Although retired from racing,...
Although retired from racing, Johnson stays busy with multiple business interests and hobbies. Photo by Christopher Noble
Springtime has arrived in the Brushy Mountains of North Carolina. Flowering buds provide a rose-colored glow to the ridges and valleys, offsetting white blooms from acres upon acres of orchards, the first telltale sign of the Apple Festival coming the first Saturday of October.
The festival is one of the largest one-day arts and crafts events in the Southeast, drawing an estimated 160,000 people to North Wilkesboro. It is a celebration of mountain heritage that has exceeded the once-popular NASCAR races at North Wilkesboro Speedway, a fortress of speed partly in ruins that the weeds have overgrown in places.
"People in these parts don't care about racing the way they used to," says an old gentleman standing on the speedway grounds, brushing dust from a racing decal, remnants of another era. He was wearing a faded baseball cap with Neil Bonnett's name above the bill. He said his last name was Cheek. "Maybe their interest would come back if they'd open the speedway back up.
"They used to pack this place to see Junior Johnson race," he says. "Then they packed it to see his cars race. I never missed coming here back in them days, but I wouldn't come now, not unless Junior came out of retirement."
Down the road a few miles, just off old Highway 421, the last thing on Junior Johnson's mind is coming out of retirement to race.
Among products carrying Junior's...
Among products carrying Junior's name are breakfast meats...
He is busy planting his spring garden, working on his 200-acre-plus farm, looking after his 700-800 Black Angus beef cows, finalizing business deals, taking trips with his family, and having a good time with friends.
Wife Lisa leaves early, driving about 25 miles to Forsyth Country Day, where their children, Robert, 14, and Meredith, 12, attend classes at the private school.
Between his 14,000-square-foot house and the highway, offset to the west near a grove of hardwood trees, is his farm shop. There is a kitchen inside where Junior, his workers and friends gather most every morning for breakfast.
"This is our gossip shop," Junior says as he serves coffee, dishes of eggs, country ham (his own brand), bacon, biscuits, red-eye and cream gravy, cooked apples, jams, honey, jelly and anything else you can think of for the first meal of the day.
"We get a lot accomplished here about every morning. The next president will probably be decided right here in this room," he says.
...and a legal form of moonshine....
...and a legal form of moonshine. Photos by Michael Paul and Christopher Noble
Which brought up a conversation about the government and what direction it is headed. "The government expects you to hurry up with everything except time spent for them," a former bootlegger says. "I pulled two years in Atlanta, and that was the longest two years of my life. I thought I would never graduate."
Everybody laughed. "Yeah, I know what you mean," Junior says. "It took me 11 months to graduate from Chillicothe, Ohio. Later on, President Ronald Reagan pardoned me. In fact, he did it December 26, 1986, and I'm very proud of that."
There is an old story about Junior when he first began racing. Supposedly, he was barefooted and plowing the family garden with a mule, when his brother drove up and told him about a race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Story has it that he put the mule up and went with his brother to try driving a racecar.
Ironically, the cycle is complete. He is back to gardening and, according to local folks, grows some of the best produce in Wilkes County, using a tractor now rather than a mule. "I sold all my mules two years ago," he says.
In the shop kitchen are two Blum's Almanacs, a magazine of sorts that has been a farmer's and planter's guide for 180 years. "Yes, I go by the signs, but I vary just a little in some cases," he says. "Old habits are hard to break, and I learned about gardening from my parents. I still do it pretty much the way I was taught, especially the way my mother taught me.