If you have spent any time in Hot Springs, Gentry’s Hardware is likely a place you remember. Located in the center of Hot Springs, NC since the 1940s, the store is a community hub, standing proudly along the banks of Spring Creek. It has that trait many older places share- long and rectangular, a well-worn creaky wood floor. Made by hours of hard work, trips to Weavers Bend for rocks and hand-mixed cement, walking into Gentry’s in some ways feels like a time capsule. When I go in there, it makes me think of my Grandpa’s workshop. Bins and shelves lined with useful this and thats. The front door opens with a jingling bell, into a space that offers just about anything you need, from nuts and bolts, all sorts of tools, to cast iron cookware, canning needs, hummingbird feeders, gifts, advice and more often than not, a good story.
I recently had a great talk with Keith about his family, the history of the store and the town. The first incarnation of Gentry’s belonged to Keith’s grandfather. He opened the store sometime in the 1920s and it was located in the space we now know to be the Community Center. The original Gentry’s (though Keith isn’t sure what the name was) dealt in furniture and hardware. Keith’s father, James, worked in the store with his father, until he was drafted into the AirCorps. James and Keith’s mother Dorothy married before he left for the war in 1943.
While Keith’s dad was away at war, Dorothy had given birth to their first son Jimmie, who sadly died at 3 due to a ruptured appendix. Upon James’ return from the war, in the midst of tragedy and changing times, they continued to grow their family, with Keith being the youngest of the bunch. James and his father began building the building that houses Gentry’s today. They salvaged what they could, taking wood from Dorland-Bell School dormitories to use as flooring, also reusing windows. Keith mentions how both his dad and grandfather were very hands on- He said no matter what, his dad always made the time to answer his silly questions about how something worked or could be fixed.
Big Flood on Spring Creek in 1977
Our chat took a turn to the massive flood of 1977. Spring Creek flooded after a trailer that was located in the lot behind Gentry’s was picked up by the rising creek and pinned against the bridge, quickly causing the already high water to flood downtown. Keith was working in Weaverville at the time and came into town around 7:30 on that November morning, and with communications down, he didn’t know what to expect. He drove over the tracks to see tree trunks, storm and building debris scattered all over downtown. At its height, the water had reached almost to the tracks and to the Dorland Presbyterian church in the other direction. He made his way down the street, snaking through debris, to see his parents peering into the front window of the store. Across the street, what was Collins Grocery, collapsed in on itself from the rushing waters undermining the foundation. He went and peered into the store with his parents and saw why they hadn’t entered- much of the floor was gone from the 5 ft of water that had been inside.
Collins Grocery beside Spring Creek (across the bridge from Gentry’s Hardware) collapsed after the raging creek undermined its foundation.
The Power of Community
The community pulled together and everyone volunteered their time and efforts to essentially rebuild the town. Most buildings had extensive flood damage, if they weren’t destroyed. The Gentry’s built back as they could, uninsured, their suppliers extending their terms to give them extra time to catch up. Within the year, most places were able to reopen. As Keith put it, many people pitched in and did many things and the community really pulled together. In a rightfully disappointed tone he adds that all that the governor at the time as well as the state government gave were empty promises. The town never saw any money offered from the state- the rebuilding came from hard work and the dedication of the community. He said his dad took the perspective of- at least we didn’t have to pay back anything.
Keith pauses for a second and says, that time, when folks came together, we still have that now. He goes on to remember last year, when he suddenly became very ill, and how touched he was by the prayers and outpouring of love and support that came from so many. Even folks he never would have imagined, rallying behind him and Jeanne and the store. “I haven’t traveled a lot, but I don’t know of one other place I’d rather live.”
Tomatoes and Tobacco
I asked about any other events or ways of life that stood out in his mind and the conversation morphed into tales of a town centered more around farming and industry, primarily logging, tomatoes and tobacco. In the mid-1960s particularly, tomatoes. Growers of patches of all sizes utilized the tomato packing plant located in the building that is now the Dollar General. (Prior to that a sewing factory and skating rink! Can we bring that back somewhere??!) Keith lit up as he remembered working for Harold Anderson’s tomato farm. It was down River Road, in the big open fields where they bale hay these days. That big old barn that has fallen into the nettles patch on that property is a place Keith used to play. From the time he was 10, he spent his summers working hard on the tomato farm. They had the upper field planted as well. Across the river Mr. Harold Baker had his tomato fields, too (think Boys Home Road). Down River Road past the red barn, there was a saw mill and also one back in town at the end of Lawson Street. Tomatoes were big for around 12-15 years, he said. A lot of folks grew tobacco and tomatoes.
Tourism Begins to Build Up in Hot Springs, NC
Around the time that the farming began to phase out, was around the time tourism began to build up. Carolina Wilderness Adventures got river trips going in the 80s and in the 90s the Hicks family purchased and reopened the spa that had been in disrepair for many years. Slowly, downtown began to get a new breath of life with Bluff Mountain Outfitters, Sunnybank Inn, and Smoky Mountain Diner opening, with Bridge Street Cafe and the Mountain Magnolia following not too long after.
Family Tragedy and a New Era for Gentry Hardware
This timeline leads to the obvious question of how did Keith end up with the hardware store? His earliest memories are of running around in the very store that he so faithfully runs today. In 2006, his parents were healthy in their mid 80s and mentally doing great. It came to be that they each needed surgery, she a hip and he a knee replacement. So they planned them at the same time, with the intention of then rehabbing and getting back to life and work. The family was on a sort of standby to do whatever was needed in the meantime. Sadly, the day after his father’s surgery he developed a blood clot that killed him. His mother soon after developed an infection and never walked again. Once she passed, the store just sat there. As Keith says: This is when I went into the hardware business. When someone comes in and is having a hard day with a busted pipe and you can help them learn how to fix it- that’s good. What immediately stands out to me as he is saying this, is the legacy of his father’s patience that he carries on today. I have asked Keith many ‘silly questions’ over the years and he has always, patiently taken the time to help me find the right thing, or offered thoughts on the best way to fix something. Jeanne too, come to think of it!
As we are wrapping up, he shows me some old photos of the store through the years and points to one up on the shelf of his dad. He is seated at the desk that is still the heart of Gentry’s today, with a beam of sunlight shining through the window onto him. He said the night he passed away, there was a big wind storm that came through town. He got a call from the neighbor across the street, who had noticed that the window on the creekside of the building had blown open. Keith decides, since he can’t sleep anyway, he’ll go to the shop. He goes in, closes the window, and notices just that picture of his father on the floor. Having not seen it before, he takes it with him to his mom and asks if she has seen it before – She says she hasn’t seen that picture in years and where it would have been was in the lower desk drawer in a pack of pictures. He says to me – I tell you just as true as I can, that desk drawer was shut tight. Not another paper, not another anything was upset in any way. The good Lord was sending me a message – Son, I’m fine, don’t you worry about me. That’s why I keep that picture up there. He was my hero. I was fortunate to call him my dad for a long time.
Here is that picture:
I mentioned earlier that walking into Gentry’s feels like you’ve entered a time capsule. I think it’s because one can feel the presence of all of that history. The generational dedication to being of service to their customers and the town has been a common thread through this family and store for many decades. We are truly lucky to have this wonderful family-owned business and history in the heart of our downtown!
Article by Wendy Stancil, April 2023