New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee


What's in Store for the Old Store?

Conservationists want old Hollow Rock country store made into interpretive center for park

The Durham News, February 25, 2006
© 2006 by The News and Observer Publishing Company

by Jim Wise, Staff Writer

The old Hollow Rock Store sits up on blocks, shaded by a magnolia tree and a pair of stately oaks, in a southwest Durham back yard. For decades, it was a community focal point on Erwin Road between Durham and Chapel Hill. For about 20 years, it was a potter's studio. More recently, it's been a storage shed.

In two, three or five more years, it may be a community focal point again—for the New Hope Preserve park planned along the Hollow Rock section of New Hope Creek.

“I think it's a great idea,” said Jan Gregg, potter and the building's owner since 1973. “It looks quite disreputable, but it's actually in good shape.”

The building is a classic, old-time country store: one room, about 14-by-20 feet, with an overhang shading an area almost the same size out front. Under the overhang, bare lightbulbs rest in ceramic fixtures on the beaded ceiling. Inside, the original shelves could almost be still in business: laden with lightbulbs, tools, boxes, even a green-and-white Quaker State oil can.

The floor is heart pine, the door is made of planks 2 inches thick and heavy wooden shutters protect the two front windows. The tin roof still keeps out the rain and the old counter still stands, just to the left as you go inside, where it once held bread, Beanie Weenies and penny candy.

“You can see how worn it is,” Gregg said.

Worn, but still substantial, like the building itself—at least that is the consensus of those who would like to see the store moved back near Erwin Road and preserved as an interpretive center for the proposed park. The park is to occupy approximately 90 to 100 acres along the Orange-Durham county line. The area was saved from subdivision in 2004 by neighborhood mobilization and the joint involvement of Durham and Orange counties, the City of Durham and the Town of Chapel Hill.

Wendy Jacobs, a leader in the Erwin Area Neighborhood Group, said using the old store “is just an idea at this stage,” but an exciting one.

“There's just so many possibilities for the new life it could have,” she said. “Have it be a focal point for not just the rich natural resources at Hollow Rock, but the history and the culture there, too.”

The Hollow Rock area takes its name from a geological formation on New Hope Creek, near the Erwin Road crossing. Early white settlers' accounts and numerous artifacts point to Indian settlements in the area, and two colonial-era roads crossed in a major intersection just north of the present Pickett Road junction with Erwin.

The old store was built, probably around 1930, by John Ransom Whitfield, who previously owned a country store on Whitfield Road in Orange County, said his granddaughter-in-law, Sue Whitfield. For much of its history, the Whitfields rented the store to operator John Brown, she said.

The store soon became a local landmark.

“It was a sort of place where, usually, when you went there you would run into somebody you knew,” said Whitfield.

The store served as a polling place and a handy stop for gas and groceries in days when town was distant, Erwin Road was dirt, and nights were dark enough to see the Aurora Borealis—as was recalled by the late musician Tommy Thompson, who in the early '60s frequented Friday-night picking sessions Brown hosted at the store.

“They could get three or four people in there, with a few guys standing on the side working a little snuff or Red Man chewing tobacco,” said historian David Southern, who lived off nearby Randolph Road for 30 years.

Whitfield said that after her husband, Stanford, and his father, John Glenn Whitfield, took over running the store around 1969, they decided they needed more room. By late 1972, they were ready to build.

At the same time, Jan Gregg was in need of a pottery studio. The Greggs frequented Hollow Rock Store, and she asked the Whitfields what they had in mind for the old building.

“Guess we'll burn it up,” they told her. When Gregg said she could use it, they gave it to her—as long as she had it moved as soon as they had the groceries out. She got it moved.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “It had a calmness about it.” Still, it left some creature comforts to be desired. Set up on cinder blocks, there was good air circulation to keep the floor system dry, but nothing to keep it warm. “So it was pretty hard to pot in there when it was 55 degrees in the winter,” and the tin roof made summer heat equally unpleasant. About 15 years ago, she said, the Greggs built an addition onto the house for her studio and used the store for storage.

Wade and Carolyn Penny, neighbors of the Greggs and land donors for the New Hope Preserve, alerted the Neighborhood Group to the store's existence.

“It seemed such a natural fit to bring the old store back,” Wade Penny said. "... It is very typical of what you used to see in the rural sections of North Carolina.”

Gregg likes the idea of her store taking on a new career, but, so far, nothing is for sure.

Plans for the preserve are to be drawn. There is work to do first on downstream sections of the New Hope Creek nature corridor before opening the preserve, and land acquisition for the preserve will not be complete until 2008, said Rich Shaw, land conservation manager for Orange County. And whether the four governments involved will accept the store as part of their park remains to be determined, said Jacobs.

But Whitfield acknowledges that she'd like to see the changes that could be in store for the old country store.

“Maybe we can find a little potbellied stove,” she said, “and some little chairs to put around it.”