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The minute I walked into the store, I knew I was in for an old-timey treat.
Manning Bros. Hardware is a step back in time in downtown Middlesex. Run by Henry and Helen Manning, the store is teeming with products, fixtures, smells and memories of times past.
Henry’s father bought the store in the 1950s, and it has stayed in the family since that time.
A graduate of North Carolina State, Henry worked in forestry in Idaho and Montana until he came back to North Carolina 43 years ago to help his father run the store. Henry and his wife Helen work hard to operate the hardware store much as it was done in the mid-20th century.
When I arrived around 10:30 a.m., Henry was putting oak wood in the big, old-timey pot-bellied stove and was just beginning to warm the space for the day’s business. There was a nip in the air, and seeing Henry crank up the stove gave a promise of warmth to come.
The original wood floor, now patched in places, along with the original display cases and counters and storage areas, was a feast for a country store historian’s eyes. The tall ladder to give access to the items stored on the top shelves was original to the store, I was told.
The old, wooden meat box, part of which was eaten away by salt over the years and not mended or restored, was especially representative of the methods of storing side meat, ham and other cuts in years past.
Several old scales were located around the store. One was still used to weigh nails and screws stored in compartments in an old turntable. Other, smaller scales were used to weigh items of lighter weight and smaller quantity.
An old-fashioned adding machine and a manual cash register were located strategically to give Henry and Helen and the other employees a good view of the store as they rang up customers’ bills. The old fashioned cha-ching was music to my ears.
All around the store were hung paintings, prints and photographs that were nostalgic, some of religious topics and others of animals, celebrities and pastoral scenes. Photos of Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood and Andy and Barney of “The Andy Griffith Show” were prominent, and a depiction of the Last Supper was the customers’ favorite religious scene. A painting of a mule pulling a plow was a small version of the large painting located on the side of the store next to the parking lot. A memorable feature in both paintings was the mule’s unusually large ears.
One section of the store had old-fashioned cookware on display, including those cast-iron skillets that many people still use today.
Helen told about the large, screened room near the back of the store, the flour room, that was once used to store flour and meal, the screen making it hard for mice and bugs to get inside for an easy feast. The room is now used for storage, but one can imagine the flour and meal being stored there in earlier times.
One bit of real charm was the old rack for storing brown paper bags of all sizes. A collection of old bags, now curled and dusty, still rests on the rack. I could imagine the small bags used to hold penny candy to delight small children.
Speaking of candy, there was a variety of old-fashioned candy on display in baskets, ready to be sold by the pound and put into brown paper bags. Candy reminiscent of Christmas in the past included orange slices, coconut bon-bons, caramel creams, single-coated chocolate peanuts and the colorful and classic hard Christmas candy. Helen said they sell a large amount of candy before Christmas each year.
One of the drawing cards in the store is the famous hoop cheese. Henry took out a new hoop, completely wrapped in red wax, and meticulously cut a pound for me to take home. He mentioned that the hoop cheese, supplied to them from Ashe County Cheese Inc. in West Jefferson, is a popular product year-round.
I asked Helen if they still sold snuff. She said they did and took a single can of Tube Rose from the shelf, there not being a big market for snuff today.
I also noticed old-timey scrub boards for sale, some walking sticks, salt licks for cows, along with a 16.95-gallon container of molasses, which they sell in pint and quart jars.
The assortment of dried beans, including pinto, great northern, navy beans and black-eyed peas, was waiting to be bagged, weighed and rung up at the cash register. The dried bean display was neat and clean, and not a bug was in sight.
Helen said that Manning Bros. still offers old-time credit, a practice almost unheard of these days but helpful for those who need it.
By the time I was about ready to leave, the pot-bellied stove was going to town, heating up the space and crackling away in an almost conversational way. I listened to its soothing sound as I warmed up my hands.
Helen said that through the history of this establishment, many people had gathered around the stove for companionship and chewing the fat. She said, “If these old walls and benches could talk, we would hear about the thoughts of the people of Middlesex and about politics, too.”
Thank you, Henry and Helen Manning, for your hospitality and for the charming trip back in time. I had a great time.
I reluctantly left the store that morning with a head full of nostalgia, my purchase of a pound of cheese and bag of single-coated chocolate peanuts and several pages of notes for the writing of this column.
On the way out I wanted to buy a small Coke from their old-fashioned drink cooler, but Helen would not let me pay for it.
Manning Bros. Hardware is known for having the coldest drinks in Middlesex.
Sanda Baucom Hight is a retired teacher whose weekly column in The Wilson Times focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.