Upland Chronicles: McMahan’s Store was a community gathering place

May. 23, 2014 @ 06:39 PM

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, McMahan’s Store on Pittman Center Road was a popular meeting place for residents of the Richardson’s Cove and Caton’s Chapel communities. Located across the road from Bird’s Creek, the business was owned by Cleo and Exa McMahan.

Cleo McMahan met Exa Valentine on a swinging bridge that crossed the middle prong of the Little Pigeon River near Laurel Branch. Later they eloped to Jacksboro, Tenn., where they married on June 10, 1934. Cleo was 20 and Exa was two days shy of 17. Over the next dozen years, Cleo and Exa had five children: Harry, Don, Merle (Messer), Jim and Judy (Manis).

Exa Rose Valentine was one of 11 children of Henry Lloyd and Margaret Whitted Valentine, and Cleo Herbert McMahan was one of six children of Berry and Miley Jane Green McMahan.

Cleo’s father died when Cleo was 7, and his mother moved from Richardson’s Cove to Sevierville to find a job. At the same time, the New Central Hotel was under construction.

J.B. Waters Sr. befriended young Cleo and asked him if he would like carrying buckets of water to the men who were building the hotel. When the hotel was completed, Waters found the boy work at the post office sweeping floors each day before business hours.

Mr. Waters also paid him a nickel for every letter he delivered around Sevierville. When Cleo had saved enough money, he went across the street to Marsh Connatser, who sold bicycles, knives, and watches. Connatser allowed him to put $3 down on a $13 bicycle, and he paid the remainder at a dollar a week.

Cleo delivered groceries for Tom Seaton, Joe Hill, Arlie McCown and Pete Emert. Customers called in their orders, and the store owners set out the orders. Cleo would come by on his bicycle and deliver them. He knew every house in town.

When Cleo left school, he lived with relatives and friends, helping out on their farms and working at sawmills to pay for his room and board.

After they married, Cleo worked as a farmer and logger wherever he could find employment. In 1948, they moved to Washington state, where some of Exa’s relatives lived. There he worked as a logger in Icicle Canyon near Leavenworth. They returned to Sevier County in less than two years.

In 1951-1952, Cleo and Exa built a home in the Richardson’s Cove community. They converted the basement, which was level with the road and faced it, into a store. The enterprise was more than just a grocery store. It was also a Shell gas station, a deli, and a quasi community center. Exa managed the day-to-day operation of the store while Cleo worked as a heavy equipment operator.

Exa would slice cheese, bologna and other luncheon meats and make sandwiches to order for various workers who would stop by for lunch; since there were no restaurants in close proximity. Soft drinks were chilled in a drink box filled with ice cold water.

In warm weather, locals sat on Royal Crown Cola benches in front of the store discussing everything from the weather, crops and politics to the latest gossip. In the winter, customers could warm by the stove inside the store.

In her kitchen upstairs, Exa often would cook a pot of beans and a pan of cornbread, which were available to anyone wanting a warm meal.

Pet Ice Cream was sold in small cups with wooden spoons, candy could be purchased by the pound out of a Tom’s jars located behind the counter, and kerosene could be pumped from a tank located in front of one of the two picture windows.

Next to the big bronze push-button cash register, a box of ticket books with the last names of customers written on the spine was used to list item by item groceries bought “on credit.” Some customers ran a tab until they received money from crop sales.

Periodically, the Nolichucky Regional Library van would stop at the store, and Exa would check out books which she would in turn allow trusted customers to check out.

Thursday was “Hawk Day.” That was the day Hawk Distributing Company delivered groceries. Her granddaughter Leslie Atchley fondly remembers going to help Exa stock the shelves and price the cans with crayons, when school was out in the summer.

Dolly Parton visited the store on occasion when she was a student at near-by Caton’s Chapel Elementary School. After she moved to Nashville and became a celebrity, Dolly stopped there a few times when she was home visiting her parents. Dolly is Exa’s great-niece.

The store closed in November 1979. After three decades of long hours standing on her feet, Exa needed a rest. Several years later, the state of Tennessee acquired the property to widen the road. Cleo and Exa built a new home just around the bend on Pittman Center Road.

Cleo enjoyed fish fries, frog legs and storytelling by the campfire. He loved his mules, Toby, Jack and Joe. Cleo was active in the Sevier County Saddle Club, a group of horseback riders who gathered for Sunday afternoon and moonlight rides through the country. He was one of the club members who joined with Tillman Robertson to facilitate the first wagon train in Sevier County.

When the time of year rolled around for the Wagon Trail, Cleo would hook his mules to his green wagon with the bow canopy top, and ride in the parade through Sevierville before camping on a new location each evening for the next three nights.

Both Cleo and Exa were faithful members of Richardson’s Cove Baptist Church. In fact, the steeple on the old white church was built with donations made in memory of Cleo. However, the congregation has since moved to a new building.

Cleo McMahan died Jan. 2, 1997, at age 82 and Exa died Feb. 3, 2014, at age 96.

When driving by the spot where the store once stood, I often recall opening the squeaky screen door on a hot summer afternoon and heading toward the drink box for an ice cold Coca-Cola.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. Contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org