Those Who Passed Before: Through Mountain General Stores
Colleen Patton EdD, RN, PA-C
Wake Forest University
All photographs were taken by the author
I want to offer my sincere gratitude to Mildred Anderson, author Isabel Zuber, and my Grandfather Herman Eggers for their wonderful contributions providing me with first person narrative to bring life to this work.
There is an ancient belief held by many Native American religions that “every event that occurs at a place will always live at that spot” (Murray). This belief provides us with greater understanding of the bond that exists between the Native Americans and places or sites they revere as sacred ground. It is a belief that place is much more than one of historical importance. And “place” may be a riverside or mountaintop where events that occurred in the past continue to live on within their location.
I had been reading Kenneth Murray’s book, Footsteps of the Mountain Spirits: Appalachia: Myths, Legends, and Landscapes of the Southern Highlands since my own return home to this very special place on the mountainous border of North Carolina and Virginia. I found myself driving through rural mountain Appalachia, climbing hills and winding around curves that travel through one small community after another. I realized as I passed through them that I know many of their names through sheer familiarity, though there is no road sign that tells me they are here. Often a small street sign will bear the name of the community, but only if you know the local meaning of the name could you guess its significance.
Most of these communities exist only as a crossroad—a meeting of two roads that lead from small farms and other winding roads—both paved and gravel—coming together in an unseen magic—one that became a named place. Early mountain settlers and their families lived in and “became” these crossroad communities, naming them and creating them by filling them with life. Every log or white frame house with its barn, and every fence post touched by their hands bears witness to their presence. Theirs is now a transient presence nonetheless, as so many crossroads in rural Appalachia are but faint reminders of the events still living among them.
A sense of sadness began to envelope me as the days and weeks passed by. I was driving through very familiar landscapes of home and yet I felt as if I was traveling through a place much changed from that of my younger years. The homes, farms, churches, and cemeteries appeared in ways untouched by the years and passage of time. And yet the small mountain communities named by and for either creek or family so often had at their center now an empty mountain general store.
Every time I passed by one after another of these vital community anchors, I felt a sense of loss. It was as if I was passing sacred ground containing echoes of incredible days and people who have now gone beyond our reach.
What happened to these community foundations—vital to the people as a primary source of much more than supplies and news? In some ways they represent a true portrayal of what Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg chronicled in their work Lost Communities of Virginia. The remnant of these small towns “… conveys a measure of history about the place they stand… (and) if noticed, resemble a living…disjointed, but readable visual narrative…” (Fisher and Sparenborg). The buildings themselves appear as a visual history and yet now a silent one. If the Native American beliefs have a reality, these old and weathered buildings still hold moments inside or an echo of a “spell” on the porch providing a glimpse into the lives and events that happened daily within these quiet monuments to the souls that passed through their doors.
Along a few miles of rural two-lane road in Southwestern Virginia and Northwestern North Carolina are vivid examples of such lost community centers as one after another corner building stands empty—though so many of these would not have met criteria for Fisher and Sparenborg’s work. They were never hubs of transportation or regional gathering places though most were and still are farming communities.
They sit as I began by saying, at crossroads or yet a T intersection—many now paved—though two or more generations ago most of these roads were dirt. Communities by the name of Bridle Creek, Fox Creek, Mouth of Wilson, Grant, and Edgewater are among those on this stretch of road, most of it winding along or near the New River or the streams that gave the communities their names.
Below is a photo of a building known as Fred Phipps store though it has not been a store for quite some time. It stands today like most at an intersection of two small rural roads in the Fox Creek community. One historical document describes its location as, “At junction of 711 and 58, ¾ miles east of mouth of Fox Creek. Named after the foxes found in the area” (Unknown). Once owned by members of the Phipps family, it provided a source of basic supplies and livelihood for so many in the community. The storeowners and others would bring their own homemade or homegrown goods to sell on the shelves inside. The community of Fox Creek today has no zip code, though at one time the building also contained a post office inside for people living in the area to receive and send their mail. Several years ago there was once a church across the road from the store that has since been torn down.
Figure 1 Phipps Store: Fox Creek Community
As I began to notice more and more of these empty stores buildings along the roadside, I found myself wanting to know why these once vibrant and vital mountain sources of supplies and even identity have now become silent and idle. I began to stop along the side of the road, taking pictures, walking near them and feeling a need to find answers to my questions.
