Depression era ethic bred Biltmore brio
by Rob Neufeld
Part 3 of 3-part series
“Fortune is a lazy goddess, she will never come to you,” Biltmore-born entrepreneur Winston Pulliam says, quoting a hymn he’d learned in grammar school in the 1930s.
It was written by Ellen M.H. Gates, author, minister’s wife, and sister of one of the men who built the railroad to the Pacific.
“If you have not gold and silver,” the hymn advises, “you can visit the afflicted…If you cannot, in the harvest, gather up the richest sheaves…Go and glean among the briars growing rank against the wall.”
The ethics of this hymn—the charity as well as the industriousness—permeated the souls of children who grew up during the Depression and World War II era in Biltmore Village.
“I look back at people like Slick Warren, who couldn’t have come from any worse living conditions,” reflected Tommy Koontz who, with Pulliam, his friend since childhood, talked with me about their Biltmore upbringing recently.
“Did you ever go in his house?” Pulliam interjected.
“That’s right, dirt floors.”
“He rose to become a big executive with CP&L in Fayetteville,” Koontz continued. “I remember when he played football, he wore combat boots because he didn’t have the money to buy football shoes.”
“He went to Asheville-Biltmore College. He washed buses for Trailways in order to go to school.”
“Then he worked his way through N.C. State.”
“And became Dean of Men,” Pulliam added.
“There was something in people back then.”
“I can tell you what it is,” Pulliam said. “It’s called fire in the belly. You had it for education. I had it because I wanted to do good in life. When I went into the service station (Tri-Co), I wanted to work as hard as I could and make money as quick as I could, and I did. But I didn’t want that money strictly for me. I wouldn’t trade my and Tommy’s friendship for all the rice in China, and they tell me they’ve got a lot of it.”
Plaza Café, run by Tommy Arakas; Dixie Pit Barbecue; Oakley Shoe Shop; Biltmore Shoe Shop; Biltmore Plaza Recreation Center; Biltmore Hardware; Biltmore Beauty Shop; Slayden Fakes, grocers; Hot Shot Café; Quality Bakery; and Evans Esso Service Station were just some of the businesses that made the village a lively, familiar commercial center in the 1940s.
“I remember the frame going up on the Recreation Center (in the early 1940s), and the sparks flying off of the steel when they were welding it,” Koontz said. “I was playing around Doc Jarrett’s Biltmore Drugstore.”
“Reading funny books,” Pulliam noted.
The Recreation Center would sport a bowling alley and the Biltmore Tavern. Across the street, passenger trains took people from the depot to New York City in sleeping cars.
“And do you remember Penguin’s Frozen Custard, right across the corner?” Pulliam asked.
“That was the first frozen custard I ever heard of,” answered Koontz.
“The bowling alley had duckpins,” Pulliam related. “I’d set many of them. I made three cents a game for duckpins, five cents for kingpins. You had to dodge.”
“That shelf that you sat on back there,” Koontz said, having also been an employee, “you’d throw your legs up when the ball would come through”
“Them pins would go all over you,” said Pulliam. “You got hit. It hurt. A lot of times, they’d have soldiers from Moore General come in there and bowl, and they could hit them pins hard.”
At Sam Robbins’ grocery store at Brook and Reed Streets, boys exchanged Coca-Cola bottles for pennies. Robbins, a Jewish merchant who was known to help out many people with credit during the tough economic years, would wink at the boys bringing the same bottles twice.
“He had two of the most beautiful daughters,” Pulliam recollected.
Robbins would tell Pulliam, who worked for him on Saturdays, “Winton[qv], you go see Wootie, and she’ll fix you lunch.” One time, on a dare, Pulliam kissed Ruthie, and after that first time, he didn’t have to resort to tricks, the story goes.
Biltmore Village—and America—in the time of the phoenix rising, was sexy.
The fifties and beyond
Pulliam served as a crew chief flight engineer in the Air Force in the 1950s. The day he’d come home, he got a call, he told Mike Blanton on the radio show, “Financially Speaking,” that “the man I used to work for, Mr. Evans, wanted to sell his service station.” He and Evans’ son, John, borrowed $8,000 to buy Mr. Evans’ stock, and, Pulliam said, “I had on overalls at 9 o’clock the first morning I was home.”
Pulliam slowly grew his business with John Evans from 1954 to 1958, and then started Tri-Co Service Station at 10 Brook Street. For 32 years, he served the community, famously as the presider over a village gathering place.
“Pully and my dad, Bud Holt, were friends and we traded exclusively with Tri-Co,” writes Kim Dawson.
“I was supposed to sign any tickets that I had, when driving my car, with my name. That way Daddy could keep up with how much gas I was using. Pully would help me out and let me put some in my Dad's pile so I would not go over my monthly allotment of gas daddy allowed. After that it came out of my pocket. Pully would say ‘go have some fun on this tank.’”
In the 1960s, Pulliam started buying land on Hendersonville Road, knowing the Interstate was coming. His real estate business multiplied, and is now, under the name Pulliam Properties, owned by his son, Rusty Pulliam.
“We’ve had God in our lives,” Pulliam said, “and I want to spend the rest of my life doing things for other people.” His charities are numerous, and he’s personally involved in them.
21st century flowering
Back in Biltmore Village, much has changed since the 1960s. The old way of village life is past, and a new era of commercial vitality reigns.
On March 22, 1990, Tri-Co Service Station closed down. It has since been demolished, its site now occupied by J. Crew in a three-story mixed use development that includes Talbots, Coldwater Creek, and Williams-Sonoma.
In 1991, Bell-Harrison, a specialty clothing store started in Biltmore by Bill Bell in the 1960s, closed after trying to compete by building a national chain. “There was an avalanche,” co-owner David Harrison said, referring to new market trends, “and we were trying to climb the mountain during the avalanche.” Bell’s son, John Bell, head of Biltmore Property Group, is now a leader in village development and preservation.
In April of 2000, Biltmore Hardware closed after 72 years of business. Charles Lingerfelt Jr., son of its founder, said it could not survive Home Depot.
The 1940s Recreation Center building stands, occupied by Neo Cantina restaurant. New businesses occupy the many remaining Vanderbilt-era pebbledash structures, as the village negotiates its 21st century status.
Read about Tommy Arakas in Mark-Ellis Bennett’s article in the “Biltmore Beacon,” available in Biltmore Village establishments.