Wineka column: Former owner Jones can’t help but keep coming back to Sandy Ridge

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 2, 2014

LANDIS — Say “Sandy Ridge,” and folks in southern Rowan County know you’re talking about more than the little community with an AME Zion Church and elementary school.
You also mean Sandy Ridge, the half-store, half-bar establishment on the corner of Mt. Moriah Church Road and N.C. 153.
For the past 40 years, Patrick Jones owned and operated Sandy Ridge, known in its day for all the horseshoes tossed out back and all the tall tales told over beer inside.
The painted sign on the front of the store still includes a drawing of two horseshoes, though most of the players have aged out or died. It wasn’t always the case, but the store portion of Sandy Ridge does more business today than the bar.
People stop by for gas, lottery tickets, coffee, newspapers, ice, propane and the latest produce from Jones’ garden.
On this day, Jones has a box of okra for sale near the front door.
As for the bar, mostly regulars push through the swinging half door to the back, where it’s filled with old game machines, such as Ms. Pac Man; six televisions up high, tuned to sports and news channels; pickled eggs on the counter top; racing and beer signs; and plenty of stools and church pews for seating.
James “Ty” Osborne, 86, has been coming here since 1949. He also worked here for 33 years, besides holding down a third-shift job at Cannon Mills.
Back in the horseshoe-crazy days, Osborne was the unofficial champion at Sandy Ridge.
“Everybody come around here, trying to whup me,” he says.
You wouldn’t know it, but Sandy Ridge is in a transition these days.
Back in July, Jones sold the place to Chuck Yost, but Jones keeps reporting to the store a couple of hours in the mornings and afternoons to help Sandy Ridge’s only full-time employee, Walter “Bunky” Storie.
Why does Jones, 62, keep coming back?
“I just don’t want to turn it loose right now,” he says. He especially wants to see the afternoon crowd. After all these years, everyone’s a friend.
A 1970 graduate of South Rowan High, Jones entered the Air Force in November 1970 and served into 1974. Jim Harris had told Jones once if he had trouble finding a job after the service to contact him.
The economy wasn’t doing well in 1974, and Jones applied for jobs everywhere without success. Royal Garbage Service in Kannapolis, which advertised for help all the time, wouldn’t even hire him.
Going back to school wasn’t for him, so Jones contacted Harris, who drove him to Sandy Ridge for the first time.
“I had no idea what it was,” Jones recalls.
Harris made Jones a proposition: Go in with him as a partner and buy half interest in Sandy Ridge. They would try running the place for a year, and if things were going all right, Harris would expect Jones to buy out his half.
“He said, ‘I’ll get you going,’” Jones says.
With no other prospects, Jones agreed. The men paid $30,000 for Sandy Ridge — $15,000 each. Jones’ dad signed off on a loan for his part, and he and Harris bought the bar from Pete Wilhelm in 1975.
Looking back, Jones says it was probably comical to the regulars at Sandy Ridge that such a fresh-faced kid of 24, with no experience in running a bar or store, was one of the new owners.
“If it wouldn’t have been for Ty helping out,” Jones adds, “I would have been lost for sure.”
True to his word, Harris stayed involved exactly a year, from April 1, 1975, to April 1, 1976, before selling his half to Jones, making the young man sole owner.
Back in those early days of Jones’ ownership, Sandy Ridge flourished, especially if things were slow for mill workers in Landis, Kannapolis and China Grove.
“This was a packed house all the time,” Jones says. “They didn’t have a place to go, so they came to Sandy Ridge.”
Even in better times, as Sandy Ridge opened up at 7 each morning, men were waiting to get in for a beer, having just gotten off their third shifts.
A lot of other patrons were in the construction business, working on jobs across the area, and the bar had a steady stream of customers most of the day until closing at 8 or 9 p.m.
Besides being a place for pitching horseshoes — a group from Sandy Ridge would compete regularly in the championships held at Dan Nicholas Park — Sandy Ridge also became a racing bar,
NASCAR always seemed to be a topic of conversation — and still is.
The crowd included a lot of Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans. The late NASCAR legend came into Sandy Ridge a couple of times himself. Jones and his store also sponsored Freddy Query at Concord’s dirt track.
For every race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sandy Ridge held a huge fish fry out back for the customers who drank beer and watched the race.
“It would be a crowd outside and in,” Osborne says. “There were so many in here, you couldn’t move.”
A huge racing fan himself, Jones often made time to attend the races at places such as Talledega, Daytona, Martinsville, Darlington, Bristol and Charlotte.
Family, racing, fishing on the coast and his big garden at home have always been Jones’ diversions — and they continue to be. Otherwise, looking after Sandy Ridge consumed his time.
He would put in 70- and 80-hour weeks, because Sandy Ridge is open every day. He regularly slept only four or five hours a night.
“People just don’t know,” Jones says.
Sandy Ridge’s biggest change — and the only time Jones took out another loan on the place — came in 1992, when he returned gas pumps out front, installed big coolers, redid the counter and partitioned the store from the bar.
You can walk into Sandy Ridge now, transact store business in the front and not even know there’s a bar in back. But Jones also set it up to allow easy movement between the store to the bar, so one person — usually he or Bunky — could handle things by himself.
When several laws changed in the late 1980s affecting bars, many neighborhood establishments such as his dried up, Jones says. The bar business overall was slowing, too, so Jones went with his 1992 updates as much for his regular customers as he did for his wallet.
“You just didn’t want to hang them out to dry, so I had the bar and the convenience store,” Jones says.
Jones says some kind of bar and/or store has been on this corner for more than a century. Jones thinks it has to be one of the oldest bars in North Carolina.
“I’d put Sandy Ridge up against any of them,” he says.
The current building was constructed while a previous Sandy Ridge closer to the road was still operating, Osborne remembers.
Sandy Ridge always has found a way to stay open. Hurricane Hugo knocked out the power in 1989 for seven days, and an ice storm caused similar havoc about a dozen years ago.
Each time, Jones found a way to work off portable generators and run drop cords to the cash register and coolers to keep Sandy Ridge regulars happy.
Storie, who has worked at Sandy Ridge about 28 years, says it’s funny how guys won’t be able to make it to work in bad weather, but they find a way to pull into Sandy Ridge.
Several shelves behind the bar and store counter hold conversation pieces, such as old license plates, photographs, oil cans, figurines, bottles, red hot sausage and boiled peanuts.
A sign reading “No Profanity Allowed” also is prominently displayed.
“We kept that up there, and it helped out a lot,” Jones says.
Sandy Ridge opens at 5:15 a.m., and Jones is so used to opening up, he still doesn’t mind coming in early.
Jones and his wife, Rhonda, have raised two girls, Heather and Lisa. His parents, Pat and L.D. Jones, are 90 and 92, respectively, and it was Patrick’s father who kept telling him he should sell Sandy Ridge someday.
When he started feeling bone-tired and sleepy on his way home late at night, Jones says, is when he finally decided his dad was right.
The only advice he had for the new owner, Yost, was that showing up and keeping a watch on inventory and gasoline supplies were major parts of the battle.
“You just got to be there and keep it running,” Jones says. “You’re not going to get rich, but you’re going to make a living.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or