Founded In 1890, Thompson's Store Is North Carolina's Oldest Grocer

For a grocer that's more than 130 years old, Thompson's Store in Saluda, North Carolina, is looking pretty good. More than good, if you ask folks in the tiny mountain town, who stress its importance as the oldest operating grocery store in the state. Founded in 1890, a mere nine years after Saluda officially incorporated, this well-loved store has been way more than a place to fill weekly grocery carts with necessities. 

Thompson's has served as a crucial community resource, good-naturedly nicknamed "Information Central," thanks to the hands-on presence of Lola Thompson Ward, who took over the store from her father, George Thompson, the original founder. Ward, joined by her husband, Roy, ran the store for at least 90 years, hosting the gathering spot for all manner of locals — from farmers to town leaders, homemakers, church-goers, quilting groups, and families — all sharing stories, gossip, recipes, births and funerals, tips about the weather, and news from near and far. 

With a population of about 650 people as of 2021, life in Saluda still centers on its old-fashioned Main Street, where the current store moved in 1940. Though Lola Ward died at the hearty age of 103, the store remains in good hands since family members Judy Ward and cousin Clark Thompson reclaimed ownership after a brief stint with outside owners. The store's 1950s-style Ward's Grill also still thrives today, cradling the past with its old-school soda-fountain décor and small-town diner vibe. 

Going inside Thompson's Store and Ward's Grill

Nearby cities offer supermarket alternatives to the historic Thompson's Store, but many residents still choose to spend their grocery dollars the same way their ancestors did. Thompson's is known for it's fresh farmer's market produce, cheeses, local beers, honeys, pickles, retro candies in barrel-shaped bins, and its renowned Charlie's Sage Sausage. It really shines in the custom meat market, cutting steaks to order and grinding chuck for burgers for take-home grocery shoppers. 

At Ward's Grill next door, which closed during the COVID-19 Pandemic and reopened in 2022 with new owners, diners may miss Judy Ward's comfort foods such as the homemade pimento cheese, meatloaf, pot pies, beef stew, and apple cobbler revealed on PBS NC's North Carolina Weekend (via YouTube). But there's still plenty to carry on the family's commitment to diner-stye fare, albeit with an upscale twist. 

New owner and chef Josh Holmes, along with his wife, Taylor, brought back some of Ward's Diner's prior favorite menu items and even added a burger with pimento cheese and bacon jam. And the breakfast menu, including all-you-can-eat Saturday breakfast buffets, still features Charlie's Sage Sausage. Local is the name of the game in this historic small-town store, and life is still slow in Saluda. But that's apparently the way they like it. As the City of Saluda's website notes, the store's original sausage maker, Charlie Ward, was fond of saying, "If you're in a hurry in Saluda, you're in the wrong place."