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Past, present merge at Athens’ iconic U.G. White

ATHENS – One of North Alabama’s landmark businesses is unique. It’s a Southern treasure
that harkens to days long gone. Its name also has a very Northern connotation.

The store – UG. White Mercantile – opened in 1917 on the southeast corner of the square in Athens before moving to its current location at 101 N. Jefferson St. in 1937. Last month, owner Derrick Young was presented with a plaque and certificate for an Alabama Centennial Retailer award from the Alabama Retail Association.

The vendor opened as U.G. White Hardware and Implement Co., named after its founder who hailed from Tennessee. Though a native of the Volunteer state he was named Ulysses Grant, whom everyone knows from history as the hard-nosed general who led the Union to victory in the final years of the Civil War.

Though Grant was given the nicknames “the Butcher’’ and “Unconditional Surrender,’’ U.G.
White earned a reputation as anything but grim or forbidding. The Athens shrine is a welcoming establishment that has served the community for 126 years. It’s a place where whittler’s can leave shavings on the wooden floor, but updated wares mingle among items like a 1924 cash register that harken to times past.

“For a business to survive the dramatic changes of the past century is a remarkable
achievement,’’ Association President Rick Brown said. “It is fitting to celebrate the enduring first-century contributions U.G. White Mercantile has made to Athens and the entire North Alabama region.”

The Centennial Retailer program recognizes century-old retail businesses for their contributions to the state’s past, present and future. To be considered a retailer, the business must collect state and local sales taxes. (Banks, insurance agencies and dry cleaners do not qualify.) Each receives a brass plaque for the outside of the business and a certificate suitable for display inside.

Retailers whose names are submitted will be contacted and asked to provide a brief history and other information about their business. Retail businesses that began operating in Alabama in 1923 or earlier are eligible to be recognized as an Alabama Centennial Retailer. Businesses can only be recognized once as a Centennial Retailer.

White’s family owned the business through four generations before David Aycock sold it to
Young, an Athens native and international commercial pilot for American Airlines, in 2007.

“When I bought the store 16 years ago, initially, it was just to keep it around, because I knew once it closed, it would never be back,” Young told www.alabamaretail.org. “I bought my first pocket knife here. So, when the owner told me he was going to sell, I didn’t hesitate. I had such an affection for the store and these old-time smells.”

Young made changes and replaced some of the previous items such as hardware with things such as brand jams, jellies, sauces and pickles. According to www.alabamaretail.org, Young grew the knife selection, added T-shirts and hats, high-end outdoor gear, a chocolate counter complete with truffles and a vintage toy section.

Young, who last year added in-house Hi-Plane Coffee, said it “seems to work for our destination-type general store.”

U.G. White opened a store in downtown Huntsville at 115 Clinton Avenue in 2015. However, following a 2018 fire that started in a neighboring business caused extensive damage
at the mercantile outlet. Repair costs led to the closing of the location.

Meanwhile, the original U.G. White in Athens continues to offer present amenities with a
glimpse to the past.\

To view a list of businesses that received a centennial award visit www.alabamaretail.org.

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