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Old hardware store torn down: Park to replace former hub of civic life

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BAILEY — Workers are tearing down the old downtown hardware store that shifted over time from iconic center of commerce to object of scorn as an eyesore. A garden park is set to take its place.

Demolition began Monday on the old Bailey Hardware and Appliances at 6271 Main St. The work is expected to take about a week.

State Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican, secured the funding to raze the dilapidated two-story building. He watched Monday afternoon as an excavator knocked over the building’s higher walls and what was left of its roof.

Horner said his father, Billy Horner, bought into the business with Drexel Rhodes in 1964. Horner’s father sold his stake in the place in 1979 or ’80.

Rhodes continued to run the store until it folded around the turn of the century. The 8,500 square-foot building remained empty after its shuttering.

The building’s roof, which leaked for decades, finally collapsed and the building went downhill from there. Officials fenced off the condemned, crumbling structure years ago.

Horner said he didn’t feel bittersweet at all about helping obtain state money to bring the old building down.

“It’s an eyesore now,” Horner said. “Daddy’s gone. Drexel Rhodes is gone. It needed to come down. I hate to see my hometown looking so pitiful.”

While Horner said he doesn’t feel bad about the structure’s fate, he does have a lot of fond memories tied up in the building’s past.

In its heyday, the store acted as the heart of Bailey. The Masons once met on the second floor. Anyone running for office at any level who came through Bailey would stop at the store to talk to potential voters, making the store a whistle stop without a train. Rhodes would let folks hide gifts at the store so their kids would be surprised Christmas morning.

“The store would stay open late Christmas Eve to around 7 to give people a chance to pick up their presents,” Horner said.

Folks came from miles around to shop at the store.

“It was a good spot,” Horner said. “There were always four or five customers.”

The store sold everything from feed to fertilizer to fishing rods to plants and peppers.

“I was like Richie Cunningham growing up in his daddy’s hardware store,” Horner said.

Richie Cunningham is a character played by Ron Howard on the popular television show “Happy Days.” Airing from 1974 to 1984, “Happy Days” depicted an idealized vision of American life in the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. On the show, Richie’s father owned a hardware store in Milwaukee.

Bailey and the hardware store at the time reflected those often glorified days.

Bobby Aycock grew up in Bailey back then. He now lives in Elm City and works in Wilson, but he returns to his hometown often.

“We used to walk to the hardware store all the time when I was growing up,” Aycock said. “If we needed to buy ammo or a baseball, we could always get it at the hardware store.”

Downtown Bailey bustled with business back then, but its downward spiral is heartbreaking, Aycock said.

“Every store was full with businesses,” Aycock said. “Bailey needs something that can draw a crowd.”

That’s what retired local businesswoman Joan Larsen has in mind. She said she envisions a garden park in the shadow of the hardware store’s freestanding walls.

If possible, workers will save the exterior walls of the store to be used as a boundaries of a town park.

Larsen also wants to convert the old movie theater at the other end of the block into an outdoor theater. She presented her plans, including 3D models, to the town board during a closed session at its most recent monthly meeting.

Larsen starts with models, which helps her visualize projects. That process began years ago when she redesigned her home at Stork’s Rest Farm near Sims. She used posterboard to plan ceilings. Each ceiling in her home is different.

The park and theater is an attempt to capture the attention of Millennials who are moving away from Bailey.

Larsen’s granddaughter Kelcie Howren runs an art studio at Stork’s Rest. She said Millennials need reasons to stay in the area. The outdoor theater along with coffee and craft beer shops will attract and keep younger residents.

Howren grew up in Texas and creates murals. She recently repainted the Coca-Cola sign on Main Street across from the hardware store location.

“This town is at a perfect point with all the through traffic,” Howren said.

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