APRIL 2, 2009 ISSUE

Last of Original Owners of Mast General Store Dies at 83

Howard Wellington Mast, Jr. (1926-1983) was the fourth generation of his family to operate general stores in western Watauga County.

The traditions remain, but the last member of the Mast family to own and operate the Valle Crucis general store that bears their name has died.

Howard Wellington “H.W.” Mast, Jr., 83, passed away Saturday, March 21, at Glenbridge Health and Rehabilitation in Boone. He was a member of the fourth generation of Masts to operate general stores in the county, beginning more than 120 years ago.

“I have wonderful memories of ‘H,’” said John Cooper, who, with his wife Faye, purchased the Mast General Store and reopened it in June 1980. “He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he was very helpful to us in understanding the community and making us welcome here.”

That sense of humor showed up in many ways. Mast used to carry some miniature coins, copies of nickels, dimes and quarters in his pocket. “He’d ask someone if they wanted some small change, and then hand them some of those,” Cooper remembered. Another “change” joke involved a quarter welded to a nail, which was hammered into the store’s counter. “He would put a customer’s change next to the quarter, then they would try to pick it up,” he said. The Coopers tried the same joke, but times—and senses of humor—may have changed. “It would make some customers mad, so we stopped,” he said.

The Mast family first became involved in the local retail trade in the decades after the Civil War. Newton Lafayette Mast (1859-1929), H.W. Mast’s great-granduncle, opened a store sometime in the 1880s in Cove Creek. After a number of years, he hired his nephew, William Wellington Mast (1876-1959) to work in the store. The salary: $12 per month.

That money, carefully saved, allowed the younger Mast to buy a horse and buggy and, eventually, move into the business world on his own.

General stores began to appear more frequently in Watauga County after the Civil War. In Valle Crucis, Henry Taylor built such a store starting in 1882. The doors of what is today the flagship Mast General Store (there are eight locations in three states now) opened in 1883.

William Mast—known as “W.W.”—went to work at the Taylor store and joined as a partner in 1897, at the amazingly young age of 21. It was renamed the Taylor & Mast General Store. In 1913, “W.W.” bought out his partner and the name “Mast General Store” went on the door.

William Wellington Mast (1876-1959), seen with his family, was the first Mast to own Mast General Store. Howard Wellington Mast, Sr. (1903-1982), the second owner, stands behind his father.

Back in those days, general stores carried everything people in rural communities needed. As a 1923 ad for the store proclaimed, “Goods for the living; Coffins and Caskets for the dead.” The familiar checkerboard was there then as now, and the stove was a community center for debates political and otherwise.

And back then people took their politics seriously. The Civil War had left deep scars, and so Valle Crucis had a general store owned by the solidly Republican Farthings and one run by the deeply Democratic Masts. The community's post office was said to move back and forth between the stores as the tides of political fortune shifted.

W.W. Mast made a success of his store. Credit was easy, and bills were often paid in barter. He became a community leader, serving as a director of Northwestern Bank and a trustee of Appalachian State.

Though his experience began in days of the horse and buggy, Mast brought the first gasoline to the community, signing a contract with Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1930.

Unlike today, hours in those old general stores were rarely fixed. The doors opened most days at 5:30 a.m., and it was often midnight before the last customer (and conversationalist) headed home.
In 1941, W.W. Mast turned the store over to his eldest son, Howard Wellington Mast, Sr. (1903-1982). He continued the policy of “Everything from toothpicks to coffins,” keeping the store a vital part of the community even as the commercial development of Boone and Blowing Rock overshadowed the outlying general stores.

Eventually, the younger H.W. took over the store from his father. He ran it until 1973, when he sold it to new owners from Atlanta and Florida. They ran the store until the winter of 1977, and the doors remained closed when spring returned. That was when John and Faye Cooper stepped into the picture and brought the much-loved store back to life.

“I got to know his father first,” Cooper said. “Then ‘H’ would come in the store. He had many valuable suggestions, and we would seek him out for advice. But whether we sought it out or not, he always gave us good advice.”

As he got to know him, Cooper realized what a remarkable man was behind those jokes and stories. “Behind his humor was a real angel of a person who would do anything for anybody,” he said.

When the Masts took over the general store, most of their customers rarely traveled far from home. A trip to Boone was a major event for some, made only once or twice a year. That sort of love of home filled H.W. Mast. “He loved his wife,” Cooper recalled. “When Mary Hazel retired from teaching at Valle Crucis School, she wanted to travel. Someone asked ‘H,’ ‘Are you going with her?’ He said, ‘She’ll get to go twice as many places if I don’t go with her. As far as I want to go is Vilas.’” So Mrs. Mast traveled with friends, and “H” stayed in his beloved valley.

After retirement, he actually returned to the store for a time and worked for the Coopers. The post office had reopened in the store in October 1980, and Mast would be found sorting mail and greeting customers, as members of his family had done for generations.

The last of those Masts is now gone, but the memories remain with their family and Valle Crucis.