The idea of the old-fashioned country store was that it had a bit of everything. Madison Dry Goods has a bit of everything and more, both natural and supernatural.
That wasn’t always the plan, however.
“We’d have never known we would have a country store,” says owner Richard Miller. “That wasn’t our intention.”
Things change over the course of 28 years, however. And if Richard and his wife, Kathy Miller, have learned anything, it’s how to adapt.
Had they not, it’s quite possible the pair could literally have been scared right out of town.
Madison Dry Goods has much of what you’d expect from an old-time country store. It has a bit of everything, from food and coffee to clothing. One thing it also has is a building with a sinister history. One which the Millers weren’t aware of when they took over the property in the early 1990s.
The Millers originally used the building to house a wholesale business, but later changed to a retail model and later still, to the country store.
Not long after the couple took over the space, Miller said, a man came to him with a photo of eight bodies wrapped in funeral cloth in front of the building he now owned. Miller hadn’t been aware of it when he bought the place, but he had inadvertently stepped into a bit of local infamy.
Blame nobody but I
The building’s infamy dates to Christmas 1929, when Germanton farmer Charlie Lawson, fresh off a hunting expedition with his son, Arthur, shot and bludgeoned his children, ranging in ages from 17 years to four-months old, as well as his wife, leaving only 16-year-old Arthur alive before shooting himself.
When police found Lawson’s body later, a note was left behind that read simply, “Blame nobody but I.”
The murders were so shocking that they made national headlines, including a front-page story in the Winston-Salem Journal, a copy of which survives in the museum.
According to Miller, the T.B. Knight Funeral Home, which had been on the second floor of the building where Madison Dry Goods survives, was the only venue in the area that could handle funeral preparations for eight bodies at once, leading to a procession that allegedly drew a crowd of 5,000 and a legend that lasts to this day.
Later, Lawson’s brother Marion opened the building as a tourist attraction, charging curious visitors 25 cents to look at the site where Lawson and his family were embalmed. Miller has kept that tradition going with the museum, located upstairs above the store—but he and his wife, Kathy, don’t charge onlookers to visit.
Miller, who had also lived in Stokes County, wasn’t aware of the grisly history behind the building before he bought it.
“I knew about Charlie Lawson, but I never knew they were all embalmed upstairs,” Miller said.
28 years haunted
Over the years, the Millers have done their best to adapt to a changing market and changing community. What began as a wholesale business became a retail shop, which became a niche country store, with character in spades.
It doesn’t hurt that the quaint country store is haunted.
“People are just thrilled with it,” Miller said of the store’s reputation, “and over the years since we’ve been here, we’ve had a lot of paranormal activity.”
Ghosts, you say?
Miller said a lot of groups and paranormal enthusiasts have come out over the years, and they know exactly what to look for—and who to look for.
“There’s a little girl floating around that a lot of people see,” he said, referring possibly to one of the four Lawson children. “There have been a lot of strange experiences, and some people come just for that reason.”
Miller said he’s never seen the little girl, but enough strange things have happened through the years to make him a believer.
The word has also spread over the years. Although the museum (along with questions about the history of the building) is the most frequently asked about portion of the site, Miller said supernatural enthusiasts—a.k.a. “ghost hunters,” show up consistently, knowing where to find the museum and heading straight there.
“A lot of times, they’ll walk right by us and go straight upstairs,” to see the museum, Miller said.
Madison Dry Goods and the “haunted funeral parlor” are featured in the new Netflix series 28 Days Haunted, in which a camera crew lived on-site at several famous paranormal sites for 28 days to record their findings.
Before the show’s producers reached out, the Millers had already gotten used to outside attention from the building’s history.
“We’ve been involved with six different film productions,” Miller said, so the idea of working with a film crew wasn’t intimidating.
“They came, checked the building out, and talked to us,” he added. “It was a few weeks before Netflix decided to use this place,” Miller said. “But we had everything they were looking for.”
Though Miller couldn’t say much about the production before its release, he said the cast and crew knew something special was in the building.
“They had investigators with them. They could feel the paranormal stuff here,” Miller added.
Find your own niche
Miller said he doesn’t know whether the exposure on 28 Days Haunted will impact the business, but stranger things have happened. A global pandemic, for example.
“COVID really helped us,” he said. “Our business the last three years is the best we’ve ever had.”
Being a food store when it was hard to come by helped. So did having years of established relationships.
“We have a fairly good amount of food products that are through Rockingham County, but we reach out throughout the United States to complement the local goods,” Miller said. “Most of our customers come from outside Rockingham County… We have our own niche.”
Many customers, of course, show up simply to see the museum, but some find it in everyday business. Either way, it’s just part of the experience.
“We don’t want to charge anyone for the museum,” he said. “It’s the history of the building.”
With so much history and experience over three decades, Miller has gained a lot of experience, which he wants to pass down to future generations and other business owners. One piece of advice he has, for example, is to be patient.
“It took time to do this,” he said. “It didn’t just happen overnight.”
He may run a general store, but Miller cautions against overreaching when starting a business.
“You don’t want to be everything to everybody,” he said. “Just find your own niche.”
And if your store is haunted, adapt to it and make it part of your niche.