History, family and love at Betsey's Ole Country Store

May. 20, 2014 @ 08:40 AM

In 1924, when Mortimer was a booming logging town, a small store was built at the corner of what are now N.C. 90 and Brown Mountain Beach Road, serving as a general store and post office.

Betsey's Ole Country Store is perched deep in the woods of the Wilson Creek area, a short distance from Mortimer campground and the previous Civilian Conservation Corps headquarters there.

The small store has seen its share of history, not the least of them being the 1940 flood that washed away nearly the entire town.

But not the store.

It was built by a Mr. Dupree, and since then it’s gone through many different hands, most recently those of Bruce Gray, who has taken the country store to new heights.

Driving the miles of dirt road to get to the store resets your perspective to a simpler place and time.

When you arrive, it’s just as welcoming and friendly as you wanted it to be, a store that you feel a part of and somehow a community, though you’ve only met Gray or one of his staff.

The store appears in grainy, black-and-white photographs of the town in years past, and today it looks much the same.

Gray’s history is also intertwined in the place. In 1965, when Gray was 5, his father, one of the first U.S. Army Green Berets, brought him on his first camping trip, and he’s been coming ever since. His father was training for Vietnam in the area, and the beauty and nature of the place captivated Gray.

“It’s like living in a cathedral,” Gray said. “It’s quiet, it’s peaceful.”

Gray told his father, “Daddy, I’m going to live here one day,” a dream that came to fruition when he retired from building hot rods and Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Salisbury.

He keeps that spirit alive, too, working to share with others what he saw in the woods there nearly 50 years ago.

As an Eagle Scout, he lets Boy Scout troops stay at the campground for free, and the walls of the store are adorned with more than 100 scout badges, denoting which troops have stayed, and Gray still has a pile of them he has yet to put up.

And that family connection permeates the business and his involvement in the community there, saying everyone treats him like family, the same way he treats everyone else.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gray said – that’s what he hears from his patrons. “(They say) I know that if my wife and kids broke down, you’ll be here, we know you’re here and will take care of us if we need it.”

The name of the store also rings with family and love, inspired by Betsey Hege, a dear friend of Gray’s who encouraged him to buy the store. She died in an automobile accident on Adako Road.

Gray said visitors come to Wilson Creek for its natural atmosphere, best sport trout fishing in the North Carolina mountains and the cleanest water in the state, an area he regards as “the jewel on Caldwell County’s crown,” one that “must be protected at all costs.”

“There is nothing else like it in the world,” he said.

He offers anything the fisherman, camper, hiker or day-tripper could need, from snacks and drinks to a place to camp “drama-free” for the night. He offers a $6-per-pound trout pond in the back that is always stocked.

Since he took over, he has built bathhouses, made a rental cabin from what had been a chicken coop since the '40s, and constructed a concrete teepee, available for rent.

Deli sandwiches, Nathan’s hot dogs, local ice cream and firewood are all for sale at Betsey’s, open from around 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer months, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter months.

And one thing’s for sure: Bruce Gray is home.

“I bought it in ’95 and I’ve been here ever since,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. I want everybody to know Bruce Gray is here to stay.”