One way of looking at Donald C. Primm’s 50th anniversary at Hillsville’s oldest continuous business is he’s back where he started. As a little boy he mowed for extra income and now, working part-time, he’s back to mowing. Primm, 78, was honored with a special dinner on August 9 at Pizza Perfect by his Nuckolls Drug coworkers.
“We’re proud of Don and how he’s been with us for 50 years and we hope to have him for 50 more,” said Pharmacist Angelique Phipps after presenting Primm with a wristwatch and card honoring his tenure. “He’s an icon. People refer to him as Mr. Nuckolls.”
Various patrons from other tables came over to share stories with the man generations of customers counted on for help. Primm smiled as he was reminded about “cherry smashes,” and memories of the business from years gone by.
“It was hard times when I grew up. I had to quit school real young and I worked for (pharmacist) Dr. Hope who at one time owned the drug store. I worked for him out at his house about 11 years. After he died, that’s when I came to Nuckolls Drug. That’s how I got started. I was a teenager walking down the street and he came out, I don’t know why. I guess he knew I’d mowed several yards around town and stuff. He came out and wanted to know if I would finish his yard so I started mowing. Someone had started mowing it and quit. He had a big yard,” laughed Prim. “When I came to Nuckolls Drug, “EJ” Hicks owned it then. I was with him several years until he died and then Randall Gravley bought it. (He was working there at the time.) I think Randall ran it for about 28 years. I don’t know how long EJ had it, 10 or 11 years I guess.”
Primm said he did a lot of odd jobs around town in his teenage years. He said Nuckolls had a (soda) fountain when he first came there and he worked it, stocked and did “a little bit of everything.” He said all the menu offerings were made there in the basement. He is non-committal about having a favorite retail chore.
“We didn’t have all those restaurants then. School kids would come in there in the evenings and the mornings. Yeah,” Primm said. “I’ve done so many things, really I don’t think about it. I just do what had to be done. I don’t really think about what I like better. When you gotta work. You work.”
Primm said when he first came Nuckolls, everything was simple. Cash registers were not computerized. There was no scanning an item. He said cashiers often had to commit merchandise information to memory. Cashiers then punched in the price and the tax. This was later followed by a button which calculated the tax. Stockers entered orders into a machine and called on a land line telephone to place the order.
“When I started at Nuckolls I worked at Ralph Vass’s grocery at North End. It was a grocery store at one time. I worked there part time and worked for Doctor Hope and when I started at Nuckolls I quit Ralph’s and a lot of times he’d call me, down there I’d work seven to six, and say, ‘My helper didn’t come in. Can you help a while?’ He’d stay open until 9-10 at night. People don’t do that. It was a simple grocery store,” said Primm. “You had the little books where you wrote down if they wanted to charge. You’d give them their copy and you had a file you’d stick your copy in. It was so simple.”
Primm said he enjoys talking with customers. He said he has found “if you treat them right they’ll treat you right” and older customers expect you to speak to them while young people don’t really pay that much attention. In addition to being a fixture in the community, Primm built his own house.
“I ain’t even a carpenter. I hadn’t laid cinderblocks (before) but I laid about 100 for my basement and I added on one room, a bigger bedroom for my daughter when she was sick,” Primm said. “My neighbors were carpenters and they (helped) build it on when she was in the hospital. Yeah, I’ve tried a little bit of everything.”
Primm and his wife, Annie Bell, have a daughter, Rita Jo. The couple recently celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary. Annie plays guitar and sings and currently plays with The Mountain Ivy Band, an Old-Time music group. She also sings country and gospel. At one point they frequented the VFW Wednesday night jam. Donald ran sound and kept track of whose turn it was. His daughter graduated from high school and clogged for years with a clogging team.
“I never could play nothing much and now I have arthritis in my fingers so I can’t even make the chords,” said Primm. “Yeah. I have a little more time to piddle around. Mow my yard. I still mow my own yard and all that.”
Which winds his journey right back to where he began. It’s been a good journey.
“My wife will say, ‘Can’t the yard go another week?’ And I say no. I like my yard to look good. I like to mow and make stuff look good. I don’t have a riding mower but it’s self-propelled.”
David Broyles may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave