Town Square: Mount Pleasant
A community-minded doctor invests in a vision to light a spark under a quaint Cabarrus County town.
The place where Jessica Shockley clocks in every day — where she pours bourbons named Larceny and Conviction and serves a martini named Cell Block 73 — looked much like a prison to her as a little girl. It was a windowless, brick building smack in the middle of Mount Pleasant, where her grandma helped make socks, leggings, pantyhose and the like.
“I thought it was an eyesore forever,” says Shockley, 39. “And my grandma would have to come to work, and I would just cry. All I saw was her walking into a bricked-up building, no windows. This was a scary place.”
Despite its austere aura, the mill provided livelihoods for generations and was the centerpiece of town. The building opened in 1911 as a general store and livery before resurfacing as Mount Pleasant Hosiery Mill in 1932. The knitting machines shut down in 2009.
Shockley, with short, blond, stylishly messy hair, would fit right in serving the hipsters of Asheville or Charlotte. But she’s a hometown girl, having grown up in this Cabarrus County town nine miles east of Concord. It’s named for the picturesque countryside and relatively high elevation between Adams and Buffalo creeks. She left Mount Pleasant for 10 years to join the Marines but returned home to provide a different kind of service.
The former mill is now 73 & Main, a restaurant with one of North Carolina’s largest bourbon selections. Some of those spirits are refined down the road at Southern Grace Distilleries, located inside a former prison that housed as many as 400 inmates. The Cabarrus Correctional Center closed in 2011 after more than 80 years in operation. In 2016, Southern Grace began leasing some of the site to make its perfectly legal moonshine, freeing up cellblocks to be barrel houses for aging whiskey.
The prison and mill found a new life, thanks mostly to a longtime local physician, Allen Dobson, who’s known as a bourbon connoisseur. He and two fellow doctors formed Mount Pleasant Properties, buying and renovating the prison before acquiring the mill. Robin Hayes, a former U.S. congressman and heir to the Cannon textile family, owned the property before donating it to the town in 2016. Dobson and his partners had a vision for what Shockley and others had viewed as an eyesore. “I always thought they should bulldoze the place down,” Shockley says. “Little did I know this is what was behind those bricks.”
Mount Pleasant Properties bought the mill from the town in early 2017 and began refurbishing it to its original glory. Using old photos, workers rebuilt the window casings to the exact specs as its general store days. (The textile mill bricked the windows because sunlight made the inside unbearably hot.) Workers restored the ceiling moldings and replicated what they couldn’t save. They preserved the original hardwood floors. The project had its naysayers, as the restaurant’s general manager, Jody Stratcham, 27, is quick to point out.
“I can’t tell you, when this was underway, how many people approached us saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this will never work,’” she says. “But the people who were telling us this would never work, they’re some of our regulars now. They are some of the people that still come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, wow, this worked.’”
The restaurant, named for its spot on the corner of N.C. 73 and Main Street, opened in December 2017. Its menu includes at least 10 kinds of steak, seared duck breast and crab-stuffed trout, some of it regionally sourced. On a weeknight, 73 & Main is a lively scene. Families, couples and friends gather at tables well spread out. Patrons nurse cocktails at the bar, called the Hosiery Mill Pub. Flat-screen TVs glow with the game. Dobson, 68, emerges just off the bar, as if to savor the scene like a smoky bourbon on the rocks.
“We decided we were going to give back to the community by restoring some buildings,” he says. By giving back, he wanted to show appreciation to a town that welcomed him as a young doctor in 1983, when he opened Mount Pleasant Family Physicians. He and his wife, Martha, raised three kids in the town that he will always call home. “I think it’s becoming evident now with COVID that it’s more important than ever that where you live has all the things you need,” he says.
Dobson thinks back to a few years ago, back before the distillery and 73 & Main. Mount Pleasant lived up to its name as a pleasant place to live with a historic district full of homes with rocking chairs and porch swings. But dining-out options and cool places to hang were sparse. It had no real nightlife, and while Charlotte is only 34 miles away, Dobson yearned to see Mount Pleasant become more self-sufficient.
