Old but Not Forgotten: Jarvisburg’s C.A. Wright Store
There is a stretch of U.S. 158 in Currituck County that seems it will never end.
It is an expanse of highway that passes through places like Moyock and Coinjock and for many who travel it, their thoughts are only on their destination. The small towns leading to the Outer Banks are simply places to be driven through.
But those same small towns that dot the highway encompass an area rich in history, where generations farmed, fished, hunted and made lives for themselves. History was and is still passed down through word of mouth, from one generation to the next. And there’s one little store that has a story to be told.
If we take pause and listen, perhaps we will take efforts to preserve the tale of what was once, in fact, the “center of it all.”
Along U.S. 158, only about 15 miles or so from the Wright Memorial Bridge, is a sign that reads “Welcome to Jarvisburg.” It’s on a stretch where you will see from your car window mostly farmland and some homesteads. There are a few local businesses — Weeping Radish, The Cotton Gin, and Sanctuary Vineyards—which are very much alive and thriving.
But continue traveling southbound for just a few miles and on the right-hand side of the highway near Fishers Landing Road, you will come upon a white, one-story frame-and-weatherboard building with a front porch and canopy and two rusty gas pumps, one that reads “Esso,” the other “Esso Extra.”
Situated poignantly about 50 feet off the highway, the building is unoccupied, but the light fixtures still work; there is a meat scale, an empty cash register, cookie tins, some old irons and a sign for 25-cent bread. What looks like a cast iron meat grinder, a lantern, and a coal-burning stove still remain – all harkening back to a simpler time, when a general store and gas station were the gathering spot.
But yet, even as the decades pile up, stories continue to live within these walls and pine hardwood floors – stories that need to be told.
Though the doors of the C.A. Wright Store closed decades ago, memories of its heydays are very much alive and remembered by Virginia Caroline Wright. “My father built this store in 1930 to give a cousin of ours a job,” Wright explains.
Her father, Charles Austin Wright, originally built it as a “filling station,” Caroline recalls. “It had two gas tanks outside that you had to pump, and we had an oil tank outside where you received oil for your car…you’d put the oil in a jar and put it in your car that way.” That is, she adds, “If you were lucky enough to have a car!”
Mr. Wright was one of nine children and of no relation to Wilbur and Orville Wright. “I’m not sure if daddy built the place or some of his brothers helped out,” Caroline continued. Unfortunately, she said, her father’s cousin wasn’t successful running the service station—he ran up a bill of $2,000 and moved onto other things within a year.
“Daddy had to take the store and have it made bigger so he could put in groceries. We were a general merchandise store that carried everything from chicken feed to horse collars, to rope—everything that a farmer would need. …Mama worked in the store because daddy had to be out directing the farming.”
Caroline vividly remembers the long hours her mother put in at the store, sometimes leaving the house before Caroline woke up and closing down at 11 p.m. She carried a variety of food at the old store.
“She had every kind of vegetable and all kinds of cereal, 25 pound bags of flour – everything that you would have in a general store. We had a refrigerator there…one of the first [in the Currituck area]. We would keep Coca Cola on ice, and if you had any meat…we would keep the meat in there until somebody bought it.”
Most of the meat came from hunters and farmers who slaughtered livestock and game and brought it to the store to sell.
The store also carried “yard goods,” or what we know today as fabrics. “They were sold by people who came through the area, called ‘jobbers,’ meaning salesman. They would sell fabrics they had on their vehicles—whether it was a mule or whatever they were traveling in because everybody didn’t have a car. We didn’t even have paved highways.”
Caroline remembers thread cost 15 cents a spool and throughout her childhood she wore handmade clothes. “My daddy’s sisters were seamstresses and made all my dresses. It wasn’t until I was in the seventh grade that I had two dresses that were not homemade.” She, too, started sewing in fifth grade.
Caroline likens the C.A. Wright Store to Iike Godsey’s store in the long-running television show “The Waltons.”
“We had everything for feeding your chickens—everybody raised chickens. You didn’t go to a grocery store and buy a chicken all ready to put in the pot like you do today. You raised them,” she asserts. “The chicken feed bags were printed and some people would use them for making clothes.”
The store carried baby bottles, nipples and pabulum for babies; they carried soaps, cigars, and cigarettes. They had overalls and men’s shoes and heels and laces to put in the shoes. “My daddy used to wear something we called high-top shoes, which were laced up and came up to your knees. …One time when I was little, I went into the store and wanted to play, and I saw both his shoes were in there. So I stuck my foot in one of them and what do you think I found? At the bottom of that shoe was a family of tiny mice. I took my foot out in a hurry and never again did I stick my feet in daddy’s shoes.”
Lunchtime was a busy place at the C.A. Wright Store. “During the day, the farmers would come in with 25 cents to buy lunch—hot dogs, sliced bologna, a box of crackers—and cookies that were two for a penny.”
The store was not only a place to get gas at 25 cents a gallon, or lunch, or buy provisions, but it was the social gathering spot.
“Most of the men came to the store at night to talk about how many ducks or geese they shot that day or how many fish they caught,” Caroline reminisces. She remembers that the men conversed and played checkers, making an evening out of it. But mostly, Caroline remembers the oysters.
“Daddy would catch a bushel of oysters in the Currituck Sound and bring them in the store at night. They would open the oysters and eat them raw and throw the shells out in the yard for cars or trucks to make a gravelly-type driveway” in the sand since the road wasn’t paved.
Currituck County was called the “Sportsman’s Paradise” at that time because there was no law regulating how many Canadian Geese or ducks you could kill, according to Caroline. “To this day, I’m sleeping on a feather pillow which came from duck feathers or geese feathers from when the men went hunting.”
After working in the store for 50 years, Caroline’s mother could no longer manage it and closed the doors in 1982. Caroline was a full-time schoolteacher and couldn’t run it, but she still came to check on it on the weekends. Her mother died in 1985, and Caroline inherited the nostalgic store.
For several years, Caroline hosted a fall and spring party and invited anyone she had “ever known who had been at the store.” For old time’s sake, they snacked on what the men ate so many years ago. “We’d drink bottled Coca Cola, we had hoop cheese, like daddy always had. The men used to melt the cheese and when they came to eat oysters, they’d melt the cheese and dip [crackers] in the cheese.”
For her parties, Caroline opened the doors and served it up just like they did all those years ago. And on those evenings it was like the good ‘ole days with C.A. Wright and all the local men laughing and talking it up. Memories were relived of checker board games and oyster feasts, two-for-a-penny cookies, and tales of who caught what to eat. On those two nights each year, it was as if the place had never shut down. The laughter would rise and fall, bottle tops would pop, and dishes clink.
It was the sound of community coming together to have some fun.
According to the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, the C.A. Wright store has been determined “eligible” for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. If that were to be pursued, the store could become a protected historic site.
But for now, it is a building with two gas pumps and a history that is very much alive there on that stretch of U.S.158 that leads to the Outer Banks.♦
Donna Cedar-Southworth is a Northern Virginia-based writer who has been vacationing in the Outer Banks for 25 years. After a 20-year career in speechwriting and external affairs in Washington, D.C., she has been freelance writing; she specializes in articles about the visual arts and human interest stories. Her personal essays have been published in the Washington Post. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in English with a concentration in nonfiction writing.