My Geographic Heritage: Ohio, Michigan, and Growing Up In Hickory


As I write this, I am recovering from a head cold that I seem to get about once a year.  This year, it kept me out of work for 2 days, but the good news is that I am feeling better, but am certainly not 100% yet.  For those of you that emailed me or gave some encouragement over Facebook, thank you very much.

As I lied on the couch for the past two days, I have been thinking about my geographical heritage.  I think it has something to do with this new show on The History Channel called MadhouseMadhouse is about racing at a historical racetrack in Winston-Salem, North Carolina called Bowman Gray Stadium which was one of the very first tracks on the NASCAR circuit.[1]  Now, I’m not a big racing fan, but I did grow up in Hickory, North Carolina, about an hour away from Winston-Salem.  For some of you, that may surprise you.  I have found out recently that a lot of people think I’m from Michigan.  Well…I’m not.  I was born July 2, 1976 in Catawba Memorial Hospital in Hickory, North Carolina and remained there until June, 1995.

When I was a kid, I wanted to leave Hickory.  I looked around while I was in high school and figured out that if I wanted to be anything, I needed to leave Hickory.  That’s not to say that any of my friends that chose to stay are nothing; it’s just to say that, for me, I felt like I needed to leave.  Like that Bon Jovi song, I was “a home town boy born a rolling stone.”  For those of you that do not know about Hickory, my home town is named after a bar.  It was originally called “Hickory Tavern” after a log tavern that was built and after the railroad came through, the city’s name was changed to just “Hickory.” If you go downtown, you will see a number of bars.  It’s a product of a city culture that has German roots, including a Lutheran college and many Lutheran churches.  It is situated in the foothills section of the mountains, a short drive from the town of Boone and about an hour northwest of Charlotte. At one point in the country’s history, 60% of America’s furniture came out of Hickory.  I am not sure where I read that, but I have remembered that statistic for a long time.  When I was a kid, if your parents wanted a job, they could probably find one, as long as you were willing to work for a furniture factory. 

But let me back up a little further.  My mother grew up in North Tazwell, Virginia, a very rural Appalachian community in the northwestern part of the “panhandle” of Virginia, not too far from the West Virginia border.  As of the 2000 census, there were only about 45,000 people in the whole county.[2]  Going back even further, the Appalachian area was settled by the Scotch-Irish, a distinct culture that emerged when the province of Ulster, in Ireland, was settled by the Scotch.  Then called Ulster-Scotch, they soon re-settled in areas of Great Britain and in the United States, specifically in the area where my mother grew up.[3]  Ironically, my father’s heritage is much the same.  The name “McDowell” used to be spelled “MacDowell” (and indeed there are still some of those around), but the “a” was dropped in favor of sounding more Irish.  Having this Appalachian heritage on both sides of my family explains a lot about me.  It could explain my temper and my stubbornness.  My mother’s maiden name, “Witten”, is German, but my grandmother’s maiden name is “Byrd”, a distinct English name.  I have also been told, although I am unable to substantiate this claim, that my great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee Indian. This would explain my mother’s jet black hair as a child. So I am a Scotch-Irish German Indian or, as I like to call it, an “alcoholic in waiting.” 

Anyway, my Mom migrated to Hickory in the early 70’s to find work.  After moving around to a couple of jobs, she began to work at Century Furniture Company, where she retired a couple of years ago after working there for 35 years.  My father grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  His story is a long and complicated one, but he migrated north to Charlotte, North Carolina where he married and fathered two children.  I recently reunited via the internet with my half-brother.  It might surprise some of you that I have a brother.  I do, but he is about 25 years older than me.  I usually describe myself as an only child because that is how I was raised and the rest is too hard to explain.  Well, unfortunately my Dad’s first marriage did not go well.  I do not know all of the details, but I know that the marriage ended in divorce.  Eventually, my Dad migrated to Hickory to work on a railroad franchise earning him the nickname “Papa Piggyback.”  Apparently, this enterprise did not work out, but he remained in Hickory and was a member at Temple Baptist Church in Hickory, North Carolina, where he met my mother and eventually got her a job where he worked at Century Furniture Company. They married in 1973.

In addition to Hickory being a furniture town, it was also a racing town.  For those of you that do not know, NASCAR started unofficially during prohibition when moonshiners would soup up their car to transport their illegal products.  Even when Prohibition ended, they continued to run moonshine from the “revenuers” to avoid paying federal taxes.  The culture grew and soon they were racing those souped-up cars and ultimately NASCAR was born.  All of this happened, by the way, in the area that I grew up in or not too far from it.  Hickory is home to Hickory Motor Speedway, a track that used to be on the NASCAR circuit, but was dropped when the “Grand National Series” became sponsored by R.J. Reynolds and then known as the “Winston Cup.”  Racing is, by far, the most popular sport in my hometown, even bigger than the Super Bowl.  Tobacco sponsorship was taken for granted.  Tobacco use was, for the most part, acceptable, except in very conservative churches.  My father smoked (Winston’s by the way). Most of his friends smoked.  Many members of our church smoked.  I began smoking at 14 years old and smoked off and on until I was 21 years old, at one point smoking about a pack a day.  So, there’s the environment I grew up in.  At the time, Hickory was a very blue-collar town and that was all I saw.  There was much more to the city than I gave it credit for, but ultimately, all I saw was an endless life of working in a factory.  I wanted more.

