2017-07-26 / Front Page

City’s oldest retail store now 70


Owen W. Wright was photographed Tuesday standing near a sign promoting a tire sale he’s holding in honor of the Whitesburg Western Auto’s 70th birthday. The store opened on Saturday, July 26, 1947. (Eagle photo) Owen W. Wright was photographed Tuesday standing near a sign promoting a tire sale he’s holding in honor of the Whitesburg Western Auto’s 70th birthday. The store opened on Saturday, July 26, 1947. (Eagle photo) Whitesburg’s oldest retail store is now celebrating its 70th year of operation.

The store, now owned and operated by Owen W. Wright Jr. and his wife, Barbara Belcher Wright, held its grand opening on Whitesburg’s Main Street 70 years ago this week, on July 26, 1947.

This week also marks the 35th year that the younger Wright has managed the store, the exact same number of years his father, Owen W. Wright Sr., was the owner and operator.

“Congratulations to 70 years of fine service to the people of the City of Whitesburg and Letcher County,” Whitesburg Mayor James W. Craft said of the store’s platinum anniversary.

Originally known as the Whitesburg Western Auto Associates store when it opened as an auto parts, tire, hardware and electronics store, the business remains a family operation after all these years.

It is one of three Western Auto stores that have operated in Letcher County’s history. The first was opened in Neon by Monte Clark and the second in Jenkins by Artie Wilfong. The Whitesburg store is the only one still in operation.

Before that Saturday in July 1947 when Owen W. Wright Sr. and his wife opened the store, the elder Wright had operated a restaurant in Neon known as Owen’s Café for about 10 years. At the same time his wife, Myrtle Brewer Wright, taught at Fleming Grade School. He grew up in Letcher County and she in Breathitt County.

Wright’s health forced him to try something different. “At that time,” said Owen Jr., “World War II was just over, and it was hard to get merchandise.”

The Main Street building in which the store is located had three separate owners when the Western Auto opened. Part of it was owned by Bill Blair and his wife, Doll, who operated a pool room in the section next to what is now the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library but was then Hobbs Five and Ten Cent Store. Blair, who had not yet returned home from military service, had considered selling the building and then decided not to, but when Wright asked him about it he changed his mind and told his wife to go ahead and sell it. Shortly after the papers were signed Blair called back and said he didn’t want to sell, but he was too late.

Another part of the building (later occupied by Messenger Florist and Milburn Polly’s Barber Shop) was owned by S.C. Adams of Neon, who didn’t want to sell it. Wright asked his friend Willie Lucas to help him get the property. Lucas, however, bought the property himself, held it for 10 years, and then sold it to Wright in the 1960s. The upper portion of the building was occupied by the Whitesburg Masonic Lodge, which sold it to the Wrights in the early 1970s, after a fire destroyed the adjacent Hobbs store and did great damage to the Masonic headquarters.

The Wrights restored the building to one unit and opened a garage on the ground floor at the rear of the building, which is still used for tire mounting and balancing.

Owen Wayne Wright Jr., says his father had to go to Cincinnati to get the Whitesburg franchise for Western Auto. At that time both the franchises and the merchandise they controlled were in short supply. As luck had it, the person in charge of the Western Auto warehouse in Cincinnati remembered Wright from times he had eaten in his restaurant during trips to Neon to visit the store there. He saw that Wright got the franchise.

The younger Wright remembers when the store got its first long-player phonograph and television franchises in the early 1950s. They had the third TV in the county.

“You couldn’t tell much about what you were watching then,” he said. “But we’d sit there and watch it anyway.”

After Owen Wright Sr. died in December 1981, Owen Jr. and Barbara, formerly of Payne Gap, left central Kentucky to come home and help his mother run the store.

Owen Jr. grew up in Whitesburg and was a 1961 graduate of Whitesburg High School. After first attending and then teaching embalming school, he was graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1971, after which he taught industrial arts at Winburn Junior High School until leaving central Kentucky. Owen Jr. and Barbara have a son, Owen Wayne Wright III, who lives in Prestonsburg, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren ages 2, 3, 6 and 9.

“Three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren all from one son!” Wright exclaimed jokingly Tuesday night as the four great-grandchildren could be heard playing in the background of the apartment in which he and Barbara live in the Western Auto building.

Myrtle Wright died in 1994. Her sister and her husband, Talmer and Edith Collier, ran the Whitesburg store for some time in the 1950s when the Wrights went to Arizona for a time. The Colliers got interested in the Western Auto business and eventually bought the Neon franchise and operated that store for some years. They sold it, and it later closed.

The Whitesburg store currently offers a full line of tires including — but not limited to — automobiles, ATV’s and garden and lawn equipment. The store also mounts and balances the tires it sells.

“We sell about any kind of tire,” Wright said.

There are two employees in addition to Wright and his wife.

Wright’s sister, Myra Alice Wright Rouse, and her husband, Don, live in Lexington. They have two sons.

Return to top