Closer Look

Business spotlight: Whistle Stop a destination location

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Emma Cait Breeden

Walking through the doors transports to a time before our own. Local information, classic candies, a wide selection of distinctive antiques, and more defines Whistle Stop Depot Antique Mall, a unique Western North Carolina retail experience. 

Whistle Stop opened in 1999, receiving its catchy name from the owners’ love of trains. The antique mall opened with the intent of creating a place to find antiques, with a wide selection to choose from. 

Whistle Stop is owned by James and Lois Vanderwoude and managed by Shawna Garrett. 

“The owners, James and Lois Vanderwoude, always wanted to have a shop like this … that would offer valuable antiques to people,” said Garrett.

MANAGER SHAWNA Garrett (R) and Finance Director Christie Stanfield stand beneath a photograph of the Vanderwoude family, founders of Whistle Stop Depot Antique Mall.

Whistle Stop changed locations in late 2015, after their original Georgia Road location was sold to Ingles. On April 1, 2016, it opened at its current location: the historic Cullasaja Elementary School on Highlands Road. This 26,000-square-foot building contains its own history. The elementary school opened in 1948 and closed in 2011 when Macon County schools were consolidated. The structure transitioning into an antique mall enabled it to be preserved. 

The school’s classic charm still remains, adding to the historical experience of being inside Whistle Stop. The mall is organized around the original skeleton of Cullasaja Elementary, with each room still labeled as it was when the school was in operation. Each classroom is filled with unique items, such as delicate china sets and sundry dishes, decor specific to various decades, classic furniture (including rare pieces like a 1930s art deco style vanity and Victorian-era bedroom furniture), and much more. 

Individual classrooms might contain a mix of items, while the school’s hallways exhibit posters, photos, jewelry, and books. 

The original Georgia Road location also offered a wide variety of things to do besides peruse antiques; multiple shops and restaurants were located inside the vast mall. The Highlands Road location is primarily Whistle Stop and all it offers. 

Garrett and coworker Christie Stanfield, finance director and employee since Whistle Stop’s opening, reflected on how the new location has affected the mall.

“That other location was a lot bigger, so we had individual shops and restaurants, which we don’t have room for out here,” said Stanfield. “But I think this one offers a lot better quality of merchandise.” 

Whistle Stop stocks antiques from more than 100 dealers.

 “Our dealers are wonderful,” said Garrett. “They bring in a lot of variety and a lot of culture … our dealers are the heart and soul of the mall.” 

Some dealers provide antiques, some focus on collectibles, and others mix in a few modern items to keep the selection diverse. According to Whistle Stop employees, a close community exists among the dealers and employees. 

“We really are like family,” said part-time employee, Barbara Desroches.

The employees and dealers all help build an environment that adds to the consumer experience within Whistle Stop. 

“The variety of people that walk through these doors, that we get to interact with, is probably the most valuable asset of working here,” said Garrett. “We don’t just sell antiques; we give you the opportunity to find memories. Walk the old school halls, meet new people, listen to the music, and you can dance down the halls if you want … dance and sing with the music!” 

The mall is a destination location for locals as well as tourists to the Macon County area, and the employees and dealers work hard to make the experience enjoyable. 

Emma Cait Breeden is a senior and an honors student at Franklin High School.