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Waynesville institution to close its doors after three generations, 88 years

coverA devoted customer stood at the counter at Walker Service chatting with Clayton Cathey before picking up his truck for what may be the last time.   

“What’s this rumor I hear about you closing?” the customer asked.

Cathey confirmed the rumor, though it was much to the customer’s disappointment. After running the family-owned business for 42 years, Cathey is ready to retire, leaving a third-generation Waynesville institution without a successor. It’s not easy for him to walk away from the legacy his family has built, but he hopes someone qualified will step forward to take it over. 

“I’ve done this since I was 15 — I grew up in this station. I’ve had a lot of good experiences and a lot of good times here,” he said. “I’d like to lease it and sell the business to an honest fellow who will take care of my customers.”

While Cathey,66, gets to look forward to some much deserved R&R, Walker Service customers will be sad to see it go. Lynwood McElroy has been taking his vehicles for servicing at Walker’s for more than 30 years. 

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“I told Clayton when I picked up my car last time that I didn’t know what in the world is going to happen to us guys who don’t know how to do anything other than start it up,” he joked. “I’m glad he’s retiring, but I’ll just be lost until I find somebody else to do my work.”


History of great service

Since Walker Service was started in 1928 by Cathey’s grandfather, Clayton Walker, the full-service garage has built a strong reputation in the community that was passed down to Cathey’s father Joe Cathey and then to him. 

Cathey said he still has customers that have been coming to the garage since his grandfather ran the place. He also fixes cars for the children and grandchildren of loyal costumers. Cathey says it’s no big secret what’s led to the success and longevity of his business — all it takes is trust and honesty. 

“We’ve had customers that have been with us a long time,” he said. “I just try to be honest and treat them like I would want to be treated.”

McElroy said he could always depend on Cathey and his employees to get the job done at a fair price. He knew he could drop the car off and they would figure out what’s wrong with it. If he needed to leave the car there for several hours, he knew one of the employees at Walker would drive him home and then bring the car to him when it was ready. 

“You can’t get that kind of service much anymore,” McElroy said. “Clayton is just a person who is easy to deal with and I was always satisfied with the work he did.”

Located on the corner of Depot Street and Branner Avenue, Walker Service was once at the center of Waynesville’s main thoroughfare. In many ways, Walker Service acted as a landmark to let people know they had arrived in Waynesville.  

“So many people would stop here on their way from Brevard and ask where they were that they put a sign up on the front that said ‘This is Waynesville,’” said Grace Cathey, Clayton’s wife of 32 years. 

The building has expanded throughout the years with each generation adding its own touch to the business. It started out in 1928 as Cherokee Service Station but was changed when Clayton Walker added the additional work bays on the building. It was called Walker Esso and then Walker Exxon before it became Walker Service in 2004 when the business stopped selling gasoline. 

Clayton Cathey said the station has been much more than a place to get your car repaired.  

“I remember there used to be an old pot-bellied stove over there in the corner in the ‘60s,” he said, pointing to the left of the shop. “All the old fellers would come by and sit by the fire and talk — it was sort of a meeting place.”

Boyd “Red” Rathbone worked at Walker Service for 40 years before retiring in 1999. He did everything from servicing cars, pumping gas and selling tires. It was a good steady job that he was able to make a career of alongside the Cathey family. 

“Mechanic work is all I’ve ever done since I was big enough to hold a wrench,” he laughed. “It’s very unusual for anybody to retire out of a service station.”

Rathbone recalled the days when Waynesville had a service station on every corner in town, but Walker Service is the only one remaining from that era. He said the business has been able to persevere through good times and bad times because of the employees’ dedication to good work and customer service. 

“We gave good service to start with and we tried to treat everybody good,” he said. “It was hard to keep up with the changes to all the car systems, but we did a good job. Newer cars are so computer controlled now that I’m lost. I can’t even work on my own car anymore.” 


Mixing mechanics and metal

Walker Service can boast great customer service, but having an art gallery attached to it has really set the business apart. 

Clayton’s wife — acclaimed metal artist Grace Cathey — could have opened her art gallery anywhere in downtown Waynesville or even the River Arts District in Asheville. However, she decided to open the gallery inside Walker Service 18 years ago. 

“It was my mother’s idea and everyone thought I was crazy,” she said. “But I believe in staying true to who you are and what you are and we’ve been able to make it work.”

Stacks of tires and old vending machines once occupied the gallery space, but now it is a beautiful room showcasing some of Grace’s metal wall hangings, sculptures and jewelry. Despite the odd juxtaposition between car repair and fine art, Clayton and Grace say it’s worked out quite well. 

The gallery provides an aesthetically pleasing waiting room that most garages can’t match, plus the Catheys can operate two businesses in one location. Clayton keeps an eye on the gallery throughout the week while Grace works in her home studio making new pieces. Many times women come to get their car repaired and leave with a fixed car plus a Grace Cathey original. 

“It looks a lot better in here than it used to, but now men don’t want to leave their wives here because it could cost them more money when they get back,” Clayton joked. 

Grace has also created a beautiful sculpture garden out back behind the shop. She said the garden would remain there as long as they own the property. 


Making time for retirement

Grace and Clayton have been seriously contemplating closing up shop for a while now, but it wasn’t until they were out to dinner one night that someone said something that made them think long and hard about their lives. 

“They said, ‘what’s the one thing you don’t know how much of you have?’” Grace recalled. “And the answer is time.”

The Catheys finally decided they wanted to take more time to enjoy their lives while they still have their health. The gallery and the shop will be closing as of March 31, but Grace has made it clear she is not retiring. She will still work from her home studio and do commissioned work. All of her pieces are available to view and purchase on her website www.gracecatheycom. 

Clayton has dedicated much of his life to the family business, but he has other interests he would like to pursue, including more traveling, hiking and fishing. 

“We’d like to do some more traveling, see more of the national parks and I’d like to do more volunteer work to give back to the community while my health is still good,” he said. 

Grace said closing Walker Service would leave a huge void in their lives. They hate to see another mom and pop business close in Waynesville, but they hope to see someone buy the business to carry it on for another generation. 

“I’ve really enjoyed all our customers and my customers are Clayton’s customers,” Grace said. “We’re so thankful they have supported us and we couldn’t have done it for all these years without them.”

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