Train Town

  • By Lori K. Tate
  • Photography by Joey and Jessica Seawell

Years after Spencer Shops closed, this little town in Rowan County still has a bright future in the railroad industry, thanks to a growing museum.


Years ago, when Larry Smith worked in land management for the town of Spencer, he knew what to expect when someone began renovating a house in the historic district. “You just waited for them to come in and say, ‘I tore the siding off, and it was just all black,’” Smith says. It was black because of soot, from the old railroad.

“We had smoke coming through all the time with the steam engines,” Smith says.

Smith is now the town manager of Spencer, a small town just north of Salisbury in Rowan County that got its beginnings because it was geographically lucky. About halfway between Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., an area that used to be farmland became Spencer when Southern Railway decided to build its largest steam locomotive-servicing facility there in 1896. The town incorporated in 1905 and is named after the first president of Southern Railway, Samuel Spencer, who was, coincidentally, killed in a train accident.

Although the facility known as Spencer Shops stopped repairing locomotives in 1960, it’s obvious that Spencer has no plans to end its love affair with trains. “[The railroad is] always going to be big, I think, even if our generation is not necessarily still involved with it,” Smith says. “Most people who have ties to Spencer are going to have ties to the railroad.”

Emil Sparger is one such person. A spry 84-year-old who once played minor league baseball for the Salisbury Pirates, Sparger retired from Duke Power (now Duke Energy) after 32 years. Before that, he worked for Southern Railway as a pipe-fitter helper and later as a yard fireman. His father, W.C. Sparger, worked for Southern Railway as an engineer for 49 years.

Emil Sparger remembers when Southern Railway used callboys and clerks before the company had telephones. The clerk would get the time for the train’s departure and then go tell the engineer and fireman.

“In the houses, he knew the rooms that the engineer slept in, and he would just go in and wake him up and tell him what time his train would be leaving,” Sparger says.

An avid collector, Sparger has a cabin in his backyard filled with whisky jars, arrowheads, and carefully preserved newspaper covers. He points out the Salisbury Post cover detailing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral train coming north by Spencer in 1945. Sparger remembers the train stopping in nearby Salisbury.

“Spencer was a humming place during World War II,” Sparger says. “There were trains going and coming all hours of the day and night.”

Although Spencer might not be humming as much as it was when nearly 3,000 people worked at Spencer Shops (the current population is a little more than that at 3,355), this town’s “little engine that could” mentality, combined with a big helping of down home friendliness, is sure to secure its spot on the map.

Downtown secrets

Downtown Spencer sits across the street from the North Carolina Transportation Museum and has old and newer establishments hinting at the town’s past and future. Railroad tracks run through the middle of town on a high bank of grass.

The Lunch Box (formerly Our Place Café) on Fifth Street is a hot place for lunch and also serves as the meeting place for the local Lions Club every third Tuesday night of the month. A giant, airbrushed train covers the wall behind the counter just to remind you that you are indeed in Spencer. While ’50s and ’60s music plays, locals and tourists feast on pimento cheese sandwiches, cheeseburgers, and milk shakes. For a true Rowan County experience, the meal must be completed with a Cheerwine or Diet Cheerwine shake. Cheerwine’s home, of course, is in nearby Salisbury.

Down the street is Bucky’s Produce, complete with a handwritten sign in the window that reads, “Bucky will sharpen your lawnmower blades.” Owned by the husband-and-wife team of William “Bucky” and Kathy Walters, Bucky’s is the town’s country store and has been in business for 21 years. “My husband retired and decided he wanted to start a produce market,” says Kathy, who is 79 and grew up on a Rowan County farm. “We’ve got a sign here that says, ‘Notice before shopping, Bucky has the highest prices in town.’ There’s a little catch about that. In order to have the highest prices, you’ve got to have high quality. We try to do that. We try to have the best, and we sell hoop cheese and all kinds of jam and jellies made by the Amish people. We sell relish — well there’s just so much stuff that we sell, just a regular country store.”

Some people refer to Kathy and Bucky as Mom and Pop. Bucky is 84 and still full of energy. He wears a railroad cap as he shuffles through the store taking care of everything from chopping collards to teaching folks how to select a good tomato. “I know enough about tomatoes,” he says. “I know what kind to get. We don’t buy no trash. Trash goes in the dumpster.”

Every first-time customer to Bucky’s Produce gets a free apple, and if you don’t take it, Bucky is liable to call the sheriff on you.

A newer spot on the Spencer scene is Green Goat Gallery. With hardwood floors and a pressed-tin ceiling, the gallery is located in the old Sands & Co. building, which served as the general store for the railroad.

