By on May 28, 2020

Founding of a Family Business

Andy Griffith long insisted that the fictional town of Mayberry was not modeled after his childhood home in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and that any similarity between the names Mayberry and Mt. Airy was purely coincidental. And perhaps it is sheer happenstance that Mayberry’s neighboring hamlet of Mt. Pilot sounds remarkably like Mt. Airy’s nearby Pilot Mountain. But the coincidence grows further suspect when you learn that Earlie Gilley really did have a service station and store in Pilot Mountain.

Earlie Gilley opened his service station when he returned from a tour of duty in World War II.2 So was born Gilley’s Automotive and Supply Company, Inc. in 1946. Shortly after Earlie’s brother, Wade, returned from his service in Korea—Wade is eight years the junior—Earlie invited him to join him in a partnership, and Wade accepted. “Them Gilley boys” incorporated on July 11, 1960, according to the North Carolina Secretary of State.

Whether you need an obscure part for your early-model farm tractor or an oil filter for your late-model SUV, Wade’s your man. He knows his stock inside and out. He ought to; he’s been stocking those shelves in the same back room of the same location since 1958. Though the location has not changed, the address has changed three times because of postal addressing advances over the years.

The Family

Earlie Gilley was born in 1922, the oldest of eight children born to John and Rosella Gilley. He married Lorraine Beasley in 1946 upon his return from military service in Germany. They eventually established their home next door to the shop, and lived there together for 60 years, until Earlie’s death; Lorraine lived in their marital home until she passed. Earlie and Lorraine had two children, Carol and Earlie Jr. Carol and Earlie Jr. both married, with their own children, including the youngest of Lorraine’s grandchildren, Earlie Gilley III, who is now the proud father of Earlie Gilley IV.

Born in 1930, Wade joined his brother in 1958, the same year he married his wife of nearly 50 years. Born Annie Mildred Tolbert, “Millie” raised Wade’s two sons, Wade Jr. and John, in their home just a few hundred yards down the road from the store—in the direction opposite Earlie’s. Wade Sr. still lives there, having lost Millie in 2004. John has married and has two children of his own. John still does machining work for the family business part-time.

The Business

Earlie’s business, at its inception, was primarily an auto repair shop. Even though he was a sole proprietor, family made important contributions to the business opening its doors. His father, a carpenter by trade, helped him cut the timber to build the original building (which has been expanded several times). His brother Cecil helped him dig the well, which is still in use today. Earlie and Lorraine lived in four rooms in the back of the store (included for that purpose) for the first few years of their marriage.

Among the services offered in the early days was towing. Earlie had purchased a surplus Army truck and converted it to a wrecker, which they dubbed Ol’ Betsy. The general nature of the business was probably not entirely coincidental, but rather reflected the environment in which Earlie had come of age; Grandpa John had been among the first in Surry County to own a truck, and had owned and operated a grocery store in Mt. Airy, offering home delivery, which was the custom at the time.

The services offered by Gilley’s Automotive fluctuated over the years. With Wade’s arrival, he brought skills that naturally expanded the business. He had a natural mechanical aptitude, and had honed his skills as a mechanic in the Army motor pool. When Wade joined the business, more land was purchased and the building was expanded, adding a garage and what still functions as the auto parts sales floor today. A parts storage room was added, as well, and serves as a machining room today. (In the 1970s, they added machining services, grinding crankshafts and boring cylinders.)

The automotive aspect of the business dominated over the years, though an effort was made to offer a convenience store in 1947. It proved popular with local laborers for made-to-order sandwiches, snacks, tobacco, and the like, but that part of the store was discontinued in 2000 with the closure of the service station. (New environmental regulations and the high cost of replacing and maintaining underground tanks proved prohibitive for an independent station of its size.)

For most of its “modern” existence, the focus of the enterprise has been automotive parts and supplies, and machining services. To accommodate this focus, a warehouse was added in 1970 (the ninth expansion of the original building). Wade has had primary responsibility for this aspect of operations, a fact reflected in his extensive knowledge of obscure parts information. Gilley’s is the local go-to source for parts for aging farm equipment, in addition to stocking general automotive parts, especially for older vehicles. This is the focus of the business today.

Gilley’s Automotive, circa 1982.

Family Involvement

In addition to their involvement in the (literal) building of the business, family has been involved at various stages in the company’s evolution. Earlie and Wade both worked full-time in the business, for many years operating six days a week and staying open until 9:00 p.m. Lorraine worked at the store from the early days until 2006, though her hours diminished over the years. The boys’ youngest brother, C.R., began working in the repair shop in 1955, and continued to work there until retiring very recently. Around the time of Grandpa John’s death, nephew J.W., son of Earlie and Wade’s brother Cecil, was working for the business, delivering parts.

Earlie’s daughter Carol joined the business in the late 1970s, assisting with clerical and bookkeeping tasks, and continued with the business on a part-time basis until recently. Wade’s son John joined the business in 1987, when he graduated from high school, and continues to work there today as a machinist. Wade Jr. joined the business in June 1986, upon graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, assisting in an accounting and mid-level management role. Wade Jr. continued working at the store until August 2002, when he left to pursue other work; he now helps part-time with accounting and management tasks.

Partnership, Then Incorporation

The brothers operated as a partnership for those first few years. They incorporated in 1961, with Earlie and Wade each taking majority shares and each wife taking a minority share. Wade went on record as President, Earlie as Treasurer and Secretary, Lorraine as Vice President, and Millie as Second Vice President. The business was managed day-to-day by Earlie and Wade.

Over the years, the business has felt pressure from a growing trend toward franchising in the marketplace, both in the auto parts business and, later, in the service station market. This pushed the Gilleys toward an increasing specialization in parts for older agricultural and industrial vehicles, and eventually led to the closing of the service station.

Wade Gilley and Family, late 90s.

In 2004, Millie passed away, consolidating her interest in the company in Wade Sr. In 2006, Earlie died following an extended illness. This passed his ownership interest to Carol and Earlie Jr. With Lorraine’s passing, the shareholders were Wade Sr., Earlie Jr., and Carol. At this time, Wade Sr. is the sole shareholder in Gilley’s Automotive and Supply Co., Inc.

Community and Reputation

The business is a long-respected institution, as witnessed not only by its subtle recognition in early television (on The Andy Griffith Show), but by the fact that customers routinely drove from Greensboro, Charlotte, and even parts of Virginia to procure parts and service there.

Not only did the community embrace the Gilley boys, but the Gilleys gave back to the community by supporting local civic, church, and school organizations. Both were charter members of the local Ruritan chapter. Earlie, together with a group of other locals, helped found the first local telephone cooperative. Gilley’s Automotive sponsored various local sports teams. The business has long supported environmentally-aware practices in an industry otherwise generally perceived as contributing to environmental harm, adopting the practice early on of returning “cores” to manufacturers and distributors for recycling or other productive reclamation.

In June of 1997, long-time customers traveled from far and wide to share in the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Gilley’s Automotive and Supply Co., Inc. Complete with door prizes, catered local barbecue, and balloons, the event drew note in the local newspapers. Customers past and present kept the parking lot full throughout the day. Among those honoring the partnership was one vendor, Douglas Battery, for whom the boys had been selling product for all of their fifty years. Their loyalty was commemorated by a plaque from Douglas.

May of 2017 saw the celebration of Gilley’s Automotive’s 70th Anniversary.  Friends, neighbors, and customers past and present joined us in celebrating with door prizes, hot dogs, a car show, and a display of vintage tractors.

Additional Figures

Millie and Wade Gilley on their 40th Anniversary.

Earlie Gilley in 2000, behind the counter.
The children’s tribute to their parents.

1 Earlie Gilley appeared (at least in name) in several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. “In the episode, Andy states that Earl Gilley’s failure to properly caulk his boat caused it to sink during the fishing contest. The real Mr. Gilley is named Earlie, and he and Andy Griffith were friends for many years. He ran an auto repair shop in Pilot Mountain. By the way, Earlie married Lorraine Beasley, who happens to have been Andy Griffith’s cousin. Her name was also used in the series. We will note the use of Mr. Gilley’s name in four other episodes.” The Definitive Andy Griffith Show Reference, Dale Robinson & David Fernandes, 1996, McFarland & Company, Inc.
See also, for instance:
http://www.radoknews.com/andy-griffith-show-part-3.html, and
http://www.mayberry.com/tagsrwc/wbmutbb/anewsome/private/homelifemarch99.htm; all pages retrieved on February 20, 2008.

2 Gilley, Jr., Wade C., Francis Gilley, Portrait and Legacy of a Pioneer, 2007. Wade, Jr. is the family historian. http://www.francisgilley.com/