When Gary Riggs looks around the interior of County Roads Saloon, the town watering hole that he and his wife Vicki have owned since 2015, he doesn’t just see a bar; he sees Thomas’ history.
“That doorway was the Davis Coal & Gas Company Gas Station…I think in the sixties the addition was added on and it an Exxon Gas Station…It was turned into a restaurant and then a bar. The previous leasers did the woodlork,” says Riggs, giving a tour of the premises.
“The bar top was originally part of the old Thomas bowling alley. And then it was repurposed for the sportsman’s club… So this bar top is easily 125 years old.”
While Riggs may have the knowledge and community pride of a longtime local, he’s actually a relative newcomer to Thomas. A native Floridian, Riggs spent more than two decades working for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Despite a lifelong “heart-link” with the mountains, it took until 2015 to make the move. Vicki’s class reunion in Oakland proved to be the unlikely inspiration.
“We came up in 2015 for her 50th class reunion. We came up through the mountains here and she put a CD in the player and it was Steve Earle playing “The Mountain.” And that moved me…I wasn’t born in the mountains but I was reborn here.”
After returning to Jacksonville, Gary and Vicky found the building that would become Country Roads and drove up to Thomas with all of their belongings. The pair didn’t even come up with the name for their bar until they were already on the road. By the following year they had bought the building. While a health crisis kept them in Florida for some of the time since then, they are now back in Thomas to stay.
For Riggs, life in Thomas is all about community. Throughout our talk, Riggs went out of his way to credit his and Vicki’s success to the support of neighbors, friends, and even “rival” businesses like the Purple Fiddle; the two establishments frequently direct customers each other’s way. Riggs wants this community-first approach to show in the atmosphere at Country Roads, which he says is modeled on the English idea of a pub as a town-meeting house.
“[It’s] where you make friends, where you discuss the news and what’s going on in the town.”
The rules, he says, are simple.
“There’s no subject that’s off limits. In my experience you can talk about religion, you can talk about politics, if you start out with the basic concept of respect… You’re a human being and you are welcome here.”
To Gary Riggs, Country Roads is more than just a bar. It’s a slice of Thomas’ history and meeting place for its present. It’s his “retirement,” the culmination of a lifetime of work. And it’ll be forever entwined in his and Vicki’s story. You can see it all on the walls.
Walk into Country Roads, through that gas station doorway, and look around the corner from the century old bar. Two of the wood panels there are painted gold. They mark the spots on stage where the couple stood on their wedding day. In the bar.