Anne Waters bought the gallery four years ago and has filled it with fine, folk, and functional art. A favorite piece is a bench made out of license plates, by John Morehead, of Salisbury. Green Goat is part of Salisbury’s monthly gallery crawl that takes place every second Saturday afternoon.

“My plan has been to kind of radiate from the core — local artists, regional artists, and then national artists,” explains Waters, who operates Blue Ewe Yoga Studio in the back of the gallery. Although an art gallery and yoga studio may seem an outlandish endeavor for a railroad town, Waters says, “Spencer, I think, has got so much promise for businesses like mine. … It’s just a great kept secret.”

Museum unlike any other

Tip McCachren doesn’t have a personal connection to the railroad, but when the Salisbury resident retired from the United States Department of Agriculture, he began volunteering at the transportation museum. That was 17 years ago. He started working part-time at the 57-acre historic site five years ago.

“I just like trains,” McCachren says. “They’re big and noisy, and they do a lot of work.”

McCachren operates the museum’s 86-year-old turntable, which is partially surrounded by The Robert Julian Roundhouse, the largest original roundhouse still standing in the country. Powered by two electric motors, the 100-foot turntable was used to direct locomotives into the roundhouse for repairs.

Housed in the former Spencer Shops, the museum offers exhibits in four out of the site’s 18 buildings. The biggest part of the property was vacant from 1960 to 1977, when Southern Railway gave it to the state. The second part of the site was given to the state in 1979, and the museum officially opened the next year.

Fueled by a small permanent staff and a volunteer roster of 120 (some volunteers drive in from as far as Boone and Raleigh on a weekly basis), the museum offers visitors an intimate look at North Carolina’s transportation history. Here you can see a 1922 fire engine used in Lexington; an assortment of antique locomotives and railcars (including a gargantuan Seaboard Air Line No. 544 steam locomotive); and the Piedmonster, a restored 1950s flight simulator.

The museum became a Smithsonian Affiliate in 2002.

“We are also still doing preservation on rail equipment and automobiles and, of course, the Piedmont Airlines DC-3 is undergoing a major renovation,” says Elizabeth Smith, the museum’s executive director and an aviation enthusiast. “We’ve got so many wonderful projects that are taking place.”

One of those projects is the restoration of the back shop, a building three-and-a-half stories tall and as long as two football fields.

“The back shop was actually where they overhauled the steam engines,” explains Smith, who has worked at the museum since 1990. “They could bring them in, take them apart, overhaul the whole steam engine, and put it back together. That’s the reason it’s such a large building. Steam engines had to be serviced after every run, and they had to be inspected after a certain amount of time. Then after a certain number of running hours, they would have to be overhauled.”

Keeping the heritage

Almost anybody at the museum, or any Spencer resident for that matter, is ready to tell the story of Old 97. Buddy Gettys, who has lived here for 45 years and is the former mayor, loves history and occasionally writes about Spencer’s past for the Salisbury Post.

As he tells it, Joseph “Steve” Brody was the engineer of Old 97 and was making his first run on the train in September 1903. Brody was running behind and because he was carrying the mail, he began going faster to make up time. When he couldn’t handle the curve above Still House Trestle in Danville, Virginia, the train derailed, killing Brody and 10 others.

“Spencer people, the workers went up and pulled the engine out where it jumped off the trestle and went down in the creek bank,” Gettys says. “They repaired it. The train ran until the 1930s.”

When diesel fuel came along, though, and Spencer Shops closed down, Spencer’s population went from about 3,600 to 1,700.

“People moved to Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Spartanburg,” Gettys says. “It really devastated not only Spencer, but Rowan County. The museum is Spencer’s future.”

The museum attracts 100,000 visitors a year and has had some rather interesting guests, such as George Clooney. The actor/director was charmed by the facility when scouting sites for his film Leatherheads in 2007.

“[The scouting crew] liked the museum and the opportunities that we had for doing the train scenes, and we had so many different buildings that they could set up different station platform areas in the same facility, which is kind of what sold them on the idea,” says Smith, the executive director. The crew’s first visit went so nicely, they asked if they could come back and do an end shot. “They created a false facade of the football stadium and everything in our front yard and filmed it there,” Smith says.

Another popular visitor is Thomas the Tank Engine, who draws about 30,000 visitors when he comes to town for two weekends each year. Visitors come from all over North and South Carolina, as well as Virginia, just to see Thomas up close.

While that’s great exposure for the museum, it’s also great exposure for the town. Even when Thomas isn’t in Spencer, the museum and its 25-minute train ride through the property are magnets for children, parents, and grandparents.

