From burgers to Buicks, diamonds to dry cleaning, the Greatest Generation left an entrepreneurial legacy for the ages.
By Ed Bristol
Banner photo courtesy of Mack Davis
In the relative calm between World War II and the tumultuous ‘60s, the country was feeling a surge of confidence. A booming economy encouraged entrepreneurs to seek out new ventures—and in the Capital City, four such enterprises are still going strong.
In 1949, an undeveloped 160-acre property just west of downtown had been turned into Cameron Village, the first “shopping center” between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. One of the first tenants was an enterprise that had started on something less than a shoestring.
In 1948, Bill Medlin and John Davis had begun their dry cleaning business on Salisbury Street—in a building and with equipment for which their landlord and equipment supplier required no payment for three months. They started up during Easter week. That boosted business, says Mack Davis, the co-founder’s son and former Medlin-Davis owner, “because back then people would really dress up for Easter.”
With experience delivering milk to local homes, Medlin would pick up and deliver the dry cleaning, and his partner operated the plant. Just a block from the state capitol, the cleaner served an array of government luminaries. A year after opening, Medlin-Davis Cleaners moved to Cameron Village.
In the late ‘90s, Mack Davis, who became company owner in 1976, helped get legislation passed to curtail dry cleaning solvent contamination and fund its cleanup at dry cleaning facilities. Of the 13 states with the program, says Davis, “North Carolina is considered the best.” And in 2000, Medlin-Davis helped test a dry cleaning solvent, now used at all of the company’s plants, that breaks down into non-hazardous components.
In 2010, David Makepeace and Brett Allen acquired the company and invested in a new process that allows dry clean–only garments to be cleaned with water. Now with 11 locations across the Triangle, Makepeace proudly notes that Medlin-Davis Cleaners is Cameron Village’s oldest tenant.
Around the corner is another post-WWII startup that’s committed to good corporate citizenship. A fixture in Raleigh commerce, Bailey’s Fine Jewelry opened in 1948 in Rocky Mount. Watchmaker and jeweler Clyde Bailey and wife Ann managed all aspects of the business. After Bailey died in 1963, Ann ran the store until Clyde Bailey Jr. and wife Jane purchased it in 1978.
They opened their first Raleigh store in 1994. With more and more people coming from Raleigh to Rocky Mount to shop at his jewelry store, Bailey had begun to think about opening one in the Triangle. The opportunity arose when jeweler Jerry Young asked Bailey to partner with him in his Cameron Village store, located in the spot Bailey’s now occupies. Aside from the Cameron Village and Rocky Mount locations, Bailey’s Fine Jewelry now operates stores in Greenville and at Crabtree Valley Mall.
Along the way, Bailey’s has established a strong tradition of philanthropy. In the last nine years, the company has raised more than $480,000 through its “A Time to Give” program, which offers customers a free watch battery for a donation to a local charity. Clyde Bailey remembers a special opportunity for giving: A couple came into the store whose son, a Marine sergeant, had lost his life in Afghanistan. His mother wanted a piece of jewelry to contain some of her son’s ashes. When the family arrived to pick up the specially designed piece, Bailey told them he couldn’t charge them because their son had already paid the ultimate price.
Post-war America’s phenomenal economic growth was fueled in huge part by automobile sales that quadrupled annually between 1946 and 1955. Against this backdrop, Willis H. Thompson Jr. opened a car dealership, Thompson Cadillac-Oldsmobile, on Fayetteville Street in 1956. Across the decades, developments in the auto industry would take the dealer’s business name through a series of changes.
Oldsmobile’s strong market presence, in particular, reflected a decades-long preference for the great American family sedan. When Oldsmobile production ceased in 2004, it was the country’s oldest surviving automobile nameplate. The decision surprised many observers. “Oldsmobile was king in the ‘80s,” says company vice president Mark Thompson Jr.
However, by the time of Oldsmobile’s demise, the dealer had dropped it and taken on GMC and Pontiac, another of General Motors’ moderately priced brands. In 1965, the nameplate’s entire line had been named Motor Trend magazine’s “Car of the Year.” Then in 2008, notes Thompson, “Pontiac bit the dust.” The dealership adapted deftly to the change, adding Buick to its inventory.
Today, SUVs are regarded as the new great American family vehicles, and Thompson considers the GMC models the “backbone” of his company’s thriving business, now known as Thompson Buick-GMC-Cadillac and located, since 1967, on Wake Forest Road.
When the aroma of grilling hamburgers first wafted from Char-Grill onto Hillsborough Street, the post-war period was waning. But, from that first location to its most recent offshoot, the restaurant has preserved the look and feel of an era when Ike was president and Buddy Holly was a Cricket.
In 1959, Raleigh restaurateur Bruce Garner had decided to give the city’s first drive-in, the Charcoal Grill on Capital Boulevard, some competition. Moving his Hillsborough Street home to make way for it, he built the first Char-Grill—a square, concrete-block building with a futuristic “floating” roof.
The ‘50s-style drive-in flourished through the ‘60s, but by the mid-‘70s, the restaurant had been through a series of operators, suffered a decline in business, and finally closed. Garner’s widow was planning to replace it with a parking lot.
Enter a couple of post-war baby boomers, Mahlon Aycock and Ryon Wilder, friends who’d met in college and decided to partner in a drive-in hamburger restaurant. In 1975, they signed a three-year lease for the property, opened for business with one paid employee, and began serving their trademark charcoal-grilled hamburgers. In those first years, the three-person workforce maintained long hours, seven day weeks.
In 1977, Aycock and Wilder purchased the building—but soon suffered reversals when Hillsborough Street changed to one-way, and then a portion was closed for bridge construction. But by the late ‘80s, the neighborhood enjoyed a revival, and the partners were looking to expand their growing success, one that’s been heralded by USA Today in a listing of the country’s “Best Burger Joints.”
In 1986, a second Char-Grill opened in Olde Raleigh Village, another on Atlantic Avenue in 1992, and a third in 1996 on Strickland Road. Now with stores also operating in Cary, Garner, Davidson, Benson, and Clayton, Wilder says he hopes to open a Wake Forest Char-Grill in March.
Keeping its ‘50s drive-in character is key to Char-Grill’s staying power. “We have never chased fads,” says Wilder. “Staying true to the original concept has contributed to our longevity.”