A walking town
Officer Mike Foley, Boone’s downtown beat cop, walks roughly five miles a day on patrol. That’s 25 miles a week, 100 miles a month, 1,200 miles a year. In the span of an hour, Foley is everywhere. He’s in downtown Boone’s alleyways. He’s snaking through secret passageways between handmade-brick buildings. He’s in the basement of Doe Ridge Pottery, walking through the showroom and into the studio as if he owns the place. And he knows things. He knows where there was a leaky pipe that led to historic photos being lost. He can tell you where, in his opinion, you can find the best chili in downtown Boone (Trolly Stop) and who is kind enough to fill his ever-present coffee mug with premium java when he’s running low (The BeadBox). And, speaking of which, it’s time for a refill.
The BeadBox is a make-your-own jewelry store filled with semiprecious stones, wild amulets, and blown-glass charms. It’s a colorful, cheerful place that is also home to Grateful Grounds, the in-store coffee shop Foley heads to as soon as he enters.
After filling his cup and slipping a tip into the barista’s jar, he stops to say hello to the establishment’s owner, Nikki Burris. Burris moved to Boone from Chicago. When she called her cousin to tell her where she was headed, she heard a gasp: “She said, ‘Nikki! Boone is my husband’s nickname for me!’” Burris remembers. As it turns out, her cousin married a serious road biker who had, for years, been told that Boone was the best place in the country to bike.
Boone has quite a reputation among road bikers, partly because of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s affinity for the town. In his book, It’s Not About the Bike, Armstrong wrote, “Boone began to feel like the Holy Land to me, a place I had come to on a pilgrimage.”
Foley prefers to walk. Back on the street, fully caffeinated, he heads for his office in the basement of Town Hall. “It’s kind of a big family downtown,” he says. “It’s really a neighborhood. People walk rather than drive. That’s one thing about cars. I think they alienate us from one another.”
Heavy traffic and hard-to-find parking might actually be promoting the town’s gracious qualities because, according to Foley, walking leads to talking. So, when in Boone, do as the Boonians do: Find a place to park, no matter how far from your final destination, and use your own, sustainable locomotion. Chances are, before long, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a good, old-fashioned conversation in this thoroughly contemporary town.
Boone Drug Fountain and Grill
617 West King Street
Boone, N.C. 28607
The BeadBox — Grateful Grounds
585 West King Street
Boone, N.C. 28607
Leigh Ann Henion is a freelance writer based in Boone. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post and Oxford American.