HENDERSON — Church Hill gets its name from a United Methodist Church where one of the first schools in Rusk County was started 1830ish. Like alot of little rural villages, it lost its school and post office and much of its identity as automobiles and improved roads made transportation to the county seat less and less of a haul.
Besides the volunteer fire department, the only thing left is Johnny Strong’s store which until a few weeks ago was an honest-to-goodness General Merchantile with a potbellied stove where old men gathered in the winter. In the summer, you can find the same old men out front napping in maroon upholstered bucket seats from an old van. The gas pumps are so old that one of them still has a sign that says “Leaded” preceded by “Un” written in magic marker. In this picture, taken in December when I returned home for Christmas, Johnny Strong thumbs through his plastic recipe box full of bills.
This is the nerve center of the community where one goes, for example, to hear whose in the process of cutting their hay or whose getting a divorce. This is not an exaggeration: If you happen to be in the vicinity of Church Hill someday and find cattle out of their fence walking a dirt road, you can call Johnny, provide a description and location and he’ll know who they belong to. And he’ll call the owner to tell him his cows are out. And he’ll help the owner round them up if she asks and there aren’t any customers to tend to.
About a month or six weeks ago, the store burned to the ground (with the recipe box inside). Because a safe under the counter was found opened in the rubble, they think it was burned to conceal a burglary. Rebuilding is out of the question so no one bothered to ask. Johnny is something like 83, his wife died a decade ago and even his youngest son is “retirement age.”
So I just about ran off the road yesterday when I arrived back home and saw Johnny Strong on top of a ladder finishing the tin roof of his new store. His 70-something brother was helping. Through Johnny Strong’s grit and purpose and, yes, strength, Church Hill is getting back more than a place to buy Wonder Bread, coveralls and range cubes. Church Hill is getting back a chance to stay Church Hill, at least for a few more years.
Dear Reader, if you are younger, you may notice something as you get older — that you find yourself sounding like the nostalgic, wistful old timer you used to listen to (if you were lucky) and roll your eyes at. Sometimes this is rooted in fact and sometimes it is not.
But this is something we all quietly fear is true: They don’t make them like Johnny Strong anymore.Email | Print