“I think in some ways having the museum here has given the town an opportunity to show itself to people from outside just the local county,” Smith says. “I think the museum has helped people across the state recognize where the little town of Spencer is and more importantly that our heritage is the railroad. We’ve kept that heritage alive.”

Riding Along

The historian of the North Carolina Transportation Museum watches the museum grow from his office window.
By Walter R. Turner

Everything around Spencer is named for Samuel Spencer, and for good reason. When the first president of Southern Railway needed a maintenance and repair facility to keep steam locomotives running, he chose a farming site on the edge of Salisbury. The facility, opened in 1896, was called Spencer Shops, and the new town, where most of the railway’s workers and families lived, became Spencer.

Spencer Shops grew until diesel locomotives replaced steam locomotives, and the facility soon closed. Fortunately, Southern Railway gave the site and surviving buildings to the State of North Carolina in the late 1970s, so it could become the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

When the renovated roundhouse opened in 1996, it placed the museum on the national map of railroad-oriented museums. I arrived in 1998 and became the museum’s first historian. My first office was in the roundhouse. On my way to work, I’d walk past the huge locomotives, cabooses, and railcars as the sun streamed in the windows. It was fun to see and meet visitors, who were amazed to learn they were inside the largest preserved roundhouse in the nation. At the same time, I could hear the Norfolk Southern freight trains going down the historic main line past the museum.

A year ago, I moved to an office on the second floor of the main building, which also has a great view. To one side is the massive back shop, where our Piedmont Airlines DC-3 aircraft is being renovated. We have opened one end of the building so that visitors can access a platform to see antique vehicles close by. My view to the north includes the museum’s two water towers that become a temporary “station” for the popular Thomas the Tank Engine every fall. And nearby is one of my favorite pieces of scenery — the turn-of-the-century visitor’s center, where the on-site train waits to take off with passengers and show them this magical place built by Samuel Spencer.

Walter R. Turner is the author of Paving Tobacco Road, A Century of Progress by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Around the Roundhouse

Southern Railway #542
The makers of the 2008 movie Leatherheads, starring George Clooney and Renée Zellweger, used this 1903 locomotive and had it cosmetically restored and renumbered 604 for the film. The engine is currently being repainted and properly numbered to the 542 designation, and it will be displayed upon completion.

Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Caboose #1048
CC&O followed standard caboose plans in building this one in 1924. It operated until the 1960s, when steel cabooses replaced wooden cabooses. Now restored from the roof to the wheels, the 1048 is occasionally used as a caboose for trains around the North Carolina Transportation Museum property.

Norfolk Southern Caboose #387
This caboose was built from an old boxcar in 1937. The crew fashioned new sides and bay windows, so they could watch over the train while it moved. These types of cabooses were either red or gray, depending on the decade.

Seaboard Air Line #544
The American Locomotive Company built this locomotive in the early 1900s for the Russian State Railroad, but it never got delivered because of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It then became the property of the United States Railroad Administration, which began in 1917 to control the shipment of vital war supplies during World War I.


North Carolina Transportation Museum
411 South Salisbury Avenue
Spencer, N.C. 28159
(704) 636-2889

Green Goat Gallery & Blue Ewe Yoga Studio
516 South Salisbury Avenue
Spencer, N.C. 28159
(704) 639-0606

Bucky’s Produce
119 Fifth Street
Spencer, N.C. 28159

The Lunch Box
111 Fifth Street
Spencer, N.C. 28159
(704) 636-0036

Lori K. Tate is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Cornelius with her husband, John, and their one-year-old twins, Graydon and Margot.

This entry was posted in Central N.C., History, May 2011, Piedmont, Small Towns, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Train Town

  1. Lynda Rood says:

    I have been out to Spencer a couple times, when I would come out to visit my parents. My mom had lived close to the station growing up; her dad being an engineer there. I am searching for any information and pictures of my grandfather, Ernest Delbert Hinshaw. He died in January of1942. I don’t know much about him as my mom and her family never really talked about him. Mom passed away in 2008.
    I love being in Spencer, and hope to some day come out again.

  2. I have a photograph of a steam engine (#544) when it was used on the Carolina And Northwestern Railway.My Dad (John S. Reid) was a fireman at the time and he along with the Engineer (Fred Hardin) are on the engine. The picture was made at the railroad shop in Hickory,NC and I’m pretty sure it was in the 1940’s

  3. Jackie Taylor says:

    The NCTM is a place to visit over and over. Be sure to always ride the train!

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