Carolina Special (copy)

The Carolina Special paused in the small mountain town of Tryon, N.C., on Dec. 5, 1968, right before its final 3-mile crawl up the white-knuckle Saluda Grade. Provided/Bill Schafer/Southern Historic Railway Association

It was a simple and unexpected treat that we experienced years ago during an overseas trip to Norway. The natural scenery is some of the finest in the world, and we got more than our share of that during a visit to the seaside village of Flam one day, a beautiful place nestled at the end of a fjord where one can take a historic train ride high into the mountains, disembark at Myrdal station and literally bicycle back down for the sheer fun of it.

Particularly memorable was not so much the spectacular climate, vistas, charming farmhouses, rivers and waterfalls — all of which were fantastic — but the abundance of wild raspberries growing along the roadsides. Not only were they plentiful, but ripened to deep ruby-like perfection. Whenever in need of a snack one would simply pull over, grab a handful and enjoy a taste of paradise. A simple pleasure, yes, and incredibly pleasant.

Something similar happened a couple of weekends ago during one of our not frequent enough trips to western North Carolina and more specifically the town of Saluda, where my parents first took me in a peach basket as an infant aboard the Carolina Creeper. Although Saluda is not exactly Norway, there are certain valid comparisons. Saluda, for example, has lush greenery, is surrounded by hills and mountains, lies in the midst of streams and waterfalls and sits at the crest of the famous Saluda Grade, the steepest standard-gauge mainline railway grade in the U.S. (and which, sadly, has not been in use since 2001.)

Whereas raspberries are known to grow wild in those parts, this must be a banner year for them because they seemed to be all over the place and a young lady I know had no difficulty gathering four cups to make a delicious jam. Buoyed by all that, we sat down for a nice breakfast at Ward’s Grill and then made our way next door to the M.A. Pace General Store, which has been in business since 1899 and at its present location since 1913.

M.A. Pace is described in the Charles O. Hearon book I remember Saluda as a “large, jolly man ... who wore his hat all the time, and white shirts with a high stiff collar.” When Pace died in 1945, the store was chiefly managed and operated by three of his five children: Robert, Euva (“Boo”) Pace Franklin and Eunice (“Bee”) Pace.

Although Robert was technically general manager, he tended to spend most of his time behind the meat counter at the back of the store and had the dubious distinction of being completely overshadowed by the personalities of his older sisters. Bee was one of the most memorable ladies I’ve ever known — pretty, flamboyant, very loquacious and uninhibited. Boo, on the other hand, was quiet and taciturn (strong but nice), which in its own way could be an imposing type of personality, and Robert had the good sense to stay out of both their ways.

In a pinch, though, Robert was decisive and gallant, like the time he was called late one evening by my grandmother to assist a friend who had gotten herself into a bit of an awkward situation. Robert showed up promptly, immediately assessed and remedied the problem, and forever after wore shining armor.

When Robert died in 2010, having outlived his sisters by nearly 20 years, it looked like the store might close for good, but local Saludan Leon Morgan, wife Judy and their three daughters bought the property and assumed management — a place that made headlines back in 1975 when the Hendersonville Times-News ran a story titled “General Store Thriving in Supermarket Era.” The store has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places and was recently named one of the top 10 local wonders by the Polk County Historical association.

It still sells produce and always keeps a handy supply of sourwood honey, local jams and jellies, kitchenware, children’s toys, novelty items, crafts and an assortment of other goods, with the main selling feature being unique historical ambiance. This would include everything from creaking and ancient floorboards, old photographs of the Pace family, timeless fragrances and a variety of retail curios and antiques (no longer for sale) dating back to the Great Depression.

I’m slowly getting to know Leon. It takes a while to get to know mountain folk of Leon’s generation (he’s in his mid-70s) and you have to earn their respect. They don’t like Charleston people carrying on with their fancy society and citified airs telling them how to do things. I got the feeling last time that perhaps I was staring to make inroads when Leon gave me some major local scoop.

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“Do you know Howdy Doody?” he asked.

“Do I know How ... Good Lord I may be getting up there but I’m not quite ...”

“Have you heard of Buffalo Bob?”

“Well, yes, but I mean that’s a little before ...”

“His son died ... He sure did, three days ago in Tryon.”

We chatted about that and other things for a few minutes and he even let me handle the timeworn water pistol that Bee used to shoot mischievous children. Walking out with a jar of sourwood honey, I knew that all is good in small town Saluda, that the raspberries are there to be picked and that Ron Smith has gone to glory.

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