Crys Armbrust eloquently describes the Village of Tryon. Rich history and interesting residents the mountain town unique.
My earliest memory of Tryon occurred in 1973 when my family arrived to spend what would be the first of many summer-long stays. As we crossed the Trade Street railroad track marking the downtown entrance, the air hung heavy with the scent of heirloom roses from the bank adjacent to McCown Street. In an instant, my heretofore apprehensive siblings and I understood why our parents had chosen Tryon. We had landed in paradise.
The Village of Tryon lingers in the popular imagination for myriad reasons — its musical heritage, its artisan crafts, and its natural landscapes. Steeped in the legend and lore of the Appalachian region in western North Carolina, this gem of the Blue Ridge Mountains claims large boasting rights.
Tryon is the birthplace of Nina Simone and the site of the Tryon Toy Makers and Wood Carvers Museum, which has fabled toys that captured global attention. Tryon has been the playground of such notable figures as Jazz Agers Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald; first ladies, Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt; and actors William Gillette and Lefty Flynn.
Tryon is also the starting point of the famed Saluda Grade, the steepest standard-gauge rail in America, which parallels, along U.S. Highway176, North Carolina’s Pacolet River Scenic Byway.
Since the 1870s, Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern) has been a vibrant economic presence in western North Carolina, contributing significantly to the local communities along its range from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cincinnati, Ohio.
A train has not run the steep grade between Tryon and Saluda for more than a decade now. However, the mournful, minor-key call of the famed Carolina Special’s three-step trumpet whistle can yet be heard around town, with a little coaxing of one of the town’s iconic citizens, Jim Cowan, owner of Cowan’s Hardware.
Stepping into Cowan’s is like stepping back in time. A family-owned business dating back to the 1930s, Cowan’s motto says it all: Where shopping is always a pleasure. Its polished wood floors; Art Deco tin ceiling; and neatly lined displays of hardware, general mercantile, and sundries affect visitors and locals alike with tinges of nostalgia and remembrance.
For Tryonites, Cowan’s is a daily ritual. Whether one needs a single nail, a season of garden supplies, or even only to borrow a hammer, everyone is greeted with the same affable, Southern charm and hospitality.
Slow-paced ceiling fans suggest the leisured pace of business, and Jim Cowan’s easy smile and speech belie his honed understanding of the fast-paced, modern world.
Jim freely offers snippets of local lore and mirth. His now well-practiced train whistle, which he perfected during the Korean War, is most anticipated. Relax, close your eyes, and your imagination will do the rest, transporting you back to a time when railroads ruled.
Crys Armbrust has been a full-time Tryon, N.C. resident since 2003. He holds a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina, where he subsequently taught and served as founding Assistant Principal of USC’s Preston (Residential) College. Collaterally, Armbrust has broad music interests with performance credits from Carnegie Hall to Canterbury Cathedral. He presently works as Tourism and Business Development Coordinator for the Town of Tryon and as Founder & Executive Director of the Nina Simone Project.