University City

He offers a scene of drive-by history

Drivers speeding down Mallard Creek Church Road might want to slow down to see a small reminder of Charlotte's roots.

Just west of Interstate 85, past Fire Station 36, old tractors and farm implements - vestiges of the area's recent agrarian past - sit on the property of Merle King, who has called Charlotte home for all his 77 years.

King, who with his wife, Elizabeth, has lived on Mallard Creek Church Road for 41 years, first got into rebuilding tractors in the 1960s and 1970s, when farming was still a common practice in the area.

"Back then, tractors had a good resale value, and farmers in the area wanted them," said King, "but land around here just got too valuable for farming."

King bridles at the suggestion the tractors, dating as far back as 1952, are antiques.

"These are not antiques," he said. "I put them in A-1 order. Someone could take any of them straight to the fields for a day's work, if they wanted to."

Some recent tractors he's restored include a 1952 Ford 8N model that he values at about $3,000 to a 1960s Massey-Ferguson MF35, which King said is "rebuilt from the ground up" and worth $5,000.

As the northeast/university area has grown, however, interest in his tractors has waned. "If I was located further out, I could sell tractors coming and going," said King.

The Army veteran said only out-of-towners show much interest these days. He's had some queries from those who think it might be fun to tackle a tractor as a "fixer-upper," but once they learn the prices of parts, most back off. "A set of tires alone can run $700-up," he said.

King has sold some of his tractors, but he says he isn't running a business. He is happy to talk about them and said he'd consider selling any if someone had the desire to buy. With a used-car salesman's sense of psychology, he muses over the various types such as "tire-kickers" and those who simply waste time.

"If a guy spends an hour of your time, then said he has to ask his wife about buying a tractor, he's not coming back."

King's well-manicured and landscaped lawn provides evidence that he does much more with the farm tools than just fix them.

Trim, fit and tanned as befits one who works largely outside, King is pleased to explain his tractors and his long relationship with this northeast corner of Charlotte.

His family originally lived in the Hidden Valley area and sold most of the land for development before moving their dairy farm to Iredell County.

"Taxes just got too high for farming," he said.

After serving in Korea and leaving the Army in 1956, he opened a grocery story on Sugar Creek Road but continued doing landscaping and yardwork, so he often had to repair tools and machinery.

He later moved from the grocery business to operate a convenience store and dry cleaners for 10 years, but "I got tired of standing on that flat, hard floor, even though I had a good business," he said.

He recalls with clear pride that he was able to keep the stores open and profitable even when Sugar Creek Road was undergoing construction and closed off at both ends.

He still owns land and rents to small businesses in the Sugar Creek area.

King has also aided local preservation efforts by preparing buildings purchased for renovation by local preservation groups.

He purchased the Bethesda School House, which was built in 1899 and originally stood near the intersections of Prosperity and Eastfield roads.

According to the website of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, the school is the oldest and one of the last surviving African-American primary schoolhouses in the county. It now stands in Rural Hill in Huntersville.