“This is a great little community. It’s got a lot of people living around here,” says Dobson, who is well known in N.C. health care circles as the founder of the 3,200-member Community Care Physician Network based in Cary. “But everybody’s driving to Charlotte for dinner, driving to Charlotte to work. If we really want to rebuild the town and create economic development, we need to have people come here because it’s a nice town.”
Bourbon, barbecue and baristas
Right across Main Street from 73 & Main, Dobson and his partners opened a wine and coffee bar called Café Lentz. Its decor is splashed with art, including a mural of leaves and fronds covering an entire wall that creates the feel of being lost in a giant’s garden. The menu drips with Tiger Spice Chai lattes (the signature coffee), along with regional wines, craft beer and paninis. Next door, The Bakery at Mount Pleasant is a wonderland of cakes, cookies and brownies and maker of 73 & Main’s famous bread pudding that’s steeped in the local Conviction bourbon.
The doctors brought a dose of urbanity to Mount Pleasant, but the town has its old standbys that locals love. What-A-Burger #13 still looks like it did in the 1960s when it became the go-to for burgers, fries and milkshakes, the classic small-town hamburger joint. Buddy’s Place, on the corner diagonal from 73 & Main, still dishes up its stuffed bell peppers, baked spaghetti and sweet potato casserole.
A newer eatery already looks like an old favorite: the Mount Pleasant Smokehouse. Its slogan is “low and slow,” but its business is good and brisk. It opened in February, a month before the coronavirus pandemic began, forcing the smokehouse to rely solely on takeout orders.
Nicole Brafford, who’s lived in Mount Pleasant all her 40 years, is one of the managers. “The virus has not really slowed us down,” she says, tending to the small bar where bottles of sauces wait to douse the next heap of smoked pork or brisket. A chalkboard announces the beer and wine offerings.
“People here are good. We’re like family because it’s such a small town. When I was a kid growing up here, I hated it because my parents knew everything that I did. Now that I’m a parent, I love it because we all watch out for each other.”
Comparing such a tidy small town to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry is an overused metaphor, but it’s irresistible in Mount Pleasant. Neighborhoods look like art settings in the Saturday Evening Post. The Mount Pleasant Barber Shop has only three chairs on a black-and-white checkered floor, the striped barber’s pole serving as a sidewalk beacon. The town encourages folks to get out and walk: In 2017, it spent $400,000 to pave over a dirt lot with 55 free parking spaces. Such a town, no matter how much nostalgia it evokes, could dry up if not given shots of ambition. Just as some doctors injected a tonic into an abandoned hosiery mill, Southern Grace Distilleries generated buzz at a dormant prison.
“We’re kind of off the beaten path, but the unique nature of the facility, I think, has served as a drawing point for folks,” says Thomas Thacker, the co-founder and chief operating officer. Everything Southern Grace sells is distilled and aged on the site. Former inmate dorms now house 53-gallon barrels made of American white oak. Its trademarked and award-winning spirit is Conviction, a 105-proof, sour mash whiskey aged for at least two years. It’s described as having a “smooth, sweet finish with strong vanilla, clove and honey notes.”
The distillery ended up in this prison because the company founder, Leanne Powell, “fell in love with the facility and saw potential in it for tourism,” Thacker says. The granddaughter of bootleggers, she started Southern Grace in 2014. She died of a stroke last year at age 51. Conviction, as friends and co-workers say, was her passion.
The onset of the novel coronavirus inspired a side business of making hand sanitizer. Tours are still offered of the so-called Whiskey Prison, but they’re smaller in scale. “There was a time we were running tours that consisted of 20 or 25 people, and we’ve been basically running them at six to eight people since March,” Thacker says. “But we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to stay afloat.”
Locals, even those who once might have felt imprisoned by their small-town existence, want to stick around. Sitting on the patio of the Café Lentz long after closing time, Jannette Kluttz is soaking in the cool night air with a couple of friends. At 57, she’s never lived anywhere else. She married a man from Mount Pleasant, too. “We bought one of the older homes here on Main Street, did a restoration and [have] called it home ever since.”
It’s an everybody-knows-your-name kind of place. From the patio to the pub to the prison, Mount Pleasant will readily drink to that. ■