A funeral eulogy, of all things, recently provoked thoughts on the country store and its legacy, and what the decline of the institution has cost us.
On reflection, I think it has cost us a great deal in what some mavens and bean counters of social culture lump together in the term “quality of life.” This yardstick includes a good many things supposedly contributing to the overall happiness and wellbeing of the average person of common sensibilities, often accompanied by a caveat that some of these are prone to becoming casualties of our faster paced modern age. The decline of the country store, such as it has, I believe, left a good number − namely those nebulous threads that can help hold a community together and give it strength − squarely among the injured.
The eulogy was for a woman who had operated a convenience store in this community, but not your typical convenience store with slam-bam-thank you-ma’am service by a clerk whose name you likely don’t know and who probably won’t be the clerk if you stop in the next week. This store was different. It sits a crossroads on a main highway, attracted the normal passing trade, and when she ran it did a lot of business with the local community, being the only place around for several miles. It was this latter trade that gave the place its character.
Rarely did you stop there during the summer months when there wasn’t a collection of elderly men from this residential and farming community sitting outside on benches put there for that purpose. Community gossip and tales − fishing, farming or just tall − were the common fare for anyone who wanted to sit down for a sample. In colder months, the regulars took the bucolic banter inside. The woman being eulogized, the owner, not only allowed this but encouraged it, made provisions for it, and along the way the store become more than just a place for the odd soft drink, loaf of bread, gas or fishing tackle and bait. It became a community institution.
This was the remnant of a tradition stretching back at least to the second half of the 19th century in the South and representing what was first a commercial phenomenon and then a social one. In The Southern Country Store (Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944) Thomas Clark traced the main growth spurt of country stores to the post-Civil War period when the small farmer in the South who couldn’t afford to take a lot of time away from his work and travel to the nearest town needed a source of supplies, farming equipment and seed, dry goods and even credit closer at hand. Some merchants who before the war might have hauled their small wares from farm to farm in wagons settled down, put down roots and became a mainstay of the community. The postwar development of more railroad mileage fed the creation of some stores, such as that of T.J. Hewell in the Dewy Rose community of Elbert County. Railroad officials urged Hewell to start a store and even helped with a small loan. Eventually Hewell’s store, opened at first in what had been a shotgun house, became not only a store but a railroad freight station. The slogan was “A store within reach of every cabin in the South,” and in time, one way or another, that idea was largely realized.
Virtually everything needed for rural or small town life could be supplied from the country store. It doubled as a community forum as well, with small gatherings around its pot-bellied stove in the winters and on its front porch in the summers. Out of the banter around the stoves and another often present fixture we get the term “cracker barrel philosophy” for homespun commonsense, often unsophisticated but always reflecting the life experience of the “philosophers.” Stump speakers on the hustings from the start found country stores a good and convenient place to draw a crowd. Beginning his political career running for Georgia agriculture commissioner, the legendary Eugene Talmadge campaigned around country stores. So did the notorious political huckster Huey Long of Louisiana, who started out as a traveling salesman selling fertilizer to country stores (seemingly a good apprenticeship for any politician). Country magistrates sometimes conducted court proceedings at stores and the store was sometimes a venue for community meetings of local importance. (In my own time I know of at least one community volunteer fire department that can trace its roots to discussions beginning in a country store.)
I grew up around a latter day country store, in the Pearl Mill community in the 1960s, and in some ways it was my first school. The store was operated by my grandfather and mother. In his last able years, my grandfather held court around the pot-bellied stove winter and summer (when the stove was cold but the open door still provided a convenient place for him and his cronies to dump their cigar ashes.) Half a century later, the scenes are as clear in memory as they were in life. The mainstays were my grandfather, in his favorite gray jacket and sweat-stained rumpled fedora. Along with Mr. Henry Prince, another local retired farmer, summer and winter dressed usually in a black suit coat with matching pants, neither no longer fit for church on Sunday but still giving him a dignified air. Perched atop his head and cocked to one side was his other trademark, his flat-topped felt hat that had probably been new the last time he voted for Eugene Talmadge. Mr. Henry also stands out in memory because he always punctuated his tales with guffaws accompanied by fierce taps of his walking stick on the concrete floor. More often than not there was Bill Shiflet, a local retired textile mill worker and jackleg carpenter who was forthright about several youthful misadventures on a South Carolina chain gang for bootlegging. A variety of less often regulars filled the extra chairs from time to time.
Listening to their stories of times past − of the years of World War I and before, of the Depression and of World War II − was my first schooling in history (and about people), and the idea that in all times the big stories of history are made up of untold numbers of smaller, individual stories, like the fibers and strands that make up a rope. Looking back, I now see these were priceless lessons that could never have been gleaned from the pages of a book.
