Volume IV, No. 2, Winter 1976
Story and drawings by Nancy Honssinger and Alexa Hoke
Photography by Emery Savage
Most people today have had the enjoyable experience of visiting a modern shopping mall in the city. While they walk in air conditioned, or centrally heated comfort, depending on the weather, they have an opportunity to explore everything from large department stores to specialty shops selling shoes, fabrics, greeting cards, tobaccos, baked goods and an endless variety of products.
Strolling through the shops, they may comment on this being a strictly modern innovation. Well, as far as the architecture, heating and cooling and interior design is concerned, they are right. But as far as the endless variety of products under one roof, that's not as new as they might imagine.
What about the old general or country store of the past? There one could certainly find an infinite number of things in one spot--groceries, dry goods, ammunition, hardware, feed for livestock and even a post office.
Anyone who has never had the opportunity to visit one of these fast vanishing phenomena of country living doesn't know what he's missed.
So come along with us and see what a general store was really like according to storekeepers of the past and those still in business.
Stores were located wherever they could most profitably serve the most people. They opened at crossroads, along traveled roads and other natural gathering places. Each community needed a store of its own to serve its own population since villages were ten to fifteen miles apart. Quick transportation was still in the future and people couldn't travel long distances once or twice a week to patronize a store in another community.
Some stores had humble beginnings such as the Caffeyville store which was originally started to sell ice water to travellers driving along new highway 66 in the early 1920's. When new roads and highways were constructed, someone invariably opened a store to serve the the travellers and the nearby community.
A good location also attracted other businesses so that around the store were often such important businesses as the mill, blacksmith shop and post office.
The mill was used almost as often as the store since the storekeeper usually owned and worked in the mill, too. Because bread couldn't be bought at the store, the people would have their wheat ground into flour for homemade bread. Corn was ground both for baking and for feeding livestock. Trips to the mill were usually based on the size of the family and how much flour or meal they would use during a certain amount of time. Usually customers would bring enough wheat or meal to be ground and poured into fifty or a hundred pound sacks. During the winter months when trips to the store or mill were less frequent, they had more grain ground than the usual amount. If the family could not afford to pay cash for the grain, they would pay in toll. The grain would be ground and then a certain percentage would be given to the miller as payment for his service.
Adley Fulford recalls grinding corn for a moonshiner. "I'll not tell you his name. I knew what it was for. He would bring two or three great big sacks full of this pretty corn already shelled off the cob. I've ground it for him time and time again. He'd say, 'Now, I'm feeding some colts,' and he'd want it ground just didn't want it ground on what you'd call the crusher that made it a little bit coarse. He wanted it ground on the meal burrs to make it not as fine as meal, but a little bit coarser than meal. It was moonshine corn. I knew it at the time, of course."
Post offices quite often were in the same building as the country store. A small corner of the store was usually set aside to accomodate a stamp window and a series of shelves with cubby holes for local letters and papers. Although another person could be employed to serve as postmaster, most communities were so small the storekeeper served as postmaster. This made the storekeeper's life a busy one hopping from the store to the mill, to the post office and back. Although the other businesses were important, the store was the center of all the activity.
Stores would differ in their exteriors, ranging from wooden to stone to tar paper. Most of them were two storied. The second story housed either a lodge hall, where town meetings and festivities took place, or family living quarters that made the building both a house and a store. Most stores had porches in front that would run the full width of the building. Usually chairs and benches would be set out so customers would have a place to stop and rest and, of course, visit.
There would be a wooden door with a screen door before it. The wooden door would be fully opened in the summer and only the screen door would be used. Windows were usually regular pane windows that would lift up and down to let in cool breezes or keep out the cold air. The doors and windows of the store were like those of a regular house rather than like the automatic doors and plate glass windows of those in a supermarket today.
Although the exterior of each store differed, the interiors had the same basic floor plan. The floors were usually rough gray boards worn in spots by the steady traffic of customers. Ceilings were fairly high in order to accomodate hanging lanterns, hats and other household items.
