Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


June 7, 2014

Jake’s Grocery: A point of stability in McDowell County

NORTHFORK — In a world of constant change, Jake’s Grocery has been a point of stability for decades. Economic downturns and floods have challenged owner Jacob T. Potter and his wife Carol Sue, but with help from above, the small store in McDowell County has stayed open to see its 45th anniversary.

Jake’s Grocery is a small establishment along Cherokee Road not far from Northfork. A person coming inside usually hears the television and immediately sees Jake himself sitting behind the counter. Items ranging from sausage gravy to duct tape wait on shelves and in glass cases.

“In August, I’ll be 72,” Potter said while the news played in the background. He pointed to the back of his store. “I live right behind us.”

The first of the month was also the grocery store’s anniversary.

“On June 1, it was 45 years,” he recalled. “We started on June 1, 1969. My family moved here, but I don’t know how long ago.” He is originally from Mountain City, Tenn., and his parents moved to McDowell County to find work in the mining industry.

Potter pointed at a small sign above the counter. “See that sign? ‘I’m a Volunteer Mountaineer.’” His wife was born in McDowell County.

 Jake’s Grocery was originally Steve’s Cash Store operated by A.E. Stephenson, also known as Steve. Potter later bought the store from him.

“I worked for him,” Potter said. Little has changed since he became the store’s owner. “Basically, it was the same thing. The only thing is I don’t handle meats anymore and milk; the milk truck doesn’t come up here. But basically, everything’s been the same for years.”

He pointed to the door behind the counter. “The only thing different is I added that backroom.”

Floods struck the Northfork area and other parts of McDowell County in 2001 and 2002. The high waters impacted Jake’s Grocery and its neighbors, but the Potters managed to keep the store in operation.

“The Good Lord’s been watching over me all these years,” he said, thumb pointing skyward to Heaven. “I give Him the credit.”

McDowell County’s economy started a downturn as the coal industry changed and mines started to close. Potter again credited a higher power for getting his family through difficult times.

“By the help of the Good Lord,” he confirmed. “The economy’s down and all these coal mines shut down. I never did think there would be a day coming when there wouldn’t be a coal mine up this hollow. There used to be two or three up this hollow.”

Despite the loss of local jobs, Jake’s Grocery has been a mainstay in the community for all its 45 years in business. Potter and his family got to know many of the residents, but, gradually, people passed away or moved way from McDowell County. There are fewer homes, too.

“A long time ago, everywhere you had a flat space, there used to be a house. They would move out, and the house would get torn down or burned up,” he said.

The customers Potter got to know is one of the best things he likes about being in the grocery business. He still has good neighbors, and new people are starting to arrive. A rider on an ATV roared down the road, filling the store for an instant with its noise. Riders of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail are bringing new business to McDowell County.

“They’re good people around here,” Potter said. “Now we’re getting these ATVs. They’ve kind of helped maintain us. They’ve got the Ashland Resort up here, about three miles up.”

Other nearby business such as restaurants and homes offering ATV lodging are opening their doors, and the ATVs are bringing Jake’s Grocery a new generation of business.

“I’ve had somebody, I believe, from every state in the union in here, and Canada. Everywhere. I had one guy in here last fall and I got to talking to him. I asked him where he was from, and he said he was from Australia. I said, ‘You’re up here riding the trails?’ And he said no, he was up here taking pictures.”

Operating a grocery store now catering to ATV tourists as well as the community is just one of the many jobs Jake Potter has worked in McDowell County.

“Before I worked here, I hadn’t been out of high school too long,” he recalled. “Over the years, I’ve done a little bit of everything.”

He did not work in coal mines, but he was a coal mine’s night watchman for a while.

Then he spent time working as a process server for the McDowell County Sheriff’s Department. He later served as a judge for the city of Keystone, sold insurance, and even had a real estate license.

Potter said he would like to see more people get involved with promoting the economic potential offered by the ATV tourists. He sees their potential as they drive down the road; they do have money to spend.

“You see some motor homes, some are a bodacious size,” he remarked. “You know the people driving those have plenty of money, or they’re in debt up to their eyeballs.”

Offering ATV visitors more activities they could enjoy when they’re not out on the trails, particularly in the evening hours, could help, Potter said.

“Well, if they could get a little more activity for them besides riding through the bushes,” he speculated. “Don’t get me wrong — they enjoy that. We could have just a little more. I don’t know what that would be. After hours, you could have something.”

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