Just north of Charlotte, the highway interchange is all grime and gas fumes. Anxious traffic weaves across five lanes lined with tankers and tractor-trailers. In the distance, cranes put the finishing touches on the latest apartment tower uptown. The buildings cast shadows like mountains with floor-to-ceiling windows.
It’s an odd place to start looking for North Carolina’s past. On the left side of the road, a sign announces construction on the Charlotte Curling Center. Yes, that kind of curling, on the ice, with brooms. Up ahead, Chuck’s Grill advertises Southern home cooking.
This road — N.C. Highway 115 — is a hodgepodge of tradition and innovation, a blend of the old North Carolina and the new. It runs 72 miles from end to end, starting in our state’s largest city, winding through some of our most rural countryside before ending at the foot of the great Blue Ridge in North Wilkesboro. This isn’t the fastest way to the mountains, not by a long shot. But that’s not the point. Along the winding way, the highway becomes Main Street in six towns and cities — some the fastest-growing in the state, and others whose heyday came years ago.
The path N.C. 115 follows out of Charlotte has remained more or less the same since 1861, when workers for the Atlantic, Tennessee and Ohio Railroad Company laid tracks through the cotton and cornfields. Despite that railroad’s ambitious name, the tracks only ever made it to Statesville before the Confederate government tore them up for more strategic routes. When the company rebuilt in 1871, the tracks paralleled a well-worn wagon trail. Towns with names like Croft and Derita, Cornelius and Davidson grew around the new depots. Some remain, and some are long forgotten.
One of those long-forgotten places is Croft, swallowed up now by Charlotte’s suburban expansion. All that’s left is a rusting green sign on the railroad tracks and the Davis General Store. With its sagging barn and faded Coca-Cola ads, the general store oozes Americana. Television and film crews that now scout the area thought so, too. The building appears as a backdrop in the show “Banshee” and a few others.
Step onto the wooden porch, though, and you couldn’t be any farther from Hollywood. Silas Davis and Jim Carpenter sit in rocking chairs outside. Davis is the third-generation proprietor of the 1908 general store. He specializes in gardening supplies and equipment and “anything that nobody else has,” like ink pens shaped like bullets and signs with homespun philosophy. One tacked to the crowded wall reads “It’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than ridiculously boring.”
Davis is anything but boring. The real specialty here is talk. To customers who wander in, Davis offers tips for warding off crows in a peanut garden: “Put your baseball cap on top of the lawnmower’s gear shift.” As a freight train rolls by outside, he gives a quick history lesson on how, as a kid, he saw the last steam engines running through here.
“Dang, Silas,” Carpenter says. “Didn’t know you were that old.”
You could spend a whole day at Davis General Store, and some people do, digging through the bins of seeds and canned vegetables. Upstairs, racks of overalls, work clothes, and boots crowd the creaky wooden floors. A side room stocks rakes and shovels of all sizes. There’re more miles of road to cover, though.
“We’re on Facebook and Instagram and all that,” Davis says, reaching for a business card.
Of course he is.
Back on the road now, past Walmart and the Lexus dealership and up through Huntersville, the two lanes fill with boat trailers. It’s the first sign of the great lake, Lake Norman, the so-called “inland sea” that reshaped this area 50 years ago. When Duke Power flooded farmland and forests to create Lake Norman, N.C. Highway 115 was on high enough ground to avoid drowning. And though a handful of boat dealerships and tackle shops appear at the roadside, it’s still possible to imagine these main streets as they were a half-century ago. “Those lake people,” as the locals occasionally call them, stay closer to the shore a few miles west, sparing these older parts of town from the sprawl of high-end subdivisions and strip malls.
Farther up the road in Cornelius, a plaque outside of a row of shops jokes: “On this spot in 1897, nothing happened.” Turn left onto Catawba Avenue, and the road greets you with a row of new townhomes with more shops underneath. Outside one shop, a cartoon woman with curly brown hair holds a steaming mug of coffee. Inside, Gabi Alberdi shuffles behind the counter, espresso machine whirring.
After years in Mexico, Argentina, and California, Gabi made her way to Cornelius and opened up shop. It was a lifelong dream to run a bakery, and she’s done brisk business selling coffee and pastries and empanadas to the locals for eight years now.
Her regulars like the place so much, they built their own table in the center of the shop so everyone could sit around and talk. Frank Gilroy sits at the table, flipping through a newspaper. He drives past a Starbucks and a busy interstate overpass just to get here every morning.
“It’s just a friendly neighborhood place,” he says in a thick New York accent.
At first, Gabi says, she had trouble adjusting to the slower pace in North Carolina. She remembers tapping her toes in impatience as folks chatted at the front of a grocery store line. But as the months wore on, something changed. Now, she’s so popular that regulars line up even before she opens at 6:30 a.m.
“I have to work in the dark, and they still knock on the door,” Gabi says.
Under the railroad bridge near Davidson College, a dozen or so spandex-clad bicyclists strain to push their pedals uphill. The drivers are patient. Traffic moves slowly here on Saturday mornings. The local farmers market sprawls across a parking lot and the town hall grounds. Shoppers carrying lattes and pushing baby strollers coo over the vendors’ tents full of everything from fresh fruit to organic soaps.
Closer to Mooresville, warehouses line the railroad and hint at the area’s industrial past. Mooresville grew up around the mills, but none are running today. A furniture market fills one; others stand empty. In the three-block stretch of downtown, old hardware stores and antiques shops sidle up next to wine shops and yoga studios. An art gallery fills the restored train depot. The road weaves on, through tiny Troutman, where the train tracks that once split the town have been replaced with a tree-lined trail. This morning, it’s filled with joggers and dog walkers.
