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A Bridge to Frog Level: Cathey family to breathe new life into Walker Service

A long-vacant former service station will see new life this spring. Cory Vaillancourt photo A long-vacant former service station will see new life this spring. Cory Vaillancourt photo

For generations, the people of Waynesville looked to the auto repair shop at the intersection of Branner Avenue and Depot Street as a place to get oil. 

Now, after years of vacancy, the space is set to reopen and again give area residents the ability to visit the former Walker Service for oil, albeit oil of a completely different sort. 

But the owner of the forthcoming Corner Station Olive Oil Company sees the whole endeavor as much more than simply converting the parcel to retail use for the first time in more than a century; amidst the continuing evolution of Waynesville’s economy, Cathey Bolton sees the business as being potentially transformative in uniting two very different business districts with two very different identities and, consequently, two very different fortunes.

 

On the level

“My great-grandfather, with his brother, opened up an auto parts store in Frog Level in the 1920s,” said Bolton, owner of Art on Depot in Frog Level for nearly 10 years. 

Clayton Walker then bought the property at 136 Depot Street and opened up Cherokee Station before renaming it Walker Service. After almost 90 years in operation, the business closed forever in 2015. 

“The family was ready to sell,” Bolton said. “We had it on the market for a little while. The rest of the family didn’t want to have anything to do with it, so my mom, dad and I decided to keep the building.”

It was a bold move for the Cathey family, from whence Bolton received her first name. The building sits just down the hill from Waynesville’s bustling Main Street retail core, and just up the hill from the historic charm of Frog Level.

At the top of that hill sits the former Tipping Point Tavern, recently sold to restaurateurs best known for their Universal Joint regional chain. At the bottom of that hill sits a rundown strip with few successful businesses, but scads of potential. 

Bolton’s current business is emblematic of that potential. 

“It’s a working ceramics studio,” she said of Art on Depot, which she opened in November 2008. “People can come in here, watch me work, they can see the process and ask me questions, they can shop all of my functional pottery — everything is microwave, dishwasher and oven safe.”

Bolton, a former president of the Frog Level Merchants Association, admits that it was “probably the worst economic time — ever — to open up a non-essential business” but has done well in the space nonetheless. 

“It was difficult, but 10 years later, I’m still here. I’m glad to still be here rockin’ and rollin’,” she said. “If you have a good product, most of the time it will move itself.”

Bolton said her current Frog Level business couldn’t subsist on retail sales alone, because Frog Level doesn’t get nearly the foot traffic of the businesses up the hill. 

“You’re not necessarily going to make your money with retail traffic,” she said. “It’s wonderful when I get it. I love having that connection with all my customers, but it’s the wholesale that’s been my bread and butter, and to be able to be here, sell my product in the retail shop, and I could be working on large wholesale orders at the same time, and then I have my online sales — it’s a little mix of this, that and the other.”

But the rebirth of the aptly named Corner Station comes as a direct result of Bolton’s ceramics. 

“I have such a passion for food and good wines and pottery and being able to combine all of my favorite things together — olive oil is a huge thing right now,” she said. “I already make a whole line specific for olive oil companies, so I was like, ‘Why not?’”

One of Bolton’s most popular items is a garlic and ginger grater dish that she says is designed to hold olive oils for bread dipping. “Those are my biggest sellers and I sell them to olive oil companies up and down the East Coast. Most are small businesses.”

Hence the gourmet olive oil retail shop and tasting room that will sell products under its own label with a vintage gas station theme.

“We’ll have approximately 55 different olive oils and balsamic vinegars,” Bolton said. “Part of the shop will be gourmet-type, foodie-type items like mustards and local honeys. I’d love to have a small freezer that keeps local cheeses. I would like to have a small selection of wines and craft beers, so people can come in and buy their olive oil, buy some cheese, they can buy crackers.”

While Bolton does hope to offer alcohol, she said she has no plans to acquire an on-premise serving license. She does, however, have plans to incorporate a small restaurant or café within the building itself. 

“We are fitting up the other side of the space in hopes of a restaurant coming in and my hope is that they will have a brown bag, so you can buy wine from me or from them,” she said. 

An outdoor seating deck will eventually be phased in as well once the retail shop opens, hopefully by Mother’s Day. When it does, it will be the first time anyone not having car trouble might consider venturing down the hill from Main Street to the old garage. From there, Frog Level is just a hop, skip and a jump away. 

“To me, it’s a bridge,” Bolton said, noting that she doesn’t consider the shop a downtown Waynesville business or a Frog Level business, and hopes to rebrand the entire area as “Corner Station.”

The Cathey family also owns the building on Branner Avenue behind the service station, currently home to the Basulto Academy of Defense and formerly home to a vape shop that’s currently being refitted for rental. Bolton says there are plans to somehow tie the two structures together. 

“Hopefully in the next few years it will be one of those one-stop shopping experiences you can have. I think it’s just perfect for that. And I hope it’s going to be even more of a bridge for the shops and for this area to develop down here. That is one of my big big hopes, and a reason for people to come down here.”

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