I meet my father on a rainy Monday morning at our regular spot inside the Windy City Grill off N.C. Highway 127. Homer Eckard owned the grill after World War II, and although he’s gone and generations have passed, most people in Hickory still just call it Homer’s.
Dad and I have been eating BLTs and barbecue sandwiches at this counter for more than two decades now, plus another decade before that at the previous location, a flat-roofed shack a quarter-mile away that got bulldozed to make way for an Ace Hardware.
In all that time, so much about Homer’s has held steady. Pepsi signs and high school athletic calendars still dot the walls. Livermush, pimento cheese, and fried bologna sandwiches still come wrapped in wax paper.
Larry Baker still shows up for work before dawn. He still knows nearly everyone by name, still hands out candy and bubble gum from an old, wooden tray.
The guy behind the grill in the white, paper, soda-jerk hat who keeps wandering out front to ask about people’s wives and parents and children? That’s Bo Starnes, who bought Homer’s after graduating from college in the 1970s and has run it ever since.
The parade of regulars is a snapshot of Hickory itself — cardiologists and college students, farmers and furniture makers. Police officers and preachers and plumbers. High school football coaches. The occasional NASCAR legend.
We keep coming back to Homer’s, all of us, in part because the world inside these doors seems never to change.
Outside is a different story. My hometown in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, full of history and sturdy people, has seen its share of struggles in recent years. As Bo Starnes himself will tell you, it’s a city in transition, from what it once was to whatever it’s going to become.
Hickory is a place of miracles.
There’s the sort for which they erect monuments, like the statue downtown commemorating an event from 1944.
That June, near the height of WWII, citizens here constructed an emergency hospital in the span of 54 hours to treat victims of a polio outbreak ravaging the region. In barely two days, residents built patient wards and installed electricity and running water. They trucked in beds, cribs, and medical equipment. Doctors and nurses flocked to Hickory. Local churches and businesses donated money and supplies. People worked countless volunteer hours, and the hospital treated hundreds of patients and was featured in Life magazine.
That episode, known as the “Miracle of Hickory,” offers a glimpse of the quiet determination that has long defined people here, many of whom descended from hardworking German, Scottish, English, and Irish immigrants who first settled the Catawba Valley hundreds of years ago.
But perhaps the bigger miracle, the one that made this corner of North Carolina famous and created a century of prosperity, was the miracle of manufacturing.
In Hickory, people have always used their hands to build things that last, whether at the Piedmont Wagon Company, which churned out 1,000 wagons a month at its peak in the late 1800s; or at the textile mills that dotted the landscape and sent hosiery and other fabrics across the country; or at the Southern Desk Company that stocked schools from Orlando to Ontario; or in one of the legendary furniture factories that filled millions of homes with sofas, chairs, and tables designed to endure a lifetime.
My great-grandparents and my grandparents, my parents and aunts and uncles, even a cousin or two played a part in the miracle. They carved and painted furniture, cut fabric for gloves, sewed countless neck braces. They sent their work out into the world, and the world knew Hickory’s name. Its reputation was always bigger than the place itself.
Mayor Rudy Wright remembers stopping for breakfast at a diner in Utah several years ago. The waitress asked him where he was from. “I said, ‘Hickory, N.C.,’” he recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, furniture!’”
As in many other towns, manufacturing helped Hickory flourish for generations. It attracted new families to a place with good jobs and good schools, a big lake and four mild seasons. It brought customers into my father’s retail golf shop near downtown. It provided clients for my mother’s advertising business. It gave the city its swagger.
As recently as the 1990s, Hickory was booming.
“We had furniture, textiles; we had fiber-optic cable [manufacturing],” Mayor Wright says. “We had an unemployment rate down around 3 percent. We were on a tremendous roll.”
And then, we weren’t.
Hickory is a place in need of miracles.
