The heavy wooden front door swung open, its bottommost edge scraping against the dark wood floor. Three young men in T-shirts and ball caps poked their heads into the darkened shack and awkwardly approached Sutton, who was standing behind the counter as the creaky floorboards and echoing reverberations from the cowbell finally drew silent.
“Can I help you?” Sutton asked.
“We’re trying to figure out where we are,” said their leader.
Such scenes are common in Mount Sterling, where residents and visitors alike are misplaced in space, and in time. The isolated community on the periphery of the Appalachian Trail has a history stretching back centuries but has also begun to embrace modernity in the unlikeliest of places — a rejuvenated family-run country store dating back almost 90 years.
The three young men were travelers from Athens, Tennessee, some 120 miles off. Bound for Max Patch Mountain, they’d gotten lost while trying to find the Appalachian Trail.
“We saw a sign that said, ‘Country store, one mile,’ and wound up here,” said one of them.
The Big Creek Country Store sits just three-quarters of a mile south of the Tennessee border, and less than a quarter mile from both the Big Creek Ranger Station and the trailhead for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Chestnut Branch Trail.
But the store has a mailing address 18 miles away in Newport, Tennessee, despite being physically located in Haywood County, North Carolina. FedEx and UPS drivers, however, use physical addresses for delivery, and Sutton’s is technically Waynesville, despite being located almost 40 miles from town in a valley with no cell service and a shoddy GPS signal.
Complicating matters, the store’s Waynesville address — 67 Mt. Sterling Rd. — is often confused with a similar address north of Clyde, 30 miles to the southeast.
“They think it’s funny, but I’ve got a sign out front that says free directions with any purchase,” Sutton said. “It’s sort of a joke, but it’s serious too, because if I just gave directions all day, I’d never make any money.”
They didn’t buy anything, but Kelly sent the three young men on their way with a smile as tinny bluegrass blared from a single raggedy cloth-lined speaker hanging on a wall in the back of the store.
Sutton is far from the first person in her family to render cartographic assistance to poor wayfaring strangers.
Her great-great-grandparents were born in Mt. Sterling, as were her great-grandparents, Mack and Etta Caldwell, who built the store in 1927.
That same year, the Walters Hydroelectric Plant was built by Carolina Power and Light on the nearby Pigeon River, where it still operates today.
The Big Creek Country Store served the needs of the secluded settlement, offering groceries, clothing and household items until the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 and the completion of the Appalachian Trail in 1937 began to draw the occasional outsider — a mindful adventurer, or a mislaid hiker.
As the population of Mt. Sterling began to dwindle — it’s 30-something today — her great-grandparents’ store closed in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and the building began to decay.
Sutton, 30, is originally from Boone, but her mother Darlene lived at Mt. Sterling until she was 12, when the one-room schoolhouse serving 10 students from kindergarten through eighth grade no longer met her mother’s expectations.
That schoolhouse has since become a private home, and the few children who still live in Mt. Sterling now attend elementary school at Jonathan Valley Elementary School 29 miles away, and high school at Tuscola, 32 miles away.
“The bus usually comes to get them, but not always,” Sutton said. “Sometimes their parents will take them. They have a relationship with the bus drivers, so they can work it out.”
Sutton is more familiar with the N.C. educational system than most; a former teacher, she gives partial credit for her presence in Mt. Sterling to that very system.
“I taught in Hickory and Charlotte for a while, elementary school, bunch of different grades,” she said. “I got very burned out.”
Sutton loved teaching, but grew tired of a profession heavy on testing and light on cash.
“They actually cut pay, and then froze it, so my second year I was making less than my first year, so 2012 was my last year. I came here. I needed a life change, I needed to start over.”
Adding to her woes, during those two years of teaching she had six members of her family pass away — including all four grandparents, her father, and even her dog.
So well remembered
The heavy wooden front door suddenly swung open again, bringing with it a shaft of sunlight and another percussive jangle from the cowbell.
“Hey there!” Sutton beams. “Mail delivery!”
“Y’all got them ‘maters for lunch?” asks Mo, who strides in and hands Sutton a single letter.
“Nope,” she replies.
“Well you’re about to,” he says. “A purty ‘un.”
He walks out the door with a clang and moments later walks back in with a clang, presenting Sutton with a plump red tomato.
“That’s not a ‘tomato,’ that’s a ‘mater!” he laughs.
Mo comes from Newport nearly every day to deliver mail to the Big Creek Country Store, but he’s far from the only regular.
Much of Sutton’s extended family lives in the area and owns almost all of the land, as they have for generations. Many residents are retirement-age but still plant gardens and hunt, making them nearly self-sufficient.
When they do need something from the outside world, Hartford, Tennessee, is a convenient but expensive option seven miles distant — prices in Tennessee are “a lot higher” than N.C., Sutton said, because of taxes and the bustling tourist economy.
“If they need something I don’t have, I’ll try to get it for them,” she said, admitting that she stocks up on periodic runs to the Walmart in Waynesville or the Sam’s Club in Asheville because most distributors won’t deliver to her far-flung location.
“They were happy to see North Carolina prices for cigarettes, so I try to give them a good deal,” she laughed.
Despite growing up elsewhere, Sutton’s been part of the community since she was born and remembers spending almost every other weekend of her life there.
“We used it for a home for a long time,” she said. “I used to dance on these counters and sing Dolly Parton songs and roller skate around in here when I was little. We had two bedrooms in the store part and two bedrooms on the side, which were also the living room and kitchen. My bedroom was the kitchen. My main memory is waking up to the sound and smell of coffee.”
But when she returned to Mt. Sterling seeking a new start in 2012, that cozy home place was in terrible shape.
“We had a bat infestation in the attic, and you could not breathe in here. The ammonia was awful, and it was completely packed — you couldn’t even walk in here, but for one little path.”
The building was then being used as a storage area for the possessions of her deceased relatives.
“It took me about three years to get it cleaned out and renovated enough to open back up,” she said.
The building itself hasn’t changed much since it was originally constructed — especially the interior. It’s about 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, with a counter running almost the entire length of the structure.
The walls aren’t exactly walls — the thick, full-sized two-by-twelve boards that make up the shelving that rings the store are what actually hold up the roof. Locally-cut hemlock siding running on the exterior is nailed to wormy chestnut on the inside, which is in turn nailed to the shelves.
Those shelves are stocked, floor to ceiling, with a curious mix of survival gear, food, apparel, personal care items, local artwork and antiques. Sunscreen, Slim-Jims, socks, sanitizer, sketches and stemware abound, offering options for hardcore hikers, weekend warriors, or ambling antique hunters just looking for a bargain.
The diverse customer base, however, wasn’t something that residents of the area found appealing.
“I think it was a little difficult for them at first, because it draws in more people,” Sutton said. “They want it to stay how it is. I think now that they see it, it’s not that bad. People are in and out, and they’ve been really respectful,” she said. “I think once they got over the shock of it being back open and all these tourists coming through here, they’re really excited to see the old store again.”
Once more the cowbell sprang to life with the tinkling metallic announcement of visitors — three men clad in coveralls and bright yellow reflective vests festooned with shiny orange chevrons.
“They’re putting power poles all the way up the mountain,” Sutton says as they forage for supplies. They’ll be out all day working in a remote part of the area and have to bring with them all sustenance.
Sutton rings up their prepackaged pastries, canned energy drinks, chips, jerkies, smokes and Cokes. They each pay for their purchases with debit cards on her tablet computer.
“We have internet and phone now,” she says. “That’s a first for this building.”
If the idea of paying for antiques (or junk food) with debit cards on a tablet in a 90-year-old country store isn’t odd enough, Sutton produces one of her grandfather’s ledgers from 1949, on which he used to keep track of what was owed and by whom.
Among entries for primitive household staples like beer, bleach, flour and lard the ledger says that on Nov. 30, 1949, someone named Ray bought tobacco and pencil lead.
That set Ray back 30 cents.
Prices and products change as the years go by, as does the clientele. After opening in September 2015 for a short but successful trial run until Christmas — when it became too hard to heat the drafty shop — Sutton found herself entertaining some unusual customers.
“One of my first days open, we had some people from France. They bought T-shirts. That just blew my mind — that my T-shirt is going to be in France somewhere. We’ve had people from Germany, Cuba, South America, all over. It’s like, ‘Of all the places in the United States to come, how did you get here?’”
About that time, the change of scenery also began to have an effect on Sutton, who has no regrets about her decision to embrace a simpler life in a place that is hidden from much of the world, but not from the relentless pace of progress.
“There’s a lot of work, a lot of physical work, keeping up with this place, but I love living here,” she said. “People are like, ‘What do you do all the time?’ Whatever I want to do, you know? I definitely wanted to get away from the big city,” she said. “I was last living in Charlotte and it’s just so hectic and stressful all the time. Things are ridiculously expensive, and I just wanted to come back home. Life is too short.”
Another hour passes slowly in Big Creek, until the cowbell, with another swift, sharp blow, punctuates the silence with its familiar timbre.
It’s a sound people in Mt. Sterling have come to recognize and accept, and with it, the fact that some things change, but some things stay the same — just like the Walters Hydroelectric Power Plant, now owned by Duke Energy. It’s about to become fully automated, making the few who still work there obsolete.
Ambling up to the counter behind which Sutton stands is a section hiker on the A.T. who’s been out on the trail for three weeks.
Sutton hopes to expand her operations in the near future to serve hikers like the one presently approaching her in a wrinkled sundress and muddy sandals topped with a grimy tee; Sutton foresees a bathroom, laundry facilities, a food truck, and possibly even selling beer again, if county laws ever catch up to where they were in 1949.
The hiker unzips her fanny pack and withdraws a sealed Ziplock bag. From that, she removes a small, tan, clasped coin purse, and slowly begins to pull out crumpled, damp, raggedy greenbacks and assorted coins, placing them on the counter.
“When I was little I used to play store in here all the time,” Sutton says. “I had a little cash register, and my mom would have empty egg cartons, and I would ring people up. I was an only child, so I had to entertain myself. I would have never thought that I’d end up doing this for real.”
But Kelly Sutton is doing it for real — and discovering in the process that despite the measured progress in Mt. Sterling, it will remain an out-of-the-way destination almost storybook in its ethos and charm where some needs can never be satisfied by technology.
“Can I help you?” Sutton asks.
“Last night in the storm a lot of my stuff got wet,” says the hiker. “I really need some toilet paper.”