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For over a century, foggy nights in the tiny town of Northwest, N.C. have brought residents and visitors alike out to the former Maco train station in search of the legendary Maco Light.
The story of the Maco Light goes back to a rainy spring night in 1867 when train conductor Joe Baldwin was beheaded in a horrific train crash. Baldwin, in the rear coach of a train headed for Wilmington, N.C., discovered that his coach had come uncoupled from the rest of the train and was quickly losing speed. Knowing another train was following close behind, he raced to the back of the coach, opened the door and began to furiously swing his lantern back and forth to warn the other train. Heavy fog prevented the oncoming train from seeing his signaling attempts and it collided at full speed with the coach car.
Not long after, locals began to report seeing a strange light looming around the tracks. Watchers believe it is from Baldwin's lantern and that the conductor is still hunting for his head.
These days, Maco Depot, a new convenience store that opened in July just a stone's throw from the notorious spot, is hoping the legend of the Maco Light will help it scare up business.
"We knew that our local customers and travelers would remember the Maco Light and most have experienced it," said Hannah Holt, director of operations for Fayetteville, N.C.-based Holt Properties, a third-generation c-store operator with 22 stores. "We felt like they would enjoy the folklore and feel some connection to the store if it encompassed the light.
"This was a good location and something the community needed," she said of the new store, whose interior and exterior are themed around the ghostly tale.
Shortly after acquiring the site about two years ago, Holt said the company started doing research on the Internet and at the local rail museum to learn everything it could about the legend.
Northwest, N.C. is a small town located about 15 miles west of Wilmington, with a population of just 812, according to the 2005 U.S. Census. In addition to the ghost legend, the company felt it was fitting to fashion Maco Depot after the old-time country stores, offering a sense of community, while adding a fresh, new feeling.
The exterior of the store resembles an old-time train station, complete with rocking chairs and bright red entry doors.
Inside, Maco Depot's customer service representatives all wear blue-and-white striped train conductor hats. Holt worked with a local printing/graphics company, Image Monster, to create a 25-foot mural that tells the story of the Maco Light. It depicts a young couple standing at the edge of a field pointing to a light off in the distance. Behind the couple is a steam train traveling over a wooden railroad trestle. In the middle of the mural is a picture of Joe Baldwin, with a pocket watch stopped at the time of his decapitation, and the story written below.
Additional train images are scattered throughout the store. The men's restroom has a painting of a steam engine's front grill, while the women's restroom features a black-and-white photo of women in World War II who worked on the railroads.
The legend of the Maco Light played a big role in the store's grand opening, which took place this Halloween. The company hired a train to take attendees for a short ride along the pavement that now covers the tracks where Baldwin lost his head, and one of the chain's executives even played the part of the headless apparition, while another shined an eerie light from the woods.
For added fun — and foot traffic — customers could take home a memento of the Maco Light. The store sells wooden train whistles printed with its logo, as well as hats and black T-shirts that have a train light in the middle and say, "I have seen the Maco Light" in glow-in-the-dark lettering. The T-shirts, sold at cost, have done especially well, Holt said.
Within a mile of the store is a charter school that makes up a large portion of its customer base. The children just love the train theme, she said. Maco Depot's other customers include locals, summer travelers on their way to the beach and construction workers.
The store includes a Subway sandwich franchise and features a proprietary Barney's Coffee brand, ATM service and Edy's Soft Serve ice cream, which has been a big hit with the kids.
By incorporating the Maco Light theme, the store has been able to quickly become a part of the community, said Holt. Locals have really taken to the store and think of it as their own.
"Our customers sweep our front porch, greet [other] customers, make coffee and seem to really feel as though it is their store," she said. "One lady [customer] will sit on the porch with her train depot hat on and say, 'Welcome to the Maco Depot,' and when a customer leaves, she says, 'Ya'll come back now.' It gives our location a novelty feel that hopefully encourages people to stop in."
As the company hoped, the store's theme has also created a buzz, and often times, people that come in like to share their own stories of the Maco Light.
"Sure enough, we have had countless customers brag about having seen the light, or reminisce about times with friends trying to see the light," Holt said. "One lady said her husband proposed to her while parked in his car waiting to see the light."
Maco Depot is the chain's first store designed around a theme. However, each of the company's locations is named after the area it serves and some have design elements related to their communities. For example, its Magnolia Greens store, which serves a golfing area, displays golfing memorabilia. Since the company is often a pioneer in the rural areas it enters, Holt said it tries to personalize its stores and make them community centers with additions like community bulletin boards. But nothing, she noted, compares to the scale of Maco Depot.