One of the pioneers in Lake Wylie business — and, as friends tell it, just an overall fine person — is gone. But her impact won’t soon be forgotten.
Mary Frances Coon, or “Mama C” as locals knew her, died in Alabama on Nov. 7. She was 93.
“She lived quite a life and touched many lives along the way,” said Susan Bromfield, president of the Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce.
Coon lived in Lake Wylie for decades before moving to Guin, Ala., in recent years to be closer to family. Coon was known for her bookkeeper role at the River Rat restaurant that grew to become a local landmark. She was part of the group that put Lake Wylie on the economic map, a founding member of the Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce.
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“The chamber’s first and early board meetings were held at the original River Rat located on Highway 49 at Montgomery Road,” Bromfield said. “As the community grew, so did the River Rat and Mama C’s involvement in the community and chamber.”
Coon and her late husband David owned Lake Wylie Superette at Evergreen Road and S.C. 49, the first area business to include Lake Wylie in the name. The Coons also owned Joe’s Mustang, a service station where folks would come in an try burgers Mama C cooked in a kitchen she had in the back. She was part of a group that founded Good Samaritan United Methodist Church — and the group responsible for getting a post office substation, another way to brand Lake Wylie as its own.
“Mama C and the Lake Wylie Chamber founders helped to put Lake Wylie on the map, literally,” Bromfield said.
Coon and the Powell family, who owned the place, offered up the original River Rat spot when the few local business leaders around gathered in 1979 to figure out how they could have a say in local civic issues. They became the chamber of commerce, hardly the last crowd to congregate at the River Rat. So many came, Coon and the Powells expanded to the existing restaurant site on S.C. 557.
“She helped me when I got started,” said original River Rat owner Al Powell. “She always paid my bills.”
Powell worked with Coon at the River Rat for 30 years. He actually began working for her, as a high school sophomore at the Superette. Powell and others distributed oil for several of Coon’s local businesses. Powell and Coon even lived around the corner from one another. So when he set out to start the River Rat, he knew who could help.
“She was very vital to my operation,” Powell said. “If I needed her to do something, she would do it.”
Bromfield recalls customers regularly traveling from Charlotte, Gaffney and parts unknown to eat at the restaurant.
“Customers would line up to wait to be seated almost nightly,” she said. “In early evening the local gathering spot and the problems of the world were being solved at the bar at the River Rat.”
As important to Coon as the business ventures were, her heart also belonged with her church family.
“She was extremely generous,” said Allen Bradford of York, one of several close friends Coon referred to as “her boys,” who met Coon through Good Samaritan. “She would help anyone out who needed help.”
Along with helping establish the church, Coon took on the task of putting a pavilion in place where people could gather for events.
“She left her mark in that community,” Bradford said.
‘A phenomenal woman’
Norma and Charles Wood have been members of the Lake Wylie business community four decades. He spent many years as chamber board president, and she regularly picks up the phone when people call the office. Norma Wood said she didn’t know Coon as well as some others, but everyone knew of Mama C.
“She was a phenomenal woman in that she started her own business, helped Al Powell get established,” Wood said. “She was very involved with her church.”
Wood can more easily recall the businesses Coon ran and the people who gathered there than she can Coon’s actual name, or why anyone called her Mama C in the first place. Particulars weren’t too important to Coon anyway. People were.
“She was a community-minded lady, and certainly a friend,” Wood said. “She was just always there.”
If Bromfield takes a moment to recall her friend for people who weren’t here to remember, it is a favor returned.
“Mama C wasn’t hot about me when I was hired at the chamber,” Bromfield said. “After all, I wasn’t from here and I didn’t know all the people and things she knew about.”
It didn’t take long. After arriving in 1991, Bromfield asked Coon to help organize minutes and records dispersed into members’ homes, attics and other places. A friendship formed, lasting two decades.
“She shared many stories and history of the Lake Wylie area,” Bromfield said. “She was my go-to friend when I needed to know the history and how things came about.”
Coon was honored by the chamber as Business Person of the Year in 1995. Remarks from that occasion may be lost to history, as it predates the chamber’s computer system. What else may be lost, even among close friends, is why people started calling the woman who didn’t have children of her own, Mama C. Bradford thought maybe Powell started it.
Powell said it wasn’t him. Both say she loved the name, so it stuck.
“She was quite inspirational to getting a lot of stuff started in Lake Wylie,” Powell said, adding the name fit regardless how it started. “She helped do for the community.”
Friends recall the many businesses no longer here, and organizations like the chamber and church that remain. They say Lake Wylie is a vastly different place now than it was when the Superette, Joe’s Mustang or the River Rat were starting out decades ago. In many ways, they say, due to people like Coon.
“It’s been a good little run,” Powell said, “and she contributed a lot.”