Macon County Historical Museum a reminder of a bygone era

Macon County Historical Society photo by Vickie Carpenter

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

J.R. Pendergrass acquired the West Main Street property in 1899, and opened a general store. In just four years, the business was doing so well, he tore the wooden structure down and built a three-story brick structure which stands today (pictured below).

Curator Robert Shook explained in his Summer 2021 edition of “Curator’s Corner,” part of the Macon County Historical Museum’s Echoes newsletter, that while the pandemic meant that museum hours were sparse, he and other historians were able to focus on displays, preservation, and archiving. All the work inside the museum was a reminder of how the building has served the community for many years – and continues to do so. 

In fact, the building that houses the museum was once the town’s main general store. Pendergrass General Store was owned originally by J.R. Pendergrass and then passed onto his youngest son, J. Broadus (Broadie) Pendergrass. The elder Pendergrass started off as a minister relocating from Old Fort, N.C., to become the minister of First Baptist Church in Franklin. 

He also served as principal at Franklin High School. But it was in September 1899 that he purchased the store property from another J.R. (Bell) and established himself as “one of the finest merchants in Franklin, holding that position for almost 40 years,” said Shook.

Macon County Historical Society photo by Vickie Carpenter

After being in business only four years, Pendergrass’s success was such that he tore down the wooden structure and broke ground for a three-story brick building – which is what stands today. Bricks were purchased from a local brickyard and when the structure was completed, the Pendergrass family lived on the third floor, while the second floor mezzanine and the first main floor served as space for the general store. 

“Oak and chestnut beams were reused from the old wooden building, and upstairs where they lived there were seven rooms and five coal burning fireplaces,” said Shook.

Today, the “store” features a stock of items from bygone eras – everything from store ledgers to Civil War mementos to period clothing to farm implements to countless photographs. But in the late 19th and early 20th century, Pendergrass General Store was the go-to place for dry goods, produce, eggs, gossip, checkers, and even marriage. Although he was a store owner, Pendergrass maintained his duties as a minister and would marry couples on the wide heart-pine staircase, still prominent today. 

While the Macon County Historical Museum currently houses antiques and artifacts dating back to the town and county’s beginnings, the building was once a successful general store. Pictured is one of two original cash drawers held the proceeds from the daily sales.

“Many people have fond memories of shopping there,” said Shook, who noted that the store remained in operation into the 1970s, even after a fire damaged the top floor in the early 1970s. “I came in here to buy tennis shoes in the early 1960s, so I remember it. It was considered a fancy store. People played checkers every day either by the tree or inside in front of the pot-bellied stove. The original store was a general store, but then they tailored the store to sell mostly dry goods. Bolts and bolts of cloth because women sewed more … needles, thread, cloth dyes, etc.”

The current three-story structure that houses the historical museum was built in 1904 with the Pendergrass family residing on the third floor.

For a few years, the store was used as an art gallery, but then the building was established in 1988 as the Macon County Historical Society, which has not only retained the interior first and second floor, but also countless treasures donated by locals to help preserve the area’s past. The third floor is still in the process of being restored and is used as storage. 

Shook shared that various items from town merchants are on exhibit at the museum, including a case full of “cherished” items from historic Rickman’s Store, which is located in Cowee and operated as a general store throughout much of the 20th century; it is currently open on Saturdays from April to December each year as an antique store, museum, and music venue. 

The founder of Pendergrass General Store was also a minister and was known to marry couples on the heart-pine staircase in the middle of the store.

“There are also tons and tons of ledgers from the days when the building was the Pendergrass General Store,” said Shook. “Those ledgers include locally recognized names, including Colonial Nathanial Rankin [who served in the Civil War], who ran a tab here.” 

Some of the most “intriguing” items on display in the museum are ones that belonged to the Pendergrass family. “They left behind college catalogs, some of [daughter] Marie’s sheet music and perhaps the most precious of all, the letters sent to Broadie and Marie from doting parents.” 

While the Pendergrass General Store may have existed a few generations ago, Shook pointed out that residents and visitors alike can get a taste of what it might have been like to operate a business in another era. However, he also said, “The businesses on Main Street today are mostly in old buildings and while they may not sell necessities, like hats, shoes, and clothing for all ages, like the Pendergrass General Store did, they are focused on selling their specialty items just as intently as the Pendergrasses were back then.” 

Macon County Historical Museum is located across from the courthouse on Main Street in Franklin and it is open every day of the week except for Wednesdays and Sundays.