PILOT MOUNTAIN — A local landmark business celebrated its 60th anniversary quietly earlier this year as its longtime owner was dealing with serious health issues.
The Willard and Wilmoth Sandwich Shop or, as it is better known to locals, “The Squeeze Box,” has held its spot on the corner of Main and Davis streets for the past 60 years, serving breakfasts and lunches and, at one point, early evening dinners.
Throughout that time, it has remained a popular mealtime option for those familiar with the downtown area as well as curious visitors from out of town and others who had heard positive word-of-mouth reviews.
While the tiny 24-feet-long building wasn’t wide enough for tables, the dozen counter stools have usually remained full as to-go orders also went out on a regular basis. Countless local businessmen and factory workers have enjoyed meals while sitting shoulder to shoulder at the counter. Conversation has always been lively and friendly as the town and its residents were discussed in a comfortable atmosphere.
Over the past 38 years, Richard “Dickie” Crump has been a constant at the business, first as an employee then as its owner.
Any temptations to move to a larger location or to expand the building, he said, have been easily resisted because of a basic philosophy.
“Little places have little problems,” he noted, “while big places have big problems.”
Earlier this year, during Crump’s annual physical exam, irregularities were spotted in a test result. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He underwent successful surgery on April 29 and, after about four weeks of recovery, was able to return to work.
“Early detection probably saved my life,” he notes. “And I had a lot of prayers going up for me, along with calls and words of encouragement. I received so many cards, some from people I didn’t know.”
The restaurant’s long history began in March of 1953 when it was opened by John Roy Bullington and Ray Waller. In November of 1954, it was sold to Claude Willard and Buster Wilmoth. It was under their extended ownership that the business continued to develop a loyal local following as a popular spot for a drop-in meal or snack.
The partners hired Crump in October of 1975, a 20-year-old Pilot Mountain native returning home from college. Without any long-term career plans at the time, Crump took the job “until they could find somebody.”
“I didn’t really see it as a career at first,” he noted, “but I enjoyed the work and the people.”
By January of 1979, Crump recalled, “I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Pilot Mountain.” He bought a 25-percent interest in the business. In June of the following year, he became the restaurant’s half-owner with Wilmoth.
This relationship continued until January of 1997 when Crump purchased Wilmoth’s half of the business, becoming its sole owner.
Over the years, the appearance of the tiny diner has remained the same. But Crump has seen changes as its patrons have changed. When he first started, Crump remembers, diet drinks, whole wheat bread or decaffeinated coffee wasn’t available. And all their drinks came in bottles.
During his 38 years in the small restaurant, Crump has also seen the surrounding town go through extended periods of thriving growth as well as painful economic decline. He can recall in the mid-1970s when several local textile mills were working three shifts and jobs were plentiful. Much of the town’s activity was centered in the downtown area and its businesses boomed.
Over time, however, significant changes occurred in the surrounding downtown area. He points to three areas of change as devastatingly important to the downtown community.
In the 1990s, the textile industry began to disappear both locally and across the region. Hundreds of jobs were lost, with residents and other business suffering.
Downtown areas suffered across the nation as shopping centers began to appear closer to major highways. Locally, the development of Key Street centers began to pull businesses and patrons away from Main Street.
Following this trend, the Pilot Mountain Post Office was moved from Main Street to Key Street, taking away another reason for local residents to come downtown.
Throughout the ups and downs of the downtown area, Crump noted, the Squeeze Box has remained busy. He attributes that success to a simple but reliable formula.
“We’ve had consistency,” he explained, “in our menus and our employees. Our customers have been loyal and they know what to expect when they come in here. We let them know we appreciate them.”
That feeling of has been reflected over the years as the business has hosted fundraisers for local residents with need as well as other community events.
“Most of the time,” he continued, “our customers become our friends. We care about them and we hurt when they hurt. Now, we have third and fourth generation customers coming in here and maybe more than that.”
Crump’s recent illness has caused him to take a more streamlined approach to the restaurant. He is assisted by his wife, Jane, and two part-time employees, Ben Rolison and Jenny Hunter.
He has reduced the restaurant’s hours to 6 to 10:30 a.m. while offering primarily a breakfast menu. For now, the move has resulted in the removal of its extremely popular hot dogs and cheeseburgers from the active menu. While difficult, Crump said, the move reflects a new perspective on life provided by his health crisis.
“After I was diagnosed,” he recalled, “me, the Lord and the devil had a wrestling match. I ended up meeting with a good friend of mine who reminded me of a verse in 2 Corinthians (12:9) where the Lord told Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ I came home and said, ‘O.K., Lord, what will be, will be.’
“Now,” he continued, “work is not the most important thing in my life. That wasn’t always the case. I admit, I’ve been a workaholic.
“And I had a good relationship with the Lord before, but now I’m closer to Him than I was. And I had a good relationship with my wife before but I’m closer to her now, too.”
Jane Crump now daily helps her husband with the restaurant’s operations. The couple have lived and worked side-by-side since Memorial Day.
Dickie Crump is the son of Richard and the late Myrtle Crump of Pilot Mountain. A Winston-Salem native, Jane Crump moved to Pilot Mountain to begin her teaching career at North Surry High School. She has now retired after 30 years in the Surry County Schools system and an additional two years in the Mount Airy system.
The couple has one daughter and son-in-law, Whitney and Ryan Bennett of Mount Airy.
“I’ve gotten so much support through all of this,” Dickie Crump noted, “from my church, from my brothers in (Masonic) Lodge #493 and from others. Now, I can’t count the number of friends I have. Pilot Mountain is a good place to live.”