The shelves where the groceries and other supplies were stocked usually ran down both sides of the room. They reached almost to the ceiling and were situated to be seen easily by a customer as he walked in the door. The shelves were divided into compartments of different shapes and sizes to house the variety of goods. There would be walking space between the wall shelves and the glass cases, or counters, that were placed parallel to them. Showcases would hold candy, tobacco or dry goods. Crackers and pickle barrels would sit close to the long counters. Scales, sales pads and the cash register would be placed on top of the counters.
Many stores had an open space in the central area of the room where there would be a potbellied stove with chairs placed around it. This was a favorite gathering spot on cold winter days for those who wanted to visit a spell and warm up before venturing back outside.
Since there was no electricity in the early country stores, different types of lighting had to be used. Kerosene lamps were the most widely used with gas and carbide lanterns also used. All of these had to be cleaned and refilled often. To attain the most lamplight lights were placed on the walls close to counters and work areas throughout the store. When electricity arrived between the thirties and forties, the country store installed hanging lights--a single bulb on the end of a cord. With just a pull of the attached string, the lights could be turned on or off and there was no messy clean up.
Phone service became available in some of the rural areas about 1910. This crank type party line telephone was an important addition to the store. The store telephone was mainly for calling in orders to the wholesale suppliers in town. A person would call the ex? change to ask for a number and a different line and the operator would call it. A common past-time for many housewives was eavesdropping. Since they knew their neighbor's ring, all they would have to do was pick up the phone receiver and listen.
With a comfortable building and the convenience of lamps and the crank phones, things would be
a little easier for the storekeeper. The foundation was set. Next the storekeeper had the chore of
stocking the store and then beginning his new business.
CRACKERS AND COAL OIL
During the early days of the country stores it was the storekeeper's responsibility to find a supplier for his business. Even after finding one such as the Wholesale House in Lebanon, he was not assured of any deliveries. The stock needed at country stores had to be ordered from town and picked up by the storekeepers themselves.
The frequency of trips varied from store to store. For some the rough and rugged journey into town would take a full day's ride. Many times the storekeeper and his team and wagon started before sunrise and returned after dark. Others that were located farther away would drive their teams to town, make their orders, spend the night and return home the following day. In cases such as this, the stores would stock up more heavily and not go to the supplier quite as often.
In later years thriving country stores had to increase their trips to twice a week, and then to everyday to supply the demands of their loyal customers. The old International trucks with the solid tires made the journeys much easier for storekeepers to keep up with the increased need for trips. Nicknames such as "Princess" and "Old Blaze" were often given to these durable trucks that weathered many trips.
The Wholesale House in Lebanon supplied groceries to many country stores in the surrounding area. It started its business in 1909 employing a minimum of twelve to fifteen people--all men except the female bookkeepers. One of the many bookkeeping jobs was to keep track of the gasoline, mileage and expense of the trucks. Trucks made deliveries only in town.
The Wholesale House sold groceries and some dry goods. A display of grocery items was set up in the front of the store for buyers to consult when purchasing groceries. All orders taken in both wholesale houses and the country stores were written by hand.
As transportation and roads became better, the territory the wholesale business sold to extended farther in all directions until they were supplying groceries for stores as far away as a hundred miles.
With the improving conditions salesmen of a variety of products found it profitable to visit country stores. Dry good and shoe drummers came every four to six months while hardware drummers made yearly rounds to all the country stores along their routes. At first the drummers made their rounds in hacks which resembled a buggy with a truck bed which was filled with trunks containing samples.
Other salesmen rode the trains, getting off at certain points to take orders. They would mail the orders to take them back to the companies where they were filled as soon as they arrived. They were shipped back by train and left at depots to be picked up by the storekeepers. Deliveries were very efficient this way, many times arriving on freight cars the next day. Merchants were happy about rapid deliveries but a little annoyed at the growing number of salesmen. As Loren Alloway commented, "There used to be a salesman ever time you turned around. You couldn't wait on a customer, for a salesman."
Country stores were still making trips to the wholesale houses for groceries when drastic changes began taking place. Chain stores and supermarkets arrived with their own suppliers. Local business decreased so that the Wholesale House in Lebanon had to close after sixty years. Since several smaller stores still depended on the Lebanon wholesale house to stock their stores, when it went out of business, some country stores were forced to close because they had no other grocery supplier.