A string of shopping centers and interchanges guide drivers into downtown Statesville. There, the Romanesque city hall cuts a striking figure on the city’s main block, its color a rich dark red, like the clay that defines this region. For years, the building sat empty as downtown shop owners chased customers to the quicker roads toward the interstate. But in the past few years, the city invested in renewing the iconic building, and now it’s active once again. The streets around are active, too, with freshly broadened sidewalks and new cafés.
Moving on now, past the Victorian homes in the north end of Statesville and into the country, the road curves west and rises. Cows graze in rolling fields. Local election signs urge passersby to vote for a man named “Duck.”
Up the road, kudzu and bramble bushes have halfway reclaimed the concrete blocks of an old filling station.
The buildings here are simple. A small white church built into the hillside. Wooden farmhouses with tin roofs. There’s no need for ornament; the landscape provides decoration. In summer, deep, lush greens leap across the hills and into the blue haze of the horizon. In fall, a brush of burnt oranges and yellows highlights the frail beauty of aging oak leaves.
To the left, a few turns and three miles will take you to Love Valley, built as an Old West town. Horses clop along a gravel main street lined with wooden boardwalks. Trailers fill the nearby campgrounds. Charlotte real estate developer Andy Barker built this place in the 1950s. He’d always dreamed of being a cowboy. The town of less than 100 drew controversy in 1970, when biker gangs and psychedelic rock groups converged on the area for the Love Valley Rock Festival, remembered now as North Carolina’s Woodstock. It’s all a little hard to imagine on this early morning, though. The streets are empty and a lone rider gallops into the woods on a distant trail.
This stretch of 115 was one of the last major areas in North Carolina to get paved roads. As late as 1940, this key connector from Statesville to Wilkesboro was asphalt-free. Back then, fast cars sagging under heavy loads of sugarhead or white lightning kicked up gravel en route to Statesville and Charlotte and beyond. That was when Wilkes County was known as the Moonshine Capital of the World.
“Anytime someone bought a bale of sugar, we knew what they were going to use it for,” says 87-year-old Jean Comer. “And it probably wasn’t cake.”
Jean sits in Comer’s General Store in Union Grove, just shy of the Wilkes/Iredell County line. She’s spent most of this early afternoon stringing beans at her home across the road. The store has deep roots in this community. C.L. “Commie” Comer moved the store from an old dirt road to its current location when the state opened N.C. Highway 115 back in 1935. The road was still gravel then, and customers would tie up their horses and mules on the hitching post beside parked Fords and Buicks.
Homer Prevette and wife, Alcy Comer Prevette, Jean’s daughter, reopened the shop just this spring, 22 years after it closed down the first time. That was after the interstate and big-box stores opened a few miles away. More and more people whizzed by on the road outside. Fewer and fewer pulled off to stop.
Homer felt the economic lure of the interstate highway, too. After a boyhood spent racing cars up and down 115 and the other winding roads of Wilkes and northern Iredell counties, he hit the open road as a truck driver. Later, he and Alcy spent decades running a truck stop at the intersection of I-40/Stamey Farm Road in Statesville.
The general store’s not quite like it was. They aren’t selling clothes now, and no one brings their blackberries by to trade for other goods. But the store already has a loafer, Homer jokes. He points to Joel Power, a sturdy, goateed man sitting next to the pool table, sipping Coca-Cola from a small glass bottle. And, Alcy says, they’re hoping the locals will start realizing they can get groceries here instead of driving 15 miles to the nearest store.
Backtrack a few miles from Comer’s and take a detour on Linney’s Mill Road. A tilling machine chugs along at 15 miles an hour. The driver waves as he pulls to the side to let the car pass. About four miles ahead, around a bend just past the Alexander County line, cars crowd the parking lot at Linney’s Water Mill. Inside the small shop, the floors are caked with meal. Outside, the double-breasted waterwheel rotates in Rocky Creek like it has since 1936.
NASCAR great Junior Johnson got his start up this way, Billy Linney says as he points out the stone grinder out back. Johnson used to buy a lot of cornmeal here, Linney says, “but it probably wasn’t for cornbread.”
Linney grinds about 2,500 pounds of grits and cornmeal a week on machinery powered entirely by water. What doesn’t get made into meal goes into big sacks for cattle feed. And the customers keep coming, from Hickory and Charlotte and Statesville. Some folks stick around for a while. There’re a couple dozen campsites out back and a swinging bridge over the creek.
“Grandfather Mountain’s got nothing on this place,” Linney says, laughing.
Back on 115 and into Wilkes County, the winding road rises past industrial parks and gas stations, then comes to an end. To the left, North Wilkesboro and the higher reaches of the Blue Ridge. To the right, it’s just a short trip to the North Wilkesboro Speedway, empty for almost two decades. The red Winston Cup Series sign still stands, paint peeling.
Back on the road toward Charlotte, traffic slows near downtown Mooresville. A black-and-white police car blocks the street ahead. A yellow sign reads: “Alert — simulated gunfire only. Filming in progress.” Crowds of people holding ice cream cones lean on fence posts and sit on the berm by the railroad tracks. Actors stand around beat-up trucks as a director shouts instructions from a crane above. A steady stream of people amble across the street to the Mooresville Ice Cream shop, established 1924. Inside, about 30 customers snake their way into a U-shaped line. Two actors — tall and broad and in full makeup — stumble into the shop and unknowingly cut in close to the door.
“Hey, fellas,” a man’s voice calls from somewhere in the crowd. “Line starts back here.”