On early morning walks around Cherryville, newly elected Mayor H.L. Beam III remembers his hometown from childhood.
A bustling downtown about 35 miles west of Charlotte, a national headquarters for a major trucking company, a dozen textile mills and trust among neighbors. It’s an idyllic place lingering in Beam’s memory.
But he also has to face reality. Gone are Carolina Freight Carriers and the textile plants along with a vibrant downtown. And trust has suffered after a scandal that shook City Hall and the police department in the fall of 2012. Fallout from those corruption cases continues as the city struggles to recover its finances and good name.
During the recent sentencing of the city’s former finance director, who pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $435,000 in taxpayers’ money, Beam told a federal judge that the former official’s criminal action “has left an indelible stain on the fabric of our good and decent community.”
When five-term Cherryville Mayor Bob Austell announced he wasn’t running for re-election last year, Beam entered a three-way race. A political newcomer, he wanted to help Cherryville rebound.
“I don’t want to see this town go to nothing,” said Beam, 68, a partner in a retail drugstore on Main Street. “I love this town. I’ve always wanted to run for political office and felt this was the perfect time. I felt it was a necessity.”
At one point during the scandal “I thought we were down for the count,” Beam said. “But we were just down, not out. We’re getting back up. We’re not in the contender class yet. But I can see us getting there.”
As mayor, Beam said he doesn’t have all the answers to Cherryville’s problems. But he feels like the City Council and new staff are dedicated to making things better.
He hopes becoming part of the national movement of Main Street Programs will help revitalize downtown. The town’s water and sewer system needs overhauling, and he’s pushing not only for new industry, but an industrial park to accommodate it.
Gaston County commissioner Allen Fraley of Cherryville has known Beam for years and said “I feel he’s the perfect man for the job at the right time.”
“He’s a longstanding member of the community,” Fraley said. “He’s a business owner and operator, and he cares deeply about the citizens of the community. And he has the ability to do the job.”
Next to the youngest of five children, Beam spent the first 10 years of his life in a four-room house on C Street within walking distance of school and downtown. His father owned a service station, drove a taxi and later became an independent trucker hauling produce all over the U.S.
A booming Cherryville in the 1950s had restaurants, groceries, pharmacies, department stores and two theaters, the Strand and the Lester. Jessie Van Dyke’s candy shop was a favorite with school kids.
Local folks were proud of Cherryville-style cheeseburgers, made with freshly ground lean meat topped with secret-ingredient slaw, and the American Legion Post 100 baseball team. They flocked in the 1950s to see legendary pitcher Buzz Peeler fire balls across home plate, urging him on by pounding the wooden bleachers with RC Cola bottles.
Peeler led Cherryville to its first state title and first American Legion World Series. Ballpark concessions operator Ben Van Dyke lured business his way by tossing raw onions on the grill and letting the aroma work its magic.
For Beam, the town had great energy and a colorful cast of characters.
His first job was at his dad’s service station, where he’d often wash 50 cars a day. In 1960, Beam started work at Allen Drug Store, mopping, making sodas and wrapping prescriptions.
After graduating from Cherryville High in 1963, Beam entered the pre-pharmacy program at UNC Chapel Hill. A leg injury during tryouts for the track team sidelined him from classes for a while. Beam went back to Chapel Hill for summer school. Then he got married and his plans changed.
Beam accepted an offer to begin a textile management program. But another offer came along at the same time – a good position at Allen Drug Store. Beam took it and entered a career path that would eventually lead to his partnership at Houser Drug, which had been founded in 1935.
The business services eight nursing homes, and Beam said the store is surviving despite competition from chains. The fountain serves milkshakes along with homemade deviled egg, pimento cheese sandwiches and what Beam thinks are “the best hot dogs in town.”
The store is also a popular gathering place where the talk flows freely. Beam acknowledges that rumors about shady doings at City Hall floated around there for years. He wonders why the lid didn’t blow off on the scandal sooner than it did.
“There were too many flags,” Beam said. “I don’t see how they missed them.”
Six men were charged in a scheme authorities said involved offers of protection to trucks carrying stolen goods and cash. Four of the men had ties to law enforcement.
All six pleaded guilty over the last two years and have been sentenced to prison terms. Three city employees, including the finance director and police chief, were charged with embezzlement. All have pleaded guilty.
The former finance director was sentenced in February to two years in prison. On Thursday, the former utility supervisor was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
Beam believes the town can thrive again.
“We can do it,” he said. “That’s one thing about Cherryville people – they’re resilient. They always have fight in them.”