For the first few miles heading east out of Fayetteville, Highway 24 is big, wide and boring. It’s four lanes with a wide strip of grass in the middle and a narrow band of pines on either side to buffer the fast lane from any signs of human life on the landscape.
But then the mighty road bends, the great grassy divide funnels to nothing, the opposing lanes of traffic unite — and then you see the light. Whether it’s red or green, you’ll still ease off the gas because of traffic coming in and out of the Food Lion or the Family Dollar or the Hardee’s.
Highway 24 is now a two-lane road divided by nothing more than bright yellow lines. The trees are now real trees, distinctive trees, tall and short trees, rather than a continuous wall of pines of equal height. Lofty loblolly pines cast pools of shade over yards of centipede grass and ranch homes of brick. Bright green tobacco fields roll out from the highway toward distant woods and barns. I look out the window and watch the rows pass in split seconds as if they’re blades of a fan spinning before my eyes.
My five-year-old son, Silas, is riding shotgun in my Chevy pick-up truck. We ride on past the pond pillared with cypress trees, their buttresses naked in the low water. On past the yard with miniature white-and-black lighthouses that proclaim “Praise The Lord” and “Jesus Loves You.” On past the beige brick sign that reads “Town of Stedman.” And, on the bottom, almost as an afterthought, are these three words: “A Special Place.” No grandiose claims. No best this or best that or world’s greatest or world’s only. Just … a special place.
Silas and I are here to see what makes Stedman such a special place. We cruise on past Draughon’s Supermarket, a community landmark that closed in Feburary after nearly 36 years of serving everything from liver pudding to pig’s feet. The state bought out the business to widen Highway 24. On past Johnson’s Florist and Wedding Chapel. On past Stedman Elementary School. Then I spot two words that are irresistible: soda shop. The rooftop sign looks like something from the days when we were driving DeSotos and Nash Ramblers and listening to a young, gyrating hotshot on the radio named Elvis. But walking into the Stedman Soda Shop, we sense a freshness about the place. The décor is bright and the signs on the wall show you that the people who work here have a sense of humor. Here’s one: “Gone Crazy. Be Back Soon.”
It’s too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, but that doesn’t much matter. I find Belva Maxwell, a Stedman town commissioner, at a table sprinkling pepper on her eggs and grits and country ham. “You can still have breakfast after hours because they take care of you here,” says Linda Guedalia, who’s sitting across from her. As tempting as that juicy ham looks, I order a side of “home-style taters” and a couple of lemonades.
Crystal Ezzell, the mother of “four beautiful daughters,” has been the owner of the soda shop since February, the latest in a long line of owners since the 1950s. “Breakfast and lunch and that’s it,” she says. “The people. I love the people. I’m a people person.”
People around Stedman remember the soda shop as the cool after school hangout back before neighboring Stedman High School closed its doors in the early 1970s. Jane Horne, who co-owns Horne’s Furniture with her brother, Curtis, spent many an afternoon at the soda shop herself and even worked there. “I’d love to have a timeline of the people that have run that place, and the teenagers that have worked there. A lot of people have been employed in that place at one time or another.”
They came for the hamburgers, the fries, the milkshakes, the camaraderie. “At one time, they did have like a carhop where they had the shelter and people came out and took your order.” Think Sonic without the roller skates. The barhops and teenage crowds are gone, but if you want country ham, fried okra, western omelets, fried bologna, BLT’s and PB-and-J’s, the soda shop has your order up. Despite the turnover of owners through the years, Ezzell tells me “I plan on staying. I love it. I do.”
From Blockersville To Stedman Had a native of Pittsboro won the governor’s race more than a century ago, the name Stedman might enjoy more familiarity in North Carolina, something akin to a Tryon or a Vance or an Aycock. But Charles Manley Stedman lost the Democratic nomination in 1888 and again in 1904. Still, he was the state’s fifth lieutenant governor. And he was president of the North Carolina Railroad for a year. And he was a congressman for 20 years until he died at age 89. It’s in this man that the town of Stedman has its namesake. He lived in Fayetteville as a boy and is buried in Cross Creek Cemetery. After his death, the town then known as Blockersville decided to change its name to honor this would-be governor and congressman.
Stedman has grown through the years, but not much. It still claims only about 1,050 residents, and those residents generally prefer to keep their small town just that – a small town. No one is clamoring for a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The Food Lion up the road is nice and convenient, but in Stedman proper, chain stores and big box development are refreshingly absent. Take Carroll’s IGA, in business since 1950. It has only three registers and is less than half the size of your typical Food Lion. It’s unashamedly untrendy with its long rows of harsh ceiling lights and orange triangle floor tiles. The place smells of fresh cantaloupe.
You’re likely to find the owner, Allen Carroll, ringing up one of the registers or leading someone down the aisle to the coffee filters. “If you ask for something, if your wife has asked for something, we don’t say it’s on aisle one, we take you to it. The main thing is customer service,” he says.
Carroll, whose father started the store, wears tennis shoes with his khakis for good reason: he’s always darting from his office to the registers to the aisles to the meat department, never failing to acknowledge someone along the way with a “You must have the day off” or “You need that meat cut?” On his shirt pocket are embroidered the words “Your Quality Meat Store.” He’s proud of his meat department, especially compared to the ones in bigger, newer stores where he says the meat is often prepared elsewhere. “Most of it is done in another location. But everything you see here, we touch, we put our hands on,” Carroll says. “Everything’s fresh. We make our own sausage.”
Throughout our conversation, he repeatedly utters the words “customer service” as if speaking them comes as naturally as breathing. “The bottom line is customer service and the little details,” he says just before volunteering to cut a man’s pork ribs. “We have a wonderful little store.”
It is a wonderful little store in a wonderful little town. Stedman will likely continue to grow, especially with Highway 24 expected to swell to four lanes in the next few years. But I hope the people hurrying through town will consider stopping to smell the cantaloupe at Carroll’s – or, like me, will find the words “soda shop” irresistible.