The few remaining country stores that found other suppliers and had enough business to open today, have their deliveries made directly in company trucks, and salesmen call to take orders by phone. At Russ, Missouri, several salesmen call a week. There are five milk trucks, two fruit trucks, a hardware truck, a cookie truck, an ice cream truck and several bread trucks, "and pop men galore," that stop each week to supply their grocery needs.
The country stores were usually the only store in the area, so they had to carry all the stock their customers needed, from groceries to ammunition, clothing to feed for livestock. They also tried to stock some variety of brands to satisfy the demands for favorites. There were no frozen foods until refrigeration became possible, but there was always a good supply of non-perishables.
Since groceries were packaged in bulk, everything had to be weighed out. The first items a customer wanted were coffee and flour, if they didn't bring their own wheat to be ground. For those that did purchase flour, it was weighed out of a hundred or fifty pound sack. Toasted coffee beans were in sacks or barrels of a hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds. Because coffee wasn't ground, coffee grinders or mills had their place in almost every home. Roasted coffee beans could also be ground in the larger store mills after it was purchased. The other staples next on the customer's list would include sugar, salt and rice.
There were few fresh fruits or vegetables ever in the store because of spoilage and lack of demand. Most people grew their own. One exception that couldn't be grown in the Ozarks and could be kept without refrigeration was bananas. Big tall baskets containing stalks of bananas were brought in and opened at the store. Merchants would hang the stalks up and according to Charlie Southard, "If someone wanted a quarter's worth bananas, you took a crooked knife and cut off a bunch and weighed it up." However, dried fruits were important. Dried peaches from California were among the favorites. Other dried fruits were apples, raisins and prunes.
The meat section consisted mostly of salted, cured and smoked pork because beef had to be refrigerated. Slab bacon and side meat along with smoked jowl and fatback were the most prominent. The fatback was used similiar to bolonga today. Canned salmon or other fish was sold, too. The meat section wasn't as important because most families butchered their own meat, usually hogs. Country stores very seldom bought home butchered meats, but Adley Fulford told an amusing story of how the Oakland Store once bought a home butchered hog.
"One of our neighbors came up and asked if we would buy some home cured bacon. My brother-in-law and partner, Gordon Elmore, said, 'Yes, I'll buy it.' So in a few days he came in a wagon with six huge sides of bacon off of a four or five hundred pound hog. And Gordon bought it for fourteen cents a pound. Then while we were unloading it, the mailman asked where the bacon came from and how much we wanted to sell it for. Gordon said fifteen cents a pound. The mailman bought it all. We had to cut each side in two to fit them into a rumble seat on the back of his Chevrolet car."
The Oakland Store had a contract for four or five years with a lawyer in St. Louis to furnish him with one hundred and twenty-five dressed turkeys every Christmas. They would hand dress and put the turkeys in barrels and ship them to St. Louis by railway express. The lawyer would give these turkeys to his clients for Christmas.
As inventions were born the ice box found its way to country stores. Fresh meats could then be kept about two days provided the ice was replaced everyday.
There were two kinds of cheeses sold in country stores, cheddar and long-horn. Cheddar, shaped like an old-time grindstone, came in fifty pound round lugs with a thick wax coating on the outside to protect it. It was cut and measured with a notched knife. Long-horn cheese came in long tubes eight inches across, with six tubes in a wooden box to be sliced with a butcher knife and then weighed. For the men that stayed around all day, a dime's worth of cheese and a few crackers from the cracker barrels made a pretty good meal.
Pickles weren't in glass jars like they are today. Instead they were in barrels where there would be pickles for the asking. Vinegar also came in barrels and was sold by the quart. Everyone had vinegar jugs that they brought to fill as they needed them. Customers pumped the vinegar out of the barrels from built-in pumps, or used the wooden spigots inserted in the barrel to drain vinegar out.
To sweeten things in life there has always been candy. Children loved coming to the store and buying a nickel's worth of candy to be divided among them. But the candy was not like that we have today. Adley Fulford said, "There wasn't such a thing as a candy bar then. It was either stick or mixed candy or the chocolate drops." Old fashioned chocolate drops came in fifty pound wooden buckets about fourteen inches at the top and twelve inches at the bottom. The drops were packed layer over layer all the way around the inside of the buckets. Adley also remembered, "My brother-in-law opened a barrel of that candy with a young man there that said he could eat the entire top row, which was the largest. My brother-in-law said, 'If you eat it all at one time, I'll just give them to you.' And he did! And then the young man said, 'I can eat the next row,' which he did. He must have eaten at least two pounds!"
As progress came, so did soda pop. When the country store first started selling pop it was kept in an ice filled tub and cost three cents a bottle. Prices then changed to five cents and have risen ever since.
Soda was and still is enjoyed by all members of the family, but for the men's taste there has always been tobacco. Even in the earliest days of country stores tobacco was kept in stock. There were several tobaccos to smoke and several to chew. The stores sold cigars for five cents. One storekeeper remarked, "I don't think you can even look at one now for five cents."
Plugs of chewing tobacco sold for a dime each. The plug tobacco was sweetened with fruit juices to make it stick together. A special tobacco cutter of iron with a hinged knife cut the plugs. Horsehoe, Natural Leaf and Star were the favorite brands of flat and of plug tobacco. The Horseshoe brand had a little picture of a horseshoe on it that could be redeemed in cash like our trading stamps today. That's how the Oakland Store got its cash register.
Pipe smokers used a twist tobacco that could be crumbled easily to smoke in their pipes. Twist
tobacco came in bulk, 144 twists in a box. Brands were varied ranging from Prince Albert or
Velvet, to Advertiser and Country Gentleman. "And it was real he-man tobacco, that twist was,"
Adley Fulford explained. "It was the kind that would knock your hat off, it you wasn't used to it.
The plug would set you on your heels." Strong flavor was what the men wanted. A popular
billboard tobacco advertisement bragged, "It ain't toothache, it's climax."
Communities depended on their stores for much more than just food or tobacco. They needed clothing, shoes, hardware, medicines, ammunition and the coal oil to burn in their lamps and lanterns.
The store stocked ready-made overalls, dress shirts and work shirts for men, but didn't carry ready-made clothes for women because they made everything for themselves. Women bought their sewing notions and dress material at the store choosing from calico, gingham, broadcloth, corduroy or woolen materials of different types.
International Shoes from St. Louis was one of the first brands of shoes the stores stocked. Millinery corners in the stores were popular. Many of the hats came in on consignment from other towns and could be returned if not sold. Eppah Humphreys remembers the fun the young folks had trying on hats whether they bought any or not. As soon as a new box of hats came in, so did the girls.
Dry goods changed with the seasons. In wintertime scarves, hoods and caps took the place of summer hats. Heavy winter underwear, socks and felt boots were common apparel purchased by farmers. The boots, made of pressed felt half an inch thick, covered with a rubber overshoe were popular because they kept the farmer's feet warm and dry.
Country storekeepers were kept busy supplying hardware items and parts for machinery that would break down, because there were no hardware stores. They always kept on hand everyday repair and building items such as nails, wire, staples, plow points for the old walking plows and rolled asphalt roofing. Harness, shoes and horseshoe nails were necessary for farmers. Since farm equipment changed rapidly, the stores had little choice but to follow, carrying more tractor parts and less equipment for horses. Until the stores had to have licenses, they sold ammunition. For the kitchen there were cooking utensils.
Several stores carried patent medicines for people and livestock. The children enjoyed the small books or rhymes that accompanied many of the medicines such as Castoria for babies that read, "Castoria Dick...or Little Dick Green, Finest baby you've ever seen." The veterinary products were for ailments of chickens, horses, cattle, sheep and other animals. Stores made 40% of the total price on each bottle of patent medicine.
Although many farmers grew their own grain and had it ground at the mill, stores kept livestock grain and feed in stock for farmers that needed it. Generally wheat, oats and corn were the basic feeds. In the early '30's corn could be bought for fifteen to twenty cents a bushel and wheat from thirty to thirty-five cents a bushel. There were few mixed feeds before the depression but later mixed feeds became more widely used. Livestock salt came in fifty pound blocks and sold for thirty to thirty-five cents a block during the depression years and rose to fifty-five cents in later years. Livestock salt along with many old standard brands of feed are now being substituted with new feeds high in vitamin content.
Gasoline shortages weren't heard of years ago because gas was rarely used. Gasoline came as a replacement to kerosene. Kerosene, or coal oil, was always in demand because it was one of the major sources of light for many years. Houses had kerosene lamps and kerosene stoves for cooking. Motor oil was sold for oiling machinery. Hand pumped gasoline pumps were installed when the advancement of power machinery created the de--mand for gasoline. The pumps were rather primitive compared to those of today.
The country stores carried all the necessary products, but because of the wide diversity of items
were unable to stock as many different brands of one item as the stores do today. However, they
offered a service one doesn't find frequently today. If a customer needed something not in stock,
or some specialized part for farm machinery, the storekeeper got it for him.
"YOU WORKED FROM SUN TO SUN"
To stock, care for and sell so many different types of commodities necessitated a great deal of work. "You worked from sun to sun, Anytime the sun caught you in bed, you're sleeping too late," John Hill put it. The store opened anywhere from six to seven-thirty in the morning. Sweeping out the store and tidying up were done before the customers began to arrive. In the winter wood would have to be carried in and a fire built in the stove.
Not many customers would arrive too early in the morning since there would be chores to take care of on the farm before trading could be done. Around eight o'clock the customers would begin to arrive to purchase their groceries and household items. Crowds usually dissipated around the noon hour, although some farmers in need of plow points or hardware would stop by the store to purchase their supplies before returning home to dinner from the fields.
Usually there was enough help in the store that the clerks could take turns eating lunch. The back part of the store, or the store room, served as a kitchen if there was not enough time to go home to eat and return in an hour.
Afternoon hours would be the busiest at the store. Since chores were done and the noon meal was over, housewives would come to the store to trade.
Closing hours were indefinite. Sometimes the store stayed open until all the customers stopped coming, but generally seven or eight was closing time. Eppah Humphreys said, "Most of the customers didn't come after six o'clock. In the summertime they might come later than that, but in the winter they seldom did." She also remembers when she and her father would have to go back to the store after supper to work. "Sometimes we'd open boxes and mark prices, and it would be ten or eleven before we got back to the house. A lot of times we'd get ready to go someplace on Sundays, but we'd have to go to the store and get something for somebody. That used to make me so provoked because we'd get all ready to go to Sunday School and then they'd make us late. They'd come at night and call my father back to the store sometimes, too, if they wanted something. It's quite different now."
Running the store was usually a family affair. One store might be run by the same family for several generations. As soon as a son or daughter would marry, they would be taken into the business. When their parents could no longer operate the store, they would take over and keep the business alive until their children could inherit it from them.
Almost every storekeeper's son or daughter worked in the store while they were young. They usually started at age ten or twelve. To begin with they would probably be assigned odd jobs such as sweeping out the store or dusting the counters. Then they would graduate to helping the customer by weighing groceries, testing cream and casing eggs. There were never many workers in the store. Usually two or three people were all that was needed.
Running the country store took a lot of time and hard work. Even bookkeeping was a chore. Since there were no adding machines, handwritten accounts of business transactions were kept on a sales pad. Close watch also had to be kept on the store's merchandise. If the store was running low on groceries, hardware or dry goods, the merchant would have to make a trip into town to order more. Once in a while when the pressures of running the store began to take their toll, the men of the family would have to take off to go fishing or hunting. The ladies of the family would then have to "mind the store."
When food was packaged in the bulk, the storekeeper or one of his clerks would have to weigh it out for the customers. Flour, coffee, sugar, dried beans and other staples would have to be weighed and packaged in burlap sacks or paper pokes. Meat and cheese would have to be cut and wrapped. Candy would have to be weighed and put in small sacks. Tobacco would have to be cut into plugs. If dry goods were needed, material would have to be measured and cut from a bolt of cloth and then thread and buttons chosen to match.
For high shelves and hidden items nothing would come in more handy than a fetching stick--a stick with a long handle and a forked end. The merchant could then reach the item he needed without having to climb a ladder.
Customers would usually give the clerk a list or tell him themselves what items they needed. The storekeeper would get the first item, package it and weigh it, bring it to the counter and then get the next item on the customer's list. This would go on until the order was done and the customer was ready to pay for his purchases.
If the customer paid in cash for his groceries, the money would be put in a cash register. The cash register, unlike those of today, only had a drawer for money, but did not add up the purchases. Other storekeepers who did not have cash registers wrapped their money up and stashed it under the counter or kept it in a cigar box. Farmers who could not pay cash for their groceries until they took their produce or livestock to market, or until harvest time, chose to put the total on a bill to pay when they had the money.
Loren Alloway remembers when people would pay for groceries with scripts. When they shoveled coal and worked on the railroad, instead of receiving cash wages, they would be given scripts, small pieces of paper like trading stamps with a place for their names on them. The store would accept these in payment for their groceries just like food stamps. The storekeeper would then send the scripts to Jefferson City and would receive money in return.
Those customers who did not have enough money to pay for their groceries would trade eggs, livestock, grain or furs in return for their groceries, hardware and dry goods. The storekeeper had to be sure that his trade was a good one. Usually if livestock was traded, it would be an old cow that kicked hard or one gone dry.
Farmers could sell their eggs for five cents a dozen or they could trade their eggs for groceries. It was a common sight to see some of the store employees counting eggs and putting them in egg cases that held thirty dozen. As a young worker, Eppah Humphreys would have to fill a fresh case for each customer selling the eggs. Her father couldn't risk a miscount with a customer's produce. Later Eppah would have to replace the empty slots of one case with the partially filled ones of another.
Cream and butter were other farm products the store bought. The storekeepers often tested the cream for butterfat content themselves by using a machine that held test tubes full of cream. They added acid, and then stirred and shook the cream. Mixing in a few other ingredients would then give the butterfat content.
Some of the country stores didn't buy cream because they weren't set up for the testing, but would buy the butter that farmers made. The butter was put in a fifty pound lard stand all mixed together, some of it salty and some old smelling. The store never would turn butter down, though Eppah commented, "I know I never would have wanted it on my biscuits."
After the lard containers were full, they would be cleaned up and taken into town to sell to the produce house along with other dairy products. Often the butter was several days old and the cream had soured days before it reached the produce house, but both were easily sold. The produce house would process the cream into cheese. This left whey. Farmers bought the whey from the creamery to feed their pigs, competing a cycle of selling and buying between farmer and merchant.
Besides trading livestock and diary products, furs were also a big market item many years ago. Furs and hides brought spending money for young boys, also. They would set traps or go out hunting in the wintertime when animal pelts were the best. If they caught a rabbit, they would remove the intestines and clean the animal, but they did not skin it. The men or boys would tie the feet of the animals together, then bind the animals all together on a string or leather strap to throw over their shoulders to carry to the store. Rabbits were not the only animals trapped. Other valuable furs and hides came from possum, skunk, coon, mink and fox. Wild game such as quail and turkey were also traded. Sometimes the hides would bring ten or fifteen cents. Others brought only a nickel.
The mailman from Richland used to pick up furs from one store when he was on his route and take them into Richland to re-sell or dispose of later. Most stores sent most of the furs to St. Louis to one of the fur companies there. The hides were never kept long because of the foul smell.
Thus the country stores served not only as a place to buy, but as a place to trade and to sell farm produce.
The country store would never have been a successful venture if it had not been for many faithful customers. Most of the store's business was from local townspeople and farmers. As roads began to improve, however, travellers would also patronize the store.
On Saturdays one could always find friends and neighbors shopping at the country store. Women
would exchange gossip while their eggs were being counted and their cream tested and staples
weighed. Men would often visit while pondering OVer what feed, hardware or other farm
necessities they needed to buy. Some customers were so loyal to their old store that even after
they moved away from the area, they would still purchase some particular item from the store. A
man from the Russ area who moved to Idaho in later years still had his favorite tobacco sent to
him from Russ Store.
Since going to the store took quite a bit of the day, many families would regard the trip as a family outing. Transportation to and from the store was varied in the early days. Some chose a stout wagon drawn by a team of horses. Others preferred to travel horseback and those that lived near the store would walk. For some the going was a little harder when they had to cross the creek or the river to get to the store. There were very few bridges in those days, so they had to ford the creek by wading across or using a small boat.
As transportaion improved, first horse and buggies, then cars and small pickups appeared on the road to the country store. But there were still those women, as Wilma McMahan recalls, who had to walk a mile or more home from the store with a twenty-five pound sack of flour on one shoulder and a burlap sack of groceries on the other.
While a trip to the store did not usually last all day for most people, it frequently did for the older men of the community. They, along with the loafers, or bums, as they were called, would stay almost all day at the store. They would have a dinner of cheese and crackers and resume telling tales, playing checkers and other games around the potbellied stove. Adley Fulford said, "There've been lots of checker games played and a world of big fish killed, and lots and lots of coon races in and around the store in the wintertime."
Eppah Humphreys remembers the champion marble player at Russ Store. "There was one old man, Mr. Howard Stoval. He loved to play marbles. He carried his marbles around in his pocket and he'd get anybody to play marbles with him, a game that had five marbles, one in each corner and one in the middle. If you knocked the middle one out, you won. But if you knocked the others out, they counted so many points. They had to get all of them out before they could win that game. And he just loved to be the first one to have done it. He'd say, 'I got a middler.' He was pretty good at it, too."
Whether it was just to trade or to sit all day and pass away the time, the country store provided the place to go, even furnishing a special meeting place in many communities.
Fourth of July picnics were one of the biggest events for the year. People would often meet on the lawn of the store or a field nearby to enjoy the day's festivities. Some picnics would take place at a nearby river. In any case the get-together would be a happy one. There would be sack races, carrot, potato or egg on the spoon races, hoseshoe games, or baseball games. An abundance of food was always on hand, including lemonade, cake and homemade ice cream and watermelon. These were all regarded as summertime treats. There was not a variety of fireworks to be had, but usually someone, especially little boys, had firecrackers. Sometimes a pleasant outing was upset by a few drunken men who would start a fist fight. The town constable or justice of the peace would then have to be called in to break up the fight.
Baseball games were played in a field next to the Russ Store almost every Saturday in the summertime. There would always be a big crowd at the store if there was a game. Customers would expect the merchant to have their eggs counted, cream tested and groceries weighed and waiting for them as soon as the game was over.
A special Christmas event at the Russ Store each year was the turkey shoot. Different men would take turns buying turkeys-each year. Whoever could hit the bull's eye would win a turkey for his Christmas dinner.
For the Christmas season stores would stock special items. Christmas gifts were special in those days since families did not have a lot of money to spend. There were usually dolls for girls and toy cars for boys. Storybooks, Bibles and candy were also popular gifts with young people. Not all gifts were toys, though. Most families purchased some practical items such as caps, scarves, mittens, boots or shoes along with a few toys and candy.
When there weren't any holidays to celebrate, meetings often took place at the store. If there weren't any family quarters on the second floor, there was often a lodge hall where people could gather. The community would hold elections, community debates and pie suppers in the hall. Sometimes these gatherings turned out to be as much fun as holiday celebrations.
Although there were a lot of good times, there were times of trouble, too. The war years brought many problems to the stores. During World War II, one problem was rationing of sugar and gasoline. A hundred pounds of sugar that before the war cost a dollar, cost five dollars during the shortage. Meat would come in by the barrels full from Kansas City. People would wait from miles around to get their meat before it ran out. Their ration stamps were almost as valuable as money during the shortages of the war times.
After the war with improving times, rapid improvement of highways and plentiful gasoline, the country store was often passed by. Though trucking made the storekeepers job of stocking his store easier, it also made it easier for his customers to go to larger markets to trade. Many small stores were forced to close.
Those stores like Russ, Falcon and Brownfield that still continue their independent tradition of serving their community have changed with the times. The coming of refrigeration had made it possible for country stores to stock many types of fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. They no longer weigh out staples, but as the supermarkets, offer packaged foods in various sizes ready to use. Customers serve themselves if they want to and pay with money. No longer is there any trading with produce.
Though different from years ago, they still are a long way from being supermarkets. The range of items stocked is not as great as formerly, dealing mostly in groceries. Rarely today would customers want to purchase shoes or women's hats at a country store. The services today are limited. Postal economy has caused most stores to lose their post offices and there is no need now for mills and blacksmiths.
Times have changed, and perhaps it's easier now for both the grocer and the customer to do business, yet there are still people around who remember, and long for, the "good old days" when a hundred pounds of sugar cost just a dollar.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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