Thousands of those manufacturing jobs have vanished over the past decade, disappeared by globalization and economic recession. Plenty of other places have suffered, of course, but almost nowhere else in the country has lost so many jobs to overseas companies.
The textile mills sit mostly silent now. The furniture factories that made Hickory a household name have dwindled. Even fiber-optic cable makers have been forced to lay off workers.
The unemployment rate grew to more than 15 percent in the region during the recent recession and has hovered around double digits for years. “We had a terribly difficult decade,” Mayor Wright says. “An awful lot of people are having to make do with less.”
The loss has touched nearly everyone in one way or another.
During my recent visit home, a headline in The Charlotte Observer reads: “Hickory struggles to keep youth from moving.” The story says that the region lost 20 percent of people ages 20 to 34 in the span of a decade.
The next morning, a front-page Hickory Daily Record story has a familiar first line: “The economic recession has claimed another home-grown business.” A building-supply company is closing after more than 65 years.
Some former upholsterers and sewers now work for lower wages at big-box stores and call centers, if they can find work at all. The spot that housed my father’s golf store, a business he built from scratch and sustained for decades, now sits empty by the railroad tracks. My mother’s advertising firm, which helped put two kids through college, lost the furniture-company accounts that paid so many bills.
Even Homer’s, where nothing ever changes, has changed.
“Our bottom line is way down,” Bo Starnes tells me. “We operate with less staff, more part-time people. … The profit margins are less than they were 30 years ago.”
The hard times have stolen some of this town’s collective confidence and sapped some of its spirit. To a community that staked its reputation and livelihood on craftsmanship and quality, it too often seems like the rest of the world stopped valuing those virtues.
That’s why it’s good to have people like Melinda Herzog. She moved to town years ago to work as the executive director of the Catawba County Historical Association, and here’s her belief: This too shall pass.
“It’s been reinvented many times, and it will be reinvented again,” she says of Hickory, noting its past ups and downs and long entrepreneurial history. “Despite what’s happened, there’s still a vibrancy here. … The people here are amazing. They have a drive to succeed again.”
I remember her words one morning at home when I head out for a run and stumble upon a manhole cover with the seal of Hickory and its Latin inscription: “Vestigia nulla retrorsum.”
No steps backward.
Hickory is hard at work on the next miracle.
Not long ago, city leaders traveled to a handful of other towns, from Roanoke, Virginia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to study how they had remade themselves after fundamental shifts in their economies. Hickory hopes to do the same in coming years through a mixture of economic development and investment in public spaces. The city even has a new branding campaign inspired by its past: “Life. Well Crafted.”
Mayor Wright acknowledges there’s no “home run” in sight as far as new jobs are concerned, but he remains optimistic. “There’s a tremendous pride of place here,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of things going for us. Good things are happening.”
One good thing is happening in a long-forgotten textile mill a block from the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University. Last year, investors bought the sprawling Hollar Hosiery Mill and began returning it to its former glory. Its massive lattice windows have come back to life; its wood floors have begun to gleam again.
Soon it will be home to the Skull Coast Brewing Co., a 30-barrel craft-beer manufacturer currently based in South Carolina. The mill has additional room for a restaurant, event space, and retail shops.
“You can take these buildings and restore them and make them beautiful and make them productive again,” Skull Coast owner Dave Fox says. “We wanted to be a part of … bringing something back to the town.”
A mile away, the owners of Olde Hickory Brewery are restoring the inside of the city’s historic train station, with plans to open a restaurant inside. Nearby in Union Square, home to festivals and farmers markets throughout the year, new shops have opened.
“We looked at a couple other towns, but we just didn’t get the feeling we had in Hickory,” says Mona Rossero, who along with her husband retired from New York to the area and in 2010 opened The Crushed Olive, a popular store that sells olive oils and vinegars.
Hickory also has maintained its widely praised symphony orchestra, choral society, and community theater, as well as its modern library, arts museum, and science center. “It’s a remarkable community to have sustained these things during a difficult time,” Herzog says. “You’d think you have to go to a major city to have what you have here.”
John Coffey, a Juilliard-trained pianist and conductor, returned in 2011 after a decade in New York City. “We’ve been blessed,” with everything from actors to musicians to potters, he says. “There’s just a long history of people promoting the arts here.”
Julia Rush, a longtime resident and a well-known potter and jeweler, says the arts community has flourished in recent years: “It’s incredible how much talent there is here.”
Even the manufacturing industry, wounded as it is, remains a major source for Hickory’s economy and for its identity. Much of the world’s fiber-optic cable still comes from the area. Hickory Springs still makes springs, foam, and other components for bedding and furniture around the world. Sherrill Furniture has been going strong since 1944 and estimates that 75 pairs of hands help produce each piece it makes. Hickory Chair recently turned 100, and although it’s now part of a Missouri-based company, its Hickory-based employees still turn out high-end furniture that is everything Ikea isn’t.
“These are skilled people that choose this as their vocation in life,” company president Jay Reardon says of the “loving hands” on the factory floor. “They are making something that they are proud of. It’s built to last.”
My visit almost over, I take a long drive around Hickory, past the Lutheran churches of my childhood, past the graves of my great-grandparents off Springs Road. I circle out to U.S. Highway 70, past the speedway where NASCAR legends have cut their teeth, past the community college training a new generation of workers, past the weathered furniture factories and textile mills. I wander through the leafy campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University and meander along the downtown storefronts off Union Square.
Thomas Wolfe, of course, famously wrote that you can’t go home again, at least not to the home you once knew. But he also wrote that home never leaves you, particularly if it lies in these hills of western North Carolina:
“He remembered how many times he had thought of home with such an intensity of passion that he could close his eyes and see the scheme of every street, and every house upon each street, and the faces of the people, as well as recall the countless things that they had said and the densely-woven fabric of all their histories.”
I steer into the parking lot at Homer’s and slide onto a stool at the counter. The breakfast crowd is clearing out. The lunch crowd hasn’t arrived. Bo Starnes is there in his white, paper hat, friendly as always.
Like me, he loves this town. Like me, he has faith that bright days lie ahead for Hickory, if only for one simple reason: “The people,” he says, “persevere.”
5 things not to miss in Hickory
Hickory Motor Speedway
This storied track has been a cradle for future NASCAR stars for more than 60 years. The likes of Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, and generations of Jarretts and Earnhardts have left their marks on the .363-mile oval off U.S. Highway 70. Season runs March through October.
3130 U.S. Highway 70 SE, Newton. (828) 464-3655. hickorymotorspeedway.com.
Hickory Furniture Mart
An estimated 500,000 visitors from the United States and other countries flock annually to this sprawling complex of factory outlets, custom showrooms, and private galleries. Find furniture of any style for any room in the house. Just make sure to bring your walking shoes.
2220 U.S. Highway 70 SE. (800) 462-6278. hickoryfurniture.com.
Baseball’s roots are deep in Catawba County, dating back to the competition between mill teams around the turn of the century. Since 1993, the Class A Crawdads have been a mainstay each April through September. And L.P. Frans Stadium still puts on the best Fourth of July fireworks show in town. 2500 Clement Boulevard NW. (828) 322-3000.
The city’s doorstep is home to a collection of shops, restaurants, and pubs. A farmers market runs two days a week, April through November, and the brick-paved square hosts events throughout the year, from a craft-beer festival in spring to Oktoberfest in autumn.
Corner of Main Avenue NW and 2nd Street NW. downtownhickory.com.
Catawba Science Center/Hickory Museum of Art
Housed in the city’s cultural arts complex near downtown, the first-rate science center and art museum offer a wealth of exhibitions, educational programs for adults and children, and a planetarium and aquarium. 243 3rd Avenue NE. (828) 322-8169. catawbascience.org.
(828) 327-8576. hickorymuseumofart.org.