Helen Barnes-Rielly needed something to do besides tend cows in Todd, North Carolina.
Her husband Jack, a Todd native, had convinced her a decade ago to move to the unincorporated town on the banks of the New River between Boone and West Jefferson in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but there wasn’t much of a plan on what she could do when she got there.
Jack had an office on the second floor of the Todd Mercantile, a 19th Century wooden structure with a front porch, bakery and art gallery, among other amenities a sprawling community of about 2,100 might need.
Sometimes, things just work out.
“I was up there in my husband’s office talking to him about what kind of job I could get around here, and the owner of the building came in and asked if anyone wanted to buy a bakery.” Barnes-Rielly said. “My husband turned to me and asked, ‘Do you know how to bake?’”
She knew a little. Growing up in West Virginia, Barnes-Rielly had done her fair share of baking. After “floundering around” for years until she met her husband, suddenly she had a clear career path to run one of the few businesses left here.
But sometimes, things don’t work out.
Just a few months into running the Mercantile, Jack fell sick. He died just a few months later, leaving Helen with a generational community store in a community she barely knew.
Now, nine years after moving to Todd and getting into the mercantile and bakery business, Barnes-Rielly’s store is still part of the lifeblood of the town, which has seen its own fortunes change as the years pass.
A Steep Rise and Long Descent
There is a black and white picture hanging on the opposite wall of the cash register that shows Todd in its heyday. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Todd was a big lumber town, rich in hard woods and chestnut trees. Harvesting the mountains for those trees became a big business.
The Virginia-Carolina Railway was extended to Todd in the early 1910s, and more business soon followed. At the peak of the railroad boom, Todd was home to two doctors, a dentist, bank, seven stores, two hotels and three mills, according to the Todd Community Preservation Organization.
The boom wouldn’t survive the Great Depression. Having stripped all the timber, the “Virginia Creeper” railroad was losing money running the extra 14 miles to Todd. Soon after the train stopped coming to town in 1933, the Bank of Todd was liquidated, and the town’s commerce evaporated.
Only the Todd General Store across the street from the Mercantile stayed in business. Walter Cook, co-founder and operator of the general store for more than 40 years, was the only elected mayor. Not that there was much Cook could do to sustain the town when the railroad tracks began to rust.
“The train stopped running after all the trees were gone,” Barnes-Rielly said. “They cut all the chestnuts. Then the flood came and there was nothing to hold the water back.”
The New River flooded in 1940 and washed away some of the train tracks and most of the town. By the early 1970s, the North Carolina General Assembly had revoked Todd’s town charter.
The Todd Mercantile closed during the Depression as well. After Barnes-Rielly and her late husband had bought and were cleaning out the building, they uncovered a rusty can filled with old papers from the early 1930s talking about corn prices and how no one had any for sale.
Making a Community Space
The Todd Mercantile reopened years after closing as a bakery and art studio with office space up on the second floor. The old shop owner was a chipper and a gouger in the literal sense of the words. He made all the chairs and the counters in the store. He also planted trees that rise all over the High Country now.
When Barnes-Rielly took over the building, she wanted to expand the bakery and the store’s offerings. These days, there are often visitors hanging out on the front porch. Inside, guitars hang on the wall, and an upright piano upstairs is surrounded by art for sale and relics from Todd’s bigger days.
In lieu of a community center and with the Todd General Store closed, Todd’s Mercantile became the place to be.
“We would have dances and potluck dinners and jams on Saturdays,” Barnes-Rielly said. “We’d have music on the porch. A lot of people would just stop in and hang out.”
And then COVID-19 came along. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the Mercantile for a few months, and there were real concerns that the tourism dollars that help keep Todd on the map may dry up as well.
Then again, sometimes things work out differently than you’d expect.
“We haven’t had it so bad,” said Kazia Orkiszewski, 16, who started her first job at the Mercantile in May just after the store reopened. “We’ve gotten a lot of leaf watchers, people visiting over the summer and the Fourth of July. It’s been more tourists than regulars at this point.”
Business today is steady at the Todd Mercantile, and the Todd General Store reopened last summer. On the other side of downtown the River Girl Fishing Company is flanked by the still-open Post Office and the South Fork Baptist Church.
With so many vacation hotspots crippled by COVID-19, Todd has found its place.
“In Todd, the only things to do are outside,” Orkiszewski said. “If you can’t do anything inside the cities, you can come to Todd and get some fresh air.”
Orkiszewski would know. Born in the big Ice Storm of 2004, she has been in Todd all of her life. Her half-Polish father moved to Todd for a nearby library job and just happened to meet his wife from Seattle here.
She has known the Todd Mercantile and Barnes-Rielly for most of her life. She knows just what the regulars want when they come through the door – if they’re wearing a mask, that is. One such bearded gentleman showed up at the screened door, and Orkiszewski told him his order – a coffee and a slice of coconut cake.
“He comes here a lot,” she said.
She just started driving, but she was used to riding into Boone for high school on the school bus as it made its way through other rural mountain towns like Meat Cave and Zionville – only about five kids were still on the bus when it made it back up to Todd.
“It’s nice because you get closer to the people you are around,” Orkiszewski said. Her best friend lives next door.
Orkiszewski also knows most of the local artists and crafters who fill the Mercantile with local gifts. There are pin cushions made by a local lady named Sue that come in the shapes of cupcakes, donuts and even a hot dog. Oil paintings line the walls that aren’t selling “Keep Todd Odd” T-shirts. A converted shopping cart with a “Liberty Parade” sign now looks like a puppet show theatre right out of King of the Hill. Old tree branches have been turned into some wispy-looking creatures with piercing blue crazy eyes.
The stars of the Mercantile are still the baked goods. The cinnamon rolls are known throughout these hills, and there are plenty of cookies, pies and cakes being made throughout the day.
A baker herself, Orkiszewski has gained more and more responsibility in the kitchen since starting.
“I have been baking for a long time – that’s what you do in the country,” she said. “(Helen) had me frosting cakes and simpler things, then she had me baking muffins. Lots of apple pies and cakes. I can jump in and do the cinnamon rolls and cookies, too.”
They’ll be waiting for locals and visitors alike.