To begin with, these communities all lie deep within the area we call the Appalachian region. And yet this area is merely a small part of the kaleidoscope that is Appalachia. As John Williams wrote, “What all definitions of Appalachia have in common—is that each of them in its way tries to link people and homeland, to find some principle of regional demarcation that identifies both the place and its inhabitants” (Williams 32). I believe it is much more than a border drawn with a darkened line that says once inside you are “here”. Appalachia is in reality what the Native American would have us believe, a place that in many ways goes on as it has for generations—and those who lived here were “on intimate terms with the land, forest, fellow creatures, and forces of weather” (Murray). Yet the land and the people now bear witness to a silent loss of past treasures—such as the community stores.
Mouth of Wilson, VA
One of the earlier treasures along this road began as described here, “Also on the Fields’ place there was built the first frame store building in which was kept goods hauled from Lynchburg, Virginia by wagon” (Fields). This early narrative and reminiscence by French Wampler of Grayson County, Virginia speaks of building one of the earlier community stores in this area.
Community stores or general stores as they are often described came into being as early settlers and farmers put down their roots alongside the rivers and at the base of hillsides in the early days of settlement. Betty Lou Fields, a woman I once knew who lived in this area all of her life wrote about the first store in the community of Mouth of Wilson — named because of its location at the mouth of the Wilson Creek as it enters the New River. She told us,
As with all early settlements, the lack of good roads produced an independent community. Most of what was needed was raised at home but staple items had to be bought, so the importance of early stores is clear. They served as gathering place, communications site, and social center. A trip to the store was a holiday and nobody shopped in a hurry, but leisurely examined all the wares available, haggled with the storekeeper over prices, and ‘caught up on all the news’ (Fields).
This store below is known as the Fields store and at least part of the present building was built in 1896 at the intersection of two roads that is still the community of Mouth of Wilson. The community was home to a woolen mill built in 1884 that was served by power from a dam and water wheel built on the Wilson Creek. The mill provided a place of work for many and small wooden framed homes sprang up around the mill and along the creek with families in the local area relying on the goods from the store for their basic supplies.
Figure 2 Fields Store, Mouth of Wilson Community
The community added a post office within the store at one time that later moved to its own building next door. Across the road was built an automobile dealership that was also a gas and full service station thriving for many generations only to fall into decline as many of these small communities with the advent of larger grocery stores in the towns nearby. Automobile travel replaced horse and wagon and fewer people were restricted by the loss of time devoted to what had been a monthly or even twice a year event.
Mrs. Fields describes how this rural and far-flung community provided the area with a modern mode of travel. She describes how two sons of the patriarch J. Cam Fields and D. Hoke Fields brought cars to Mouth of Wilson in 1922.
The cars were shipped in by rail to Elkin and Mt. Airy, North Carolina, where they had to be assembled in the freight yard before they could be driven over the Blue Ridge to Mouth of Wilson. Later the autos came by rail into Troutdale, but even then the Model A’s were packed four to a boxcar, so the unpacking became a backward jigsaw puzzle. Roads were still such that it took all day to drive them home (Fields, 1976).
Figure 3 Fields Motor Company: Mouth of Wilson Community
Below is a quote from the work by Fisher and Sparenborg describing the Fields Store and its vitality before it became part of a Lost Community.
Women shopped for a year’s worth of supplies at the Fields Store. The woolen mill provided fabric, but Mrs. Fields traveled to Baltimore to buy hats and trimmings for women to make stylish outfits. Dixe-ola, cola, strawberry, and grape pop were made at the store and bought as a treat by adults and children alike. Men sought legal advice from W. C. Fields. Field’s Store was a ‘gathering place’ (Fisher & Sparenborg).
The general store was the first to close in Mouth of Wilson, followed by the Fields automotive and Ford Dealership. Multiple attempts were made to maintain a gas station and later a farm supply store in the building but today even that has gone. The post office building remains next to the old general store but the post office has moved up the road to a new building less than a mile away. The Fields family home sits on a hill near the stores and is a reminder to those of us who used to know them.
I myself have taken my son to by a Coca-Cola or Popsicle at the store, candy or some other small necessity while living here 25 years ago. It was a thriving place even then with people coming and going. Local elders would sit in chairs in the front window or outside the store and share local news and events that had happened. They would often be smoking or chewing tobacco of some kind. I can see them now, kicked back in old wooden chairs or standing along the windows. The floors were wide plank wood, worn and uneven after so many years of traffic. They creaked and light crackle sounds were made as you walked among the shelves looking at the farmers’ needs.