There was something else I cannot leave out.  Hickory is divided by railroad tracks.  This may not be as true as it was when I was a kid, but the tracks divided the north and the south sides of town.  My school, both the public and private schools that I attended at any given time, were on the north side of the tracks.  Coming from the north, once you crossed the tracks on Sweetwater Road, the area became much more run down.  I didn’t live in the ghetto, but I did live in a trailer park.  Now, I know that some of you look down on others who choose to live this way.  For my family, we really could not afford anything else.  My Dad moved us out there when I was seven years old.  I’m not really sure why, but I think it was just because he wanted to own something of his own and a trailer was all that we could afford.  He passed away when I was ten years old, a product of the carton a week of Winston cigarettes that he smoked.  It was me and my Mom for nine more years in that trailer park.  There were times when I was ashamed, but I have to hand it to my friends at my Christian school, I was never made fun of for living there.  As a matter of fact, if anyone did, I remember a couple of my friends coming to my defense.  We were poor, but I didn’t know it.  I never missed a meal, although my Mom did.  She chose to feed me rather than herself on a few occasions.  She took on extra hours at work to make the ends meet.   Let me tell you guys, I had a great childhood.  My friend Angie, who used to live down the street from me in the same trailer park, reminded me of that recently.  I would go down there to play with her and her little sister, Becky.  We would look for “buried treasure” in the dumpster and play wiffle ball in her backyard.  One time, we had a neighborhood Olympics and I went at break-neck speeds down a hill on a skateboard with no helmet or pads.  Angie was one of my best friends growing up, even though I didn’t want to admit that one of my best friends was a girl. When we weren’t playing together, I would be in “the woods” letting my imagination wonder.  “The woods” were what I called a small wooded area, maybe 2 acres at the most, just down the hill from our trailer.  I loved that place.  As I am writing this, I am getting emotional just thinking about how I felt when I went back there and saw that the new owner razed it to make room for more mobile homes.  One time, me and a neighborhood boy named Johnny went sledding down a hill in the back of  “the woods” in one of those rare Carolina snowfalls.  We didn’t have a sled.  Very few people owned sleds in North Carolina because you were lucky to use them once a year.  Instead, on this particular occasion, we used an old piece of sheet metal that we found.  We got going so fast that we landed in the open sewer at the bottom of the hill, and thus ended my sledding career. The truth is that I had it better than most people I think, but I didn’t know it at the time and I’m only now realizing just how good it was.  I’m not so naïve as to think that everyone who lived in the park had it as good as I did.  In the mid 90’s, my friend Johnny that I just mentioned put a gun in his mouth over a girl that left him. 

I left Hickory for the first time in the fall of 1994 where I attended my one and only semester at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where I became a believer and met a guy by the name of Steve Sparks from the Detroit area who ultimately introduced me to William Tyndale College in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  I left for Michigan the first time in 1995.  After being there six months, I failed miserably, and after a short stint in the Army in 1996, I remained in Hickory for the next two years.  I grew there spiritually and finally decided to give Michigan another try in June of 1998.  This time, I stayed and remained there until September, 2005.

I have a strange love/hate relationship with Michigan, particularly Detroit.  The city has so much potential.  When I first moved there in 1995, I was naïve enough to think that most of Detroit looked like Northville, an upscale suburb of Detroit, near where I lived.  I knew there were bad parts, but thought that Detroit just got a bad rep.  But when I moved back in ’98 and met people from other parts of the metro area, I began to understand a lot more.  And Tyndale changed a lot in those three years.  Its enrollment dropped substantially and it began to struggle financially.  I heard many rumors about the ethics of the school from some decent sources, but I chose not to believe them since I had no proof.  The Detroit city government went from bad to worse and became more corrupt than ever.  Slowly, I felt a mental, physical, and economic depression descend on a city and a school that I really loved, but was watching struggle.  It was like watching a family member that was an addict.  You love that family member and you know they could be something if they could just get rid of that addiction.  Finally, it was announced that the school would close its doors at the end of 2004.  I was already set to graduate, but many of my friends were not.  Losing Tyndale was like losing an old friend.  Many people can go back to their alma mater to celebrate, but I cannot.  Tyndale died and so did my hopes for the city of Detroit.  When I decided to go to seminary in 2005, I left the city and I have only looked back to the few friends that I have remaining there, mostly from my old church and Tyndale.

Enter Ohio.  I am a Carolina basketball fan and, because of my time in Michigan, a Michigan football fan.  After living in both states, I can confidentially tell you that Michigan football fans don’t really like Ohio State football fans, but Ohio State football fans HATE Michigan football fans.  I had to learn that the hard way.  Moving to Ohio though, was like breathing fresh air.  The traffic is ten-times better, the people are a little-less intense, and the traffic is ten-times better.  Hey, did I mention the traffic was much better?  The cost of living is cheaper, the schools are better, and the people are, for the most part, much more laid back than people in Michigan.    I do not have as much to say about Ohio other than if you do not have at least an acquaintance with football, you are probably not going to like it here, especially if you live in Stark County, where I live, the home of the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers, the biggest rivalry in high school football in the country and the only high school football game bet on in Vegas.  I am concerned, however, that the future of Canton, the biggest city in Stark County and the city that I work in, is troubled.  The economic downturn has hit Canton hard and things around here are looking bleak.  I currently working as a temp at a meat processing company, but I have continued to look for other permanent work and let me tell you, there is not much out there and it is certainly worse than it was a year ago.  I am left pondering my future and if God may be leading us away from this area.  It’s a decision that I have wrestled with for some time, not wanting to leave family and friends behind and certainly not wanting to move to an area where we have no connections at all, but this spring, I will graduate with my Masters and my “official” reason for moving here will be accomplished.  I am left wondering what will happen in 2010.  I honestly do not know.

So that’s my geographical heritage.  As I am now in my 30’s, there are times that I really miss Hickory.  It’s honestly hard for me to go back there because I’m hit with so many memories that it’s hard to take.  My Mom is still there, remarried and no longer living in a trailer park.  Of course, I still have many friends there, but much has changed.  The furniture industry has taken a major hit and the economy of Hickory has been permanently altered, but the city has grown and diversified and has an awesome future ahead of it.  If you find yourself in Hickory, you need to find a few places.  You need to check out McGuire’s Pub in Hickory, next to the community theatre, near downtown.  I love the atmosphere and the fact that not that many people know about it.  Also, go around the corner and check out the Olde Hickory Tap Room, another great place to hang out.  You also got to check out Dante’s Pizza.  It used to be in the mall before they remodeled and it just has excellent New York style pizza that floods my head with memories of my days as a mall rat eating pizza and playing video games and flirting with the girls that worked at Sears.  And for Pete’s sake, find some place to get some BBQ!  North Carolina has the best BBQ in the world, bar none, and you have to check out Bennett’s or Shell’s which in my opinion, are the best in town.  If you can, take a day and ride up to Blowing Rock and Boone, two great cities in the mountains that have lots to do.  Find the Valle Crucis General Store and enjoy a nice Coca-Cola in a glass bottle and pick you up some barrel candy.  Get over to Wilmington, about a 6 hour drive from Hickory on the other side of the state and go to the beach.  I recommend Oak Island….and please…get some seafood while you are there….awesome Calabash shrimp.

If you are ever in the great state of Michigan, it isn’t all bad.  After all, it’s the state where I met my wife and there are still a few things you need to see.  You should try and see the North American Auto Show, usually held at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit.  It is the biggest auto show in North America!  While you’re there, go down to Lafayette Street and get yourself some Coney dogs, the best I’ve ever eaten or go down to Mexican Town and go to Xochimilco’s (pronounced “Sosheemilco’s”) and try a Super Burrito.  I dare you!  Or, if you are extremely brave, check out the White Castle in the shadow of old Tigers stadium.  Just be prepared to wait a while.  If you go during the fall, try to get out to a cider mill.  The cider and the doughnuts are always good and the atmosphere is very romantic. 

If you are ever in Ohio, one of my favorite things to do is to go out to Amish country and just walk around.  There is a lot there to do, particularly in Berlin.  You can also drop by Wilmot and eat at the Amish Door.  If you are in Navarre, the town that I live in, be sure to stop by at Anderson’s In The Village.  The coffee is great!  If you are in Canton, check out the Pro-Football Hall of Fame.  It’s quite a sight, but go early; it does get crowded.  Head up to Cleveland and check out the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame.  Try eating at the Flats.  Ask the locals which side to go to, because I forget.  If you are in Shelby on a Sunday morning, you can check out my former church, CORE Community Church.

As time has gone on, I have learned to embrace my heritage, particularly my southern heritage, because it has made me the person that I am today.  There was a time in my life when I didn’t like having to be home on Sunday afternoon for lunch to eat fried chicken and drink sweet tea.  I didn’t want to go to church three times a week and I thought that living in a trailer park was something to be ashamed of.  Now, there are days, particularly on a cold February day in Ohio, when I would give anything to be playing wiffle ball in my friend’s backyard next to that stinky dumpster.  We didn’t have much, but we certainly had all we needed and more.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowman_Gray_Stadium

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tazewell_County,_Virginia

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotch-Irish_American

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