SOUTH MILLS, N.C.

The sun is about an hour away from ending the morning's darkness, and this quiet little portion of northern Camden County is just coming to life.

Across Mullen Street, shipyard workers are parking their pickups and hopping into a van for the hourlong ride north.

Eddie Cartwright turns on the lights.

He cranks up a pot of coffee before opening both bays at his service station. Before long, the first customers pull in for gas, and the first members of the "club" trickle in for morning conversations laced with good-natured jabs and sharp barbs.

"It's part service station, part old folks home, part daycare center," Cartwright says through a rich southern drawl. "Most of these guys who come in here helped raise me."

Cartwright's Service Center is a piece of Americana, a step back in time.

Way back.

The shelves are covered with old bottles, pictures of the old South Mills High School that burned down and a painting of a replacement building that was torn down decades ago. Only a few will remember the oil cans that make you punch in a pour spout to get the oil to flow.

A framed pendant hanging on the wall declares South Mills High the basketball champs in 1948.

"Nobody seems to know the champions of what," Cartwright says. 

Hanging out at this blast from the past is something akin to walking through an old RCA television and smack onto the set of "The Andy Griffith Show", where Gomer Pyle would rush out of the building to pump gas, clean a windshield and check customers' oil levels and tire pressures.

In South Mills, as a woman pulls up to pumps that aren't digital and never will be, Cartwright sets down his coffee and dashes out to greet her. He pumps her gas, cleans the windshield and takes her credit card inside to swipe it. Nope, you can't pay at the pump at Cartwright's.

Gas stations have evolved dramatically since the country's first drive-in service station opened in Pennsylvania in 1913, according to the Smithsonian Institution. For most, the decline in service was all about economics. Let people pump their own gas — except in New Jersey, the only state that won't allow it — and get their car serviced somewhere else. 

Not at Cartwright's. Little about this station has changed since his father, Charlie, started leasing the place from the Mullen Oil Company in 1967. The service station opened in 1956 and three other owners managed it before the Cartwrights stepped in.

Eddie Cartwright was 8 and spent nearly all his spare time watching his dad take on just about any car or truck problem people had. If they were having issues with their home furnace, he'd rush over to fix that, too.

During his junior year of high school he started working for his father, and he took over when Charlie died in 2009.

"Dad wouldn't turn anything down," says Cartwright, 60, who also devoted 25 years of his life to the volunteer fire department. "He started from nothing and was a working machine.

"We just do the basics now. Simplified. We call it KISS — keep it simple, stupid. The stupid part came natural. Yup."

Waiting for his next customer, Cartwright welcomes Charles Pritchard, 74, the first regular to arrive. He grabs a coffee and a honey bun, heating up the latter in the microwave before taking "his" seat next to the window. He's done this six days a week since he was "11 or 12." He'll leave after a while. Always comes back later.

Over his head, on a shelf and next to a box of Lance's saltine crackers are single serving cans of beans and franks, fruit cocktails and Vienna Sausage.

"I love the B.S. that goes on," Pritchard says. "Not much has changed here over the years, but that's kind of a good thing. There used to be a wall of cigarettes people from Virginia would drive down and get. They took the pot-bellied stove out a few years ago. That thing would blow you outta here. The TV is newer.

"I guess it's the people. Eddie's the heart and soul of South Mills and I think he understands that."

Donna Stewart pops in to wait on a ride for a morning meeting. She grew up with Cartwright and can't remember a time without his family's business on the corner of Mullen and Main, just across from the Dismal Swamp Canal drawbridge.

"It's nostalgia," she says, glancing at Cartwright. "And Eddie is the mayor of South Mills."

More of the regulars mosey in.

They call Ed Fulford the "elder statesman." He's 86.

Fulford set up shop in a seat that is supposed to belong to Glen Carey, nicknamed "Two-By-Four" after the time he ran over one with his lawnmower.

Fulford is neatly dressed in an orange Albemarle Houndsman Association ball cap, jeans and a starch-ironed button-down dress shirt.

"You spray the starch on it then put it in the fridge before you iron it," he says in a hard-to-understand country twang. "Works a lot better that way. Then I hang them in the closet each two fingers apart so they don't get messed up."

Fulford's never been married, but the group plans to pawn him off on someone when he turns 100.

"Pity that poor woman," jests Carey.

Fulford was born in South Mills and lived in Chesapeake because of work. He moved back to his roots and again is a fixture at Cartwright's.

"It's a habit, I guess," he says, resting his arm on the ice cream freezer next to him. "You know, like putting on your clothes every morning."

Jimmy Bohn arrives at 7:30 and heads straight to the coffee pot, pouring some into his thermal cup and topping it with six heaping spoonfuls of sugar.

"Likes to have a little coffee with his sugar," Carey belts out. "Likes his coffee like he likes his women — real sweet."

Bohn has been working for the Cartwrights for 26 of his 40 years. Says it's all he's ever wanted to do.

The service station is lucky to have him, Cartwright

 says.

"Best tire changer on the planet right there," he nodded. "He works his butt off every day."

John Whitehurst plops down in one of the seats that were in the auditorium of the second high school and keeps it simple when asked how long he's been hanging out at Cartwright's.

"Been coming up here since the kitty was a kitty," he says. "And the kitty is now a full-grown cat."

Cartwright ducks out the back door to inspect a car and change the oil. Shelves in the bay are filled with oil filters, wiper blades, fan belts and light bulbs — all the things he might need to fix something that shows up in an inspection. He checks the lights and horn before raising the vehicle on the rack.

Cartwright works six days a week, 13 hours a day, and can't remember if he's ever taken a long vacation. Looking back over the years and thinking about the future, he reflected on his business model of leaving well-enough alone.

"Treat people like you want to be treated and do honest work for them," he says. "That's how my dad was and that's what I learned. I've loved every minute of it, but none of it could have happened without Jan (his wife of 39 years).

"I ain't never gotten rich, but I've never been hungry. And our greatest accomplishment is putting our two girls through college."

Another day at Cartwright's is coming to an end. As usual, there have been lots of visitors — some who hung around and others who just popped in for a soda and a pack of cheese crackers.

Bohn had changed a mess of tires, pumped gallons of gas, cleaned dozens of windshields. Cartwright had performed about 10 car inspections.

"Yep, 'bout a normal day around here," he says, lowering the last car off the rack so he could call it a day. "Now you know why I'm about half crazy."

Lee Tolliver, 757-222-5844, lee.tolliver@pilotonline.com

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