Hugh Torance House and Store teaches lessons of the past

In 1997, the late Rev Jeff Lowrance contacted me at the Lake Norman Chamber and said there was a piece of history in Huntersville that desperately needed the help of local volunteers.  Set back just off Gilead Road in Huntersville is an old two story house that thousands of people drive past each week – the Hugh Torance House and Store.  Located at 8231 Gilead Road, the store dates back to 1779 and is the oldest standing store and residence in North Carolina.   It was owned by Hugh Torance and his wife Isabella, and their son James operated a store there from 1805 until 1825.  By the early 1960’s the house had fallen on hard times.  Buried under layers of Kudzu, its once sturdy sides had given way.  The Mecklenburg Historical Association and local volunteers including, Dick and Belle Banks, worked to raise money to repair the old home.  In the spring of 1989, the Hugh Torance House and Store was again opened to the public.

Rev. Jeff Lowrance with Huntersville Commissioner Isaac B. Thompson

When Rev Lowrance contacted me a decade later, the energy of volunteers had faded, and the house again was in need of attention.  Walking into the house for the first time, I was struck with both its simplicity and craftsmanship.  Long before laser guides, power saws, and our wide assortment of power tools, carpenters created fluted paneling and carved intricate wood molding by hand.  The outside of the house is fitted with basket weave plank doors with exposed rose headed nails.  It’s really hard to imagine a craftsman using the chisels and gouges to create the chair molding and detail around the fireplace that I examined for the first time on that summer afternoon so long ago.  Jeff’s eyes lit up with a passion as he spoke of Hugh who fought in the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill and whose captain was killed in the skirmish.  It was his captain’s widow, Isabella, that Hugh would later marry, helping raise her four children and their own son James.

This past week, I served as a tour guide for the first and fourth grade classes of Ramah Christian Classical School.  It was a real experience for the young people as they peered into life before computers and cell phones.  Instead they marveled at the staple items of the store:  the sugar cones, blocks of tea, and ungrounded coffee.  They played with the simple wooden children’s toys and asked a litany of questions about the spinning wheels and tools of the time.  Too soon our tour was over and the children were headed back to the school leaving me to close up the house once again.  As I walked upstairs, my fingers traveling along the soft wooden rail of the staircase, I thought about the small fingers which ran along that same wood two hundred years ago.

I paused at the bottom of the steps in a chair by the window and wondered how many times James might have sat in the same spot, waiting on that customer to ride up for needed supplies.  Possibly leaving a note on the message board of the store, trading goods, and then perhaps enjoying an ale in the tavern next door before their long ride back home.

Perhaps John Kennedy said it best when he reminded us, “History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”

As I turned the key in the door, securing the past, I looked back at the stately old house.  Closing my eyes tightly, I imagined that Hugh, Isabella and the kids were standing as silent sentries, watching over the home until our next visit.   As each of us go about our day, we are reminded of those who came before us, providing us with the blessings of liberty and opportunity, and we have the responsibility to leave our community better than we found it.  It is the legacy we were left and the responsibility we owe to the future.


As you go about your job today – ask yourself what kind of business are you in?

Dorothy Hamill and Bill Russell at the 1992 Healthy American Fitness Leaders Conference

A few weeks ago, Hilary Broadway, our Public Policy Chairman and a local realtor with Allen Tate Realty was sharing a book she really enjoyed – “Positively Outrageous Service” by Scott Gross.  Hilary stated that one of the great take aways of the book is that real “POS” is random and unexpected.  The element of surprise is part of its power.     Listening to Hilary share some of the branding and customer service tips from the book, I could not help but reflect on an incident in my life that made an indelible impression on me.

In 1992, I was serving as President of the United States Junior Chamber (Jaycees) and had been asked to co-emcee the Healthy American Fitness Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia with Dorothy Hamill, 1976 Olympic Champion.  Our Keynote Speaker for the event was Arnold  Schwarzenegger.    It was a real delight to be on the stage with Dorothy and another  thrill was working out with Armold the next morning.

My wife Melissa & I with Arnold

Only problem was Arnold and the hundred or so fitness leaders in the room were a great deal more commited than I was.  I dressed in my sweats, thanked the people in the room for the difference they were making in their communities and went to breakfast.  Leaving Arnold with all the fitness zealots, I told him, “Unlike you – I won’t be back….”  Nearly twenty years later, my exercise routine still lacks commitment, always taking a backseat to a warm Krispey Kreme donut and a cup of coffee. 

I was flying in from a speaking engagement in Minnesota and our staff at the Junior Chamber had me booked on the last available flight leaving Minnesota that would get me into Atlanta just in time to change and then attend the banquet.   This particular flight out of Minnesota was delayed because of heavy inclement weather, delaying our flight and in the process impairing my ability to catch my connection.     The moment we touched down, I was running full throttle through the terminal, dashing madly to my gate, only to find the flight attendant shutting the door.  Out of breath, I managed to state I needed to get on the flight.  The attendant shot back that I could hardly expect to get there at boarding time and catch my flight.

I explained the situation, indicating who I was, and what I was going to be doing, and then emphasized that was the very last flight that would get me where I needed to go.    The attendant merely looked at me and told me she was sorry.   The flight was already departing and she would get me on the next available flight.  To say I was upset would be putting it mildly.

 In the meantime, a young man had been standing behind   the counter listening to our exchange.  He asked for my ticket, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “Mr. Russell, I heard your situation.  We’re gonna’ get you on that plane.” I watched as the plane backed back up to the gate and they had me take the first available seat.    To this day, I remember taking a seat by the window.  Looking out, I could see back to the terminal gate and in the window I saw the gentleman that helped me.  Dressed in his blue suit, the tiny lock of black hair dangling gently on his forehead, the red cape flowing in the breeze, and the big yellow “S” on his chest.

Well, maybe he wasn’t really Superman.  But he saved my day and what I thought about that airline and whether I would ever fly them again might have depended on his actions that day.    But one thing was for sure – the flight attendant – she was in the airlines business.  The gentleman that got me on that plane, he was in the “people business”.  He knew about Positively Outrageous Service before there was a term for it.

As you go about your day at the lake, working to grow your business, you need to ask yourself  one question – what business are you in?