Shelves of denim overalls, flannel and cotton shirts sat horizontal to the plane of the wood flooring. Another shelf against a far wall held work boots of all kinds. Farm tools and implements with seed bags lined the shelves along the outer walls of the store building.
As I traveled in and around these mountain roads, I found myself craving more local knowledge about these general stores. I began to notice more of them—unnoticed by me before now—many of these old empty shells in varying stages of decay or dilapidation sitting at numerous junctions. My father-in-law and I discussed this at times and he—as long standing member of the community—recommended that I talk with another one of the older residents of Mouth of Wilson, by the name of Mildred Anderson. He spoke with her one Sunday morning at church and asked if she would be willing to talk with me about these stores and the next Saturday morning found us driving to her home sitting at yet another crossroad.
Mildred’s house is a two-story white wood framed farmhouse. It sits right at an old T intersection and directly across the street from her house sits an empty general store. The community it served at one time is no more. It was called Edgewater. Through Mildred and her 90 years of history I heard so many more community names I had never known before, despite my own connection to the area.
She was born in the community “up the road” known as Grant in 1924. She lived there until she was “nearly grown”. Her family owned a farm in the area and lived and worked the land there. Mildred graciously offered to tell us what she could and so we started by asking her to “Tell us what you can about the local stores.” And she began by saying, “Well, Grant had three country stores. The Wells’ Store, that’s before the road was built. The main road went down, you know where it went. Hoffman’s Store, Wells’ Store and Cecil Woods’ store. I never was in it much because he didn’t have a good reputation and we was forbidden to go in it. When we were little and they said don’t go, we didn’t go. They built this road, what in 39, 40? That’s when Hoffman’s built up on the main road and the others closed, because the road had bypassed ‘em. …None of those buildings are still there.”
“Hoffman’s store came up, Hillmore Hoffman built this one up on the road, and the Hoffmans operated it until a few years back.” The new owners have changed the name to Fox Creek General Store. This store is one of the very few still operating in the area. Below is a photo taken in July, 2015 or what is known to the community as Hoffman’s store. The next photo is a close up of a stone dating the building’s construction and the original name of Hoffman.
Figure 4 Hoffman’s’ Marker Stone
Figure 5 Hoffman Store Date Marker
Hoffman’s store was there “from the time you remember” my father-in-law asked Mildred? “Oh yea, I remember. That’s where we waited. I walked from where we lived out there and waited for that bus at the stores because that was the main road going to Oak Hill.”
I asked Mildred then to tell me about things that her family would buy at the store. She said, “Well we bought our sugar and our baking stuff. My Daddy raised wheat. We had our own flour. We sold eggs. We sold some chickens. You more or less bartered with what you got in the store. Things you couldn’t have, your coffee and that sort of stuff. Essentials that you couldn’t raise yourself.”
I then asked her about clothing or material. She said, “Well, Wells’ store carried some of that. Most of our things the best I remember came out of a mail order catalog. When we were little, we got 2 or 3 and that’s what we depended on. Our school clothes, well most all our clothing came out of a mail order catalog because there wasn’t enough stores.” She went on to say, “I remember, Wells’ store did carry a little more of that kind of stuff and Hoffman’s started carrying more of that.”
I asked if they bought needles or thread at the store and she replied, “Oh yeah, you could buy your thread, because that was essential. That was something everybody used. And I remember I think Wells’ carried some materials for sewing. I was too little to observe a lot of that stuff.”
However, Mildred at 91 years of age could remember a great deal. She continued saying, “But I remember my little sister and I would get up and come out there to that store, and Mr. Wells, and it’d be early because we would come on the bus. Woodrow would drive it down there and he’d go to Flat Ridge and pick up the kids. (Her brother Woodrow was a bus driver for the school) Rather than walk a couple of miles we’d get up and wait at the store till he went to Flat Ridge and back. And Mr. Wells could come down to his store and built a fire for us kids to wait for the bus. I can well remember seeing him build a fire for us in that little coal stove. That was quite a while but it was better than walking in that cold weather. And the Hoffman’s store was not real big. And at one time the Post office was in the Hoffman’s store, in the back of it. But there was three stores in Grant. Volney had one.”
Mildred continued, “Of course these little service stations—they are not old. They sprang up and dried up.”
