• Stephanie Rzonca

Cowan Tire & Auto Celebrates 75 Years in Business

Rutherfordton has many small family-owned businesses that have been able to withstand the tests of time, proving that economic resilience is possible in small town North Carolina. This month we feature one of our septuagenarian businesses to coincide with their anniversary on April 24. Congratulations, Cowan Tire & Auto Service!

Hunt and Sallie Cowan look great for a couple whose business is turning 75 years old this week. Hunt Cowan, the third generation owner of the tire and automotive shop, will quickly assure you that he’s only been around for the last 55 of those years (leading me to assume that he arrived on this earth with a wrench in his hand, an infant born ready to pull off mechanical miracles!) Cowan Tire & Auto Service has gone through several transformations over the last 75 years, with five locations, multiple lines of merchandise, and even a tire retread factory to meet market demands. As is the case with many of Rutherfordton’s small and resilient family-owned businesses, reinvention can be the key to achieving longevity.

Arnold Cowan, left, accepts an award from Goodyear in 1963

Arnold Cowan got his start in the tire and automotive industry with Goodyear in the midst of World War II in Akron, Ohio. At that time, citizens rationed almost everything to help with the war effort – tires, included. As the war concluded, the economy surged and what was once rationed was now open to mass production and consumption. Arnold Cowan moved from Akron to Spartanburg as a part of that mass wave of production and distribution to meet the demand of the consumers who were eager to put their days of rationing behind them. From there he moved to Forest City, and opened the first store: Cowan Tire & Battery.

In the years following the war, there were shortages of everything. The limited supply of goods was no match for the pent up demand, and so the Cowan’s business did everything they could to provide their customers with what they wanted. Kitchen goods, appliances, bicycles, guns, and ammunition were all available for sale at the Cowan Tire in Forest City. They supplied police departments with their guns and ammunition, and much like livestock feed or seed, bullets were sold by the scoop full.

In the 1950s, the Cowans began retreading tires, and their business diversified even more to meet demand. Eventually this became a full fledged tire retreading factory, at one time recapping as many as 40,000 tires per year and importing over 1 million pounds of rubber for processing in their Main Street Forest City factory, until the industry trend for retreading consumer tires went away. While large commercial truck tires are still retread, auto tires became progressively smoother and better wearing, and the relative cost of new tires continued to lower starting in the 60's.

Thomas Street location of Cowan Tire in downtown Forest City

As the years progressed, the Cowans occupied what is now Farmers Hardware on Main Street Forest City, then a storefront on Thomas Street, before constructing a new building on W Main Street. A second store in Rutherfordton was built at the corner of Charlotte Road and Main Street in 1965. Gaylord Cowan, Hunt's father, ran this location and was known for his fun-loving manner, even dressing up for work in overalls with outrageous neckties on the farmers market days in held front of the downtown shops.

In 2009, the brand new Cowan Tire & Auto Service opened on South Main Street in Rutherfordton. The business once again shifted and transformed, this time focusing on their core business: all aspects of auto maintenance and repair, including (of course) tires. No more kitchen appliances or bullets here – this store is all automotive. Hunt and Sallie Cowan took the opportunity that building a new building presented to redefine what Cowan’s Tire really is. The connection to Goodyear and to the family history continues on, but now with a focus on the future, innovation, and sustainability. Their building was the first LEED registered building in the county, and as such they truly demonstrated “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.” Their building’s design took years of study and research, and they are sensitive to both their environmental and energy impact. The waste oil they collect from oil changes is used in their specialized heating system to heat their building in the winter, saving them utility costs and mitigating the potential environmental impacts of spills.

As the business continues beyond its 75th anniversary, the Cowans remain optimistic about the future of Rutherfordton and their place in the Rutherford County business landscape. Their forward-thinking approach, combined with their deep connection to the history of the community, is an embodiment of one of the best things about Rutherfordton: how we embrace innovation and chase opportunity, all while honoring history and tradition.

Join Cowan Tire & Auto for their 75th anniversary celebration!

Do you have any Cowan Tire & Auto memories you’d like to share? Tell us some of your best stories in the comments below, or send me an email at srzonca@rutherfordton.net.