There are more than a few stories that came out of these times that make me laugh even now, over 50 years on. Only a few miles from where I now sit there was for many years Hudson’s Store, a country store that was a mainstay of the Fortsonia community. It was also, of course, a local gathering place. One common visitor was my great uncle, Jeptha “Jep” Mattox, a local farmer. Short and stocky, like all my male Mattox kinsmen, he was gregarious and regarded as honest to a fault; he served for many years as a deacon of the nearby Bethel E Baptist Church. For all his saintly qualities, however, he was also an inveterate prankster. Had his forebears been Irish instead of Welsh, you might be tempted to say there was a leprechaun in the woodpile somewhere (he had more than a little of the blarney of the Irish about him nevertheless). One of his favorite targets was his brother-in-law, “Lily” Scarborough. “Mr. Lily,” as he was known, was a good fellow by all accounts and my own vague recollections, but unlike Jep he had a reputation as generally being serious-minded. He was of middling height, slim, with a clean-shaven face, usually a little flushed, and with a prominent nose. His most distinguishing trait, however, was his high-pitched voice, which came out in a slow, nasally drawl. When he and Jep weren’t like oil and water they were like gasoline and a spark.
On one occasion, Jep was in Hudson’s Store entertaining all and sundry with his impersonation of Mr. Lily’s voice and demeanor. His back was to the door, so he missed it when Mr. Lily, shuffling quietly as always, entered. The others saw Mr. Lily, of course, and quickly grew quiet themselves, stone-faced even, unsure what would happen next but pretty sure it wouldn’t be good, though probably amusing in the aftermath. When Jep noticed that he had apparently lost his audience and that their gazes were now fixed behind him, he turned around to see the object his jesting staring at him. It was probably a look akin to that of a wolf with a rabbit in its crosshairs. The rabbit will sometimes freeze rather than flee, hoping it won’t be noticed. But when the wolf is as tormented by hunger as Mr. Lily had been tormented for years by Jep’s shenanigans, the rabbit is seldom lucky enough to escape. Jep froze, but there wouldn’t be any escape.
Mr. Lily just regarded Jep for a long minute before finally saying, softly, his voice even and in earnest and at its twangy best, “Jep, you do that again I’m gon’ hafta kill ya.”
With a mumbled apology Jep beat a hasty retreat. That time. For the moment. But no way could he let it end there.
He and Mr. Lily didn’t really speak for several months after that. As the winter months came, though, Jep hit upon an idea he hoped would make Mr. Lily look ridiculous, allowing Jep to regain the upper hand in the one-upmanship.
Dynamite was easier to obtain in those days, the early 1950s; in fact, some farmers even kept a couple of sticks on hand for blowing up stumps from new-cleared land or for opening up the flow of a stream dammed by beavers. However he managed it, Jep obtained the heavy, waxed paper that formed the outside wrapping of two sticks of dynamite and carefully wrapped them around two lengths of an old hoe handle cut to the right size. Then one cold day when the potbellied stove in Hudson’s Store was bronze with heat and he knew Mr. Lily was there, Jep ambled in, the two wrapped lengths of hoe handle sticking out of his back pocket.
After general greetings all around, subdued somewhat as all present knew of the ongoing feud between them, Jep turned to Mr. Lily.
“Lily,” he said. “I been thinking about how to end this trouble of ours. I’ve thought over it and prayed over it and I cain’t come up with nuthin’ but ta let Saint Peter settle it ‘tween us.”
At that he opened the door of the stove and tossed in the two wrapped sticks.
Mr. Lily broke for the door yelling, “He’s crazy as hell! He’s crazy as hell!,” barely slowing enough to open the door on his way out. All of course leaving Jep doubled up with laughter and the others at hand gradually realizing they weren’t about to die then and there.
I remember my grandfather telling this story to the coterie around his own stove on an occasion after Mr. Lily had just departed their group. Just one example of the lore the country store culture gave rise to. Like the “cracker barrel” philosophy born of hard experience and passed down in plain talk, it was all part of what more tutored philosophers call the “ethos” of the community, its fundamental character or spirit. The decline and loss in most cases of the country store has cost communities. Athens wouldn’t have been quite the cultural wellspring it was without the agora, nor Rome the center of civilization it was without the forum. Small communities lost their nearest thing to these when the country store culture started to fade.
These days planners of developments often lay out elaborate plans for residential communities around what is supposed to be in improvised “town square” ambiance of small retail shops and eateries. The idea is to try to recreate a small town atmosphere whose loss is generally lamented by those of a certain age and experience with a mystic chord of nostalgia. This is laudable, in a way, though somewhat plastic and phony in essence.
They might do better without so much thought and paraphernalia. Maybe all that’s needed is just a simple general store with a good heater in an open space with chairs around for winter and a few benches on a porch outside for summer. Human nature might take care of the rest.