I asked her to tell me if she knew about another store towards Grayson Highlands State Park. I described where it was in the only way I knew best. I said, “...as you’re going up towards Grayson Highlands, past the Rugby store and you go on through the ‘curvy place’ and there’s a crossroads that has an old store building up there.” She said, “I know where it is.” She said that she didn’t know who owned it, she went on to say, “…we never saw it, we never got that far from home”. Below is an image of the store I was asking her about near the state park. As you can see it sits at a crossroad high on a ridge.
Figure 6 Unknown Store: Rugby Community
I then asked her to tell us about the store right next door to her house. She said, “This store here was, I’m not sure when it was established, it closed in ’49. But, this was quite a crossroads right here. There was a post office in that store. This mountain was full of people and there was stores where they could get to ‘em on horseback. Because they couldn’t get any farther from home. This was a pretty good-sized store at one time. I don’t remember much about it. And they sold a lot of farm stuff. Whatever people had to buy. They didn’t buy much for their farm animals, they raised it their selves. This was started at as Fields Young store, but didn’t have nothing to do with the Fields Young in Independence. His Daddy’s name was Ezekiel, remember that big stone in the cemetery with all these Youngs on it? Well, that’s some of his ancestors. I never did know who put that up or where they got all their information. But Fields Young, Ezekiel Young they had land grants for all this land around here. So I reckon they were original settlers. Then Fields was the son that inherited all that. He built that big house out there.” Here Mildred is referring to a large old wood framed house that sits on the back of her yard close behind her house.
Mildred said, “And he ran that store until he died and his daughter inherited it and she lived in Roanoke. So she hired her husband’s brother, Fred Hardin to come operate the store. And he operated it until he retired. And that’s when we came here. They closed the store when we came here. We had young’uns and we couldn’t run a store. That was in ’49 when we moved here.”
Figure 7 Fields Young Store: Edgewater Community
I then asked Mildred if she knew about another possible old store I had seen near the community of Rugby Virginia. I had driven by the building and noted one next to it that appeared to have been an old school. Mildred told me, “There’s a school at Mill Creek, it was Mill Creek School. They was a store there. There was one next to the school building. I can’t think who run that. It’s still there. I don’t know what it is or what they used it for. I vaguely remember when it was a store, but like I say, Rugby was just somewhere you never need go and didn’t know about.”
Figure 8 Mill Creek Store: Mill Creek Community
Who typically would just up and decide to run a store, I asked her? Who in the community would do that? She said, “All these old service stations that sprang up along the road, somebody just decided to own a store. There was the Cobblestone, there was Green Gable. They are closed now, but they sprang up as traffic picked up.”
“There’s a store in Fox. Phipps’ established that. Fred Phipps’ daddy probably started that, Jack Phipps. He was Sherman’s Granddaddy.” Sherman was Mildred’s husband of many years until he died. “Well, the house, Vance lived in that house and operated the store. I vaguely remember when they shifted around. They swapped and they swapped houses. And they swapped the store. Fred took over the store and moved down in the lower part.”
I asked, “Did you ever go to the store Mildred, and buy candy or pop or anything?” Mildred told me, “There was a showcase of penny candy; our Daddy’d give us a penny, sometimes even a nickel. We thought we were rich, we’d point out what candy, it was in a glass showcase because it had to be protected, but it was all loose. We were happy with a penny’s worth of candy. Daddy always seemed to have a penny or two in his pocket. We probably ate some pretty ancient candy. I guess they just kept it till they sold out.” Telling this Mildred laughed out loud and smiled as she shared her memories and thoughts of candy in a glass case at the store.
I continued by asking, “Can you remember; did people use the store to gather news, or did you use the stores to call for help?” Mildred said, “The Grant Store always had a bunch of men sitting around the coal stove all afternoon. When they would get their cattle fed and get their work done then they could go to the store and sit and loaf and that’s what’s going on at the Log House now. They’ve got a bunch of men who meet up there every morning and that’s where you get your news.”
She went on to tell us about something that happened to her personally and then was retold at the store. She said to my father-in-law, “You remember a couple of years ago I got a dog bite up at Troutdale? The next morning, well I’d got the names and I had to turn all this stuff in up here at the clinic.” Mildred went on the say that her nephew in the local area then called and “…told me that they’ve picked up three dogs up there, before I even knew it. He’d heard it up here at the Log House. So they have a men’s news center up here.” The Log House is now a convenience store and restaurant at the site of a crossroads today. The building site still has an old general store building behind it.
