BY SARAH R. GREGORY
Dixie Cleaners, a long-time family-owned business in downtown Greeneville, has closed for new business even though the doors are, for the present, still open.
Dixie's popular, well-known owners, Thelma and Rusty Wilhoit, both now in their mid-80s, recently moved into an assisted-living community in Knoxville as the result of health concerns, according to one of their sons, Allen Wilhoit, of Knoxville.
Although there are numerous interested buyers for various pieces of equipment and the building, no other dry cleaning establishment in Greeneville or the surrounding area has expressed interest in taking over Dixie's business, nor has any other buyer for the business come forward.
Pinecrest Cleaners, located on Tusculum Boulevard with a drop-off location on West Depot Street, is now the sole Greeneville-based business offering dry-cleaning services.
CLEANING NO LONGER
Dixie Cleaners stopped accepting garments for dry cleaning about a week ago, Allen Wilhoit said.
Approximately two weeks' worth of items that have been cleaned remain on the racks awaiting pickup by their owners.
Wilhoit said customers may pick up their items at the 120 E. Church St. location through Dec. 1. Customers should call the store at 638-3129 to schedule a time to pick them up.
After Dec. 1, however, those needing to collect their cleaned items will need to arrange a Saturday appointment to do so by calling Wilhoit at 865-922-0029.
Those who stop in to have cleaning done are being directed to Pinecrest Cleaners, Wilhoit said.
Employees are directing those in need of sewing and alterations to Olga's Tailoring and Fashion Design, whose owner has often assisted Thelma Wilhoit with sewing.
After Dec. 1, the business will be closed completely, Allen Wilhoit said.
Martha Tarlton, a long-time employee and Wilhoit family friend well-known to Dixie Cleaners' customers, is now working with Pinecrest Cleaners, a development which Wilhoit said he hopes will be pleasing to those who have come to know Tarlton at Dixie over the years.
FAMILY LINK WITH CLEANING SERVICES
The Wilhoit family has long been associated with linen supplies and cleaning services in Greeneville, Allen Wilhoit said.
His grandfather, Gurney Wilhoit, operated a linen supply business called Dixie Linen, off East Depot Street. That company worked closely with an earlier cleaning business also called Dixie Cleaners.
"My grandfather retired and sold Dixie Linen" in the years prior to Thelma and Rusty Wilhoit's operating a dry cleaning business for the first time, Wilhoit said.
"My father and mother bought Greene's [Cleaning] and re-named it Wilhoit Cleaners," Allen Wilhoit said.
Wilhoit Cleaners was located on East Church Street at the current location of Dixie Cleaners. The building had once served as the bottling factory for Kist soft drinks.
Rusty and Thelma Wilhoit dry cleaned and sewed garments for several years at the Church Street location until Rusty Wilhoit, who also served as a firefighter with the Greeneville Fire Department, was elected Greene County's assessor of property.
Upon his election, the couple sold Wilhoit Cleaners to Willis "Twink" Harold, owner of the Dixie Cleaners business, which was then located behind the Greene County Courthouse. That cleaning business had worked with the elder Wilhoits' linen supply shop.
At the time, in the early-to-mid-1980s, however, Harold's Dixie Cleaners location on East Depot Street was needed as part of the site for the construction of the Greene County Detention Center.
For that reason, the Dixie Cleaners building was sold and subsequently demolished, and the detention center was built.
"So [Harold] was needing a new location, and daddy [Rusty Wilhoit] was getting out" of the dry cleaning business at that time to serve as assessor of property, Allen Wilhoit said.
What had been Wilhoit Cleaners then became known as Dixie Cleaners, under Harold's ownership and management.
BACK TO DRY CLEANING
In the late 1980s, however, the Wilhoit family would find themselves in the cleaning business again.
Within a short timespan, Rusty Wilhoit completed the second of two terms as county assessor of property and did not run for the office again, Thelma Wilhoit retired from Greene Valley Hospital and School, now Greene Valley Developmental Center, and "Twink" Harold died.
"Twink's widow called my mom and dad, who were newly retired from the county government position, and said, 'Would you all buy it?' and Dad said no. Mom said yes, so they bought it," Allen Wilhoit laughed.
A 'NATURAL RETIREMENT'
The pair operated the cleaning business for another 26 years until they moved to Knoxville a couple of weeks ago.
"I call it 'natural retirement.' Mother Nature says you're retired," Wilhoit said of the decision to move his parents to a care facility in Knoxville and close the business.
Thelma Wilhoit has suffered a number of mini-strokes that have caused some permanent damage, Wilhoit said.
Rusty Wilhoit has mobility problems and has fallen several times, and the number of stairs in both the Wilhoit home and the Dixie Cleaners building was of major concern to their family.
For years, Allen Wilhoit's sons, Tommy and Joey Wilhoit, of Knoxville, have traveled to Greeneville each weekend to help their grandparents catch up on the week's cleaning, so employees could start each Monday with a clean slate and numerous items ready to press.
"My mom and dad were getting slower and slower, and business was getting smaller and smaller," Allen Wilhoit explained.
"They were still making a little money -- it was below minimum wage -- but it didn't matter. It was better than sitting at the nursing home," he said.
Wilhoit said he and his brother, Mac Wilhoit, have questioned in years past whether their parents should continue to work.
The brothers always felt it was best for their parents to work, "but now they've lost their health," Allen Wilhoit said.
The couple now reside in Trinity Hills Assisted Living, in Knoxville, and seem to be in better health and rest more, Allen Wilhoit said.
In addition, in Knoxville, the two are closer to their sons, grandsons and other family members.
Allen Wilhoit's brother, Mac Wilhoit, is a Knoxville pharmacist, who operates two Mac's Pharmacy locations.
His son, Mike Wilhoit, oversees Mac's Pharmacy operations related to nursing home facilities -- including the assisted living facility in which Thelma and Rusty Wilhoit now reside.
MISS FRIENDS, COMMUNITY
But, Wilhoit said, his parents miss their many friends in Greeneville, especially friends who stopped by the business regularly.
They also miss the community in general, as they have always called it home, he said.
"My parents love this town. They absolutely love it. When we go talk to them, they want to know about people and about things.
"This is who they are -- Greeneville, Tennessee -- and they only left because there was no alternative."