Time seemed to pass my aunt’s Charles’ Motel in North Elkin by as the years moved on. First, I-77 diverted the tourist traffic that had passed on Highway 21/North Bridge Street.
Next came newer lodges and finally chain motels that rose out along interstate. The motor lodge so familiar in the 1950s and ’60s during Charles’ Motel’s heyday became passe.
So my aunt Faye Sturgill shifted focus. Instead of accommodating one-night-only guests my aunt began to look to the lonely, to those with no place else to go. She began accepting guests for a longer term, folks who needed some time to get back on their feet or a break until they were ready to move on.
Some never moved on. They were sick and dying. Charles Motel was their last stop.
I noticed the changes during my too-infrequent visits over the years. Candy, soft drinks, toiletries for travelers and room keys at the registration desk disappeared. Faye turned the unneeded motel office into her little museum.
Faye loved collecting, and toward the end she filled the lobby and sitting area from floor to ceiling with dolls and empty Avon bottles and other collectibles. She also packed some motel rooms with the stuff.
Toward the end there was only a narrow walking path from the motel office door to the couch as all kinds of knickknacks lined the walls and covered the shelves, registration counter and floor.
Stopping by Faye’s became an adventure.
She closed the motel about a decade ago, and neither I nor anyone else knew what would become of what once was a thriving and important fixture in the Elkin hospitality scene. Would they bulldoze the place?
Faye died in 2008.
Now something new is taking shape at her old motel, and it remarkably looks and sounds like the good ol’ days that I and other old-timers here in the hometown fondly remember.
I had a chance to stop by the place and meet a talkative Raleigh electrical contractor who is refurbishing the old motel.
Steve Guth, who has a farm in Thurmond and plans to stay here full time once he gets out of the state capital for good, has stripped out the old motel’s interior and has framing up in anticipation of building new rooms.
He told me that he plans to open a low-cost, short-term residential facility, much like Faye’s old boarding house.
When pressed for an opening date, Guth hesitated. Recovery from a broken leg has slowed him down, he explained. He said maybe it’ll be ready in a year.
“I’m in a race with next door to see who can work the slowest,” Guth joked. Next door, the old Bon Ton/Basin Creek restaurant building still has a banner proclaiming, “Smokehouse Opening In Fall 2014.” Building and legal woes have delayed that renovation.
In 1993 videographers Christal Neaves and Gregory Reck recorded a documentary about Faye and the motel. Faye proudly gave me a copy, on an old VHS video tape. I still have it. They say the Elkin Libary has a copy, too.
Never a shy one, my aunt described on camera how she turned the motel into a boarding house. The rate: $5 a night.
“I could sit here for I bet you till the sun went down this evening and tell you people that I have been able to take in and give them a room,” Faye said on tape. “And I’ve hid them. There’d be women running from men or men running from women. And just so many different things. And I’d be able to hide them and help them and give them something to eat.”
The documentary recorded a number of touching testimonials from grateful guests/boarders.
“For a man that’s down and out, ain’t got nothing,” one unnamed man said, “it would be a good place for him to go and seek some help. It’s better than any welfare office you ever been (in), I mean, the way you’re treated.”
Mom did some housekeeping for her big sister at Charles’ Motel in the early 1960s, and one summer I got to help out a little, placing towels in rooms and such. I was about 8.
So it was with a twinge of nostalgia that I got out the old VHS tape and viewed it once again. And one testimonial almost knocked me out of my chair.
A man said he was the first African American guest, in 1960, during the racial segregation years. And he made a wish.
“I would love to see it live forever,” a man identified only as James said of the motel. “As long as this place is here, she (Faye) will never die. Because I know someone will come and keep it just like she had it. This I really believe.”
Well, James, it turns out that you were a prophet. For someone has come along who intends to keep Faye’s dream alive.
“It’s more than a motel,” James said. “It’s a home for people in need. ”
While listening to Guth, I realized that’s just what he plans to do.
So Aunt Faye “will never die,” or specifically her dream — James’ dream.
I can hear her now: “Well, now, ain’t that something!”
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.
Back In The Hometown