I then asked her if she could remember about anything happening at any of these stores. Did she remember big events or historical happenings? She said, “I remember the Wells’ store, he sold fertilizer. I don’t remember how often, but they had trials in there, court trials. I don’t remember much about it, because if you heard it you dismissed it because you didn’t know what was going on. But I do remember the county held court trials in that building at one time. I don’t know who the judges were or anybody who would. There’s nobody left that remembers this stuff.” My father-in-law and I both said, “That’s why we’re talking to you.” And Mildred said laughing, “I’m the only relic left”. We all smiled and laughed at that comment.
Each generation seems to have their Mildred—a long lived member of the community whom everyone respects for their history. She shared about her family, her mother and the struggles she had gone through with thyroid disease and how she had passed away when Mildred was only 11 years old. She said her Daddy had never learned to drive. Her brother had learned how and drove them or the neighbors’ son drove the car they owned for them.
I asked Mildred if she missed the stores when they closed. She said, “I guess you do, for a while.” She then went on to say, “But they closed because people started going to the bigger places, so you really didn’t miss ‘em all that much. I miss not running to the store to pick up, pick up little things. I can pick up little things like eggs and stuff up here at the Log House instead of driving all the way to Independence. And the Grant Store, you can get little things like that. So really you don’t miss ‘em that much. Most of us branched out and buy more things than we used to.” Independence is a small town and county seat a little over 15 miles from where Mildred lives.
She continued saying, “I remember the Hoffman’s store sold bakery bread. I think the truck ran once a week. And that was a luxury. You could buy slice bread that you didn’t have to make at home. I don’t know what it was like after a week, but I think that truck ran once a week. I didn’t know where it came from.”
In the book, Pond Mountain Chronicles, members of the community of Pond Mountain were interviewed about life in the area. Pond Mountain is another community tucked in among the mountains and rolling hills that make up neighboring Ashe County, in northwestern North Carolina, just a few miles away. Those interviewed touched on any number of topics and included in many of them were references or mentions of local community or general stores. One such resident was Eli Denny who was 84 years old at the time of the interview and he described the following:
Now, you want to know how we got to the stores and all like that. Now me and my grandmother, we had two horses, a little horse and a big horse. They would saddle the little horse up for me and the big horse for my grandmother and you know where Laurel Bloomery is over here, we had to go there to the store. That’s I’d say seven or eight miles. We’d have to go over the mountain. We bought coffee; when we could get it, and sometimes you couldn’t you know. And we bought sugar, and sale, and sody, things that we couldn’t grow on the farm. That’s all we needed. See, we didn’t have to go but about once a month (Cooper and Cooper ).
Another nearby community in this area is just a few miles from Mouth of Wilson, and is known as Grassy Creek. Members of that community were interviewed and their stories chronicled in the work, Memoirs of Grassy Creek, by Zetta Hamby—a local resident. In her work, she details how local women shopped for material and clothing for their families. She writes,
When babies were expected, there were certain items that were absolutely essential. Of course, diapers were a must! The few local general stores carried bolts of white Birdseye cloth diapers in widths of 30-36 inches. The 30 inch width was fine for newly borns but many babies wore diapers until they were quite large and for economy, many parents would buy the 36 inch width. The Birdseye cloth had a tiny design of thicker weave (hence the name of Birdseye) but was soft and rather long-wearing material for the frequent washings and boilings necessary for diapers. (Hamby, 1998)
Diapers were an example of so many necessities of family needs that were supplied to them by the local stores. “Local” here was a term that often meant a long trip by horseback or more often by foot. Before automobiles came to the area in the early 1920s—a distance of four or five miles meant taking time away from working on the farm to go and buy the needs of the family.
As Hamby continues, she provides further description of life in Grassy Creek as she writes,
In the period from 1900 to 1925 or later there were no grocery stores in this area as we know the big chain groceries today. In fact, there were very few stores and they were general stores carrying a variety of necessities, including some foods. To get to the few stores usually meant walking in muddy or dusty roads, or over hills and through fields, crossing streams and fences not knowing whether one might encounter an unfriendly bull, horse, or sheep. (Hamby, 1998)
Many residents in these communities in Appalachia lived in a self-sustaining manner by subsistence farming. They grew their own vegetables and grain that was ground in local mills along the waterways. They maintained and grew livestock of all kinds for meat and chickens for eggs. They hunted, fished, and trapped all sorts of animals from squirrels and rabbits to grouse.
These homes were heated with wood cut on the family