History has a way of repeating itself. For almost as long as there’s been a Saluda, North Carolina there’s also been a Thompson running a store on its Main Street. Records indicate that George Lafatte Thompson first became involved in the mercantile business as early as 1890. Lola Thompson Ward grew up working in her daddy’s business in the early 1900′s. Around 1940, she and her husband, Roy, along with sons Jack and Charlie, relocated the Thompson’s Store business to the current location. Then in the late 1950′s Roy and eldest son, Jack, convinced Lola to add the Grill. Famed for fresh cut meats, homemade sausage and hometown hospitality, Thompson’s Store and Ward’s Grill delivered everything from heating oil to chili cheeseburgers. Service included putting the customer’s milk right into the refrigerator and feeding the cat on the way out.
The store was “Information Central” for generations. Folks called the rotary phone to find out everything from the weight of new babies to the funeral arrangements of old timers. Miss Lola was the very heart of it all, stationed on her stool up front by the cash register, well into her 90′s. After she passed away at the age of 103, her son Charlie retired to spend time with his grandchildren. Charlie died a year later and with him the era of having a Thompson proprietor on Main Street. Main Street seemed to have died as well. But tradition as old as a town itself is mighty hard to give up.
That’s why Charlie’s widow, Judy Ward, along with his cousin, Clark Thompson, have partnered to keep Thompson’s Store and Ward’s Grill open and ready for business. The store and grill have seen numerous renovations and expansions over the last few years, including a complete refurbishment of the 2nd floor, which is now available for rent for the hosting of parties, art shows, reunions, and other such gatherings. It is the hope of Clark and Judy that Thompson’s Store and Ward’s Grill will remain the beating heart of downtown Saluda for many more decades to come!
More Fun Facts
|Charlie & Judy Ward alongside the store’s signature butcher block. No telling how many thousands of pounds of sausage was mixed on it, nor ribeyes and chickens cut on it through the decades. It originated with the Baumberger family, and is believed to have come over from Switzerland with an ancestor in the meat profession in the late 1800s. When Charlie sold the store there was a special clause he included in the contract to insure that the block would be returned to that family even though it had been a fixture at Thompson’s since the 1940s. That’s why the historic block is no longer in the market.|
|Jack Ward was raised along with his younger brother Charlie working in the store. He passed away at the age of 67, in 1994. This photo finds Jack without his trademark bowtie. That was the only way some folks could tell the boys apart. Jack always wore khaki pants, a crisp white shirt, and a bowtie of the day. You’d also likely see him with a feather duster in his back pocket or an Esso/Exxon cap on his head as he was off to deliver home heating oil with his son, Roger.|
|Cousin Clark Thompson, shown here as a child with his favorite milk cow. Clark worked in Thompson’s Store as a teenager, taking phone orders, delivering groceries to customer homes, chasing down the mail trains to deliver and receive bags of mail, and making sure Lola never caught him in the store without a feather duster in hand. Clark & Judy are now owners of the newly renovated store and grill.|
|Charlie Ward at the front of the store. There are a lot of photos of family members on phone it seems. That’s because the store was Information Central for decades. If you wanted to know it, you called the store. If you just had to tell it, you called the store. And if you needed to make a call from the store, all you had to do was ask. No phone booth was needed in Saluda for local callers…ever.|
|You’ll also see this classic photo on display in the market at the store. It’s Jack and Charlie sometime in the 1940s. The butcher block looks a little less worn from use than in later photos. The meat market floor was always sawdust. This unique feature was “grandfathered” in by Health Inspectors for years and years; however, when the store sold, like many other mandated updates, the saw dust had to go.|
The Railroad and Saluda, NC
The small mountain town of Saluda, North Carolina (historically known as the “Gem of the Blue Ridge Mountains”) literally owes its existence to the railroad. Since the 1870’s, railroad pioneers had been tirelessly seeking a suitable rail passage over the mountains from the lower elevations of the two Carolinas. The first range of the Blue Ridge Mountains presented a formidable barrier to a route into Asheville and points west and north.
Captain Charles W. Pearson, late of the Civil War, was hired to survey a feasible route up the daunting climb to the top of the mountain. Construction began in 1877 and the first train successfully negotiated the nation’s steepest commercial incline on July 4, 1878, resulting in a huge celebration. However, the mountain was fraught with disastrous train wrecks. By 1893, a total of 29 men had lost their lives on this short but extremely deadly run. Accidents continued, with further loss of life, even after the more powerful diesel locomotives assumed command of the mountain in the early 1960’s.
Earlier visitors, mostly South Carolinians, found the cool breezes of Saluda’s summers extremely inviting. Many of these affluent families built summer homes here and took long vacations from the more stifling heat of the lowlands. Today a number of their descendents can still be found in the Saluda community.
One of the most famous passenger trains was known as the “Carolina Special”, running daily from Charleston through Asheville and onward to Cincinnati. To the credit of highly skilled trainmen, there was never an injury to any passenger.
Today, Saluda is the only town in western North Carolina listed on the National Register of Historic Places, due largely to its numerous original structures. We hope you will come and visit our very quaint little town and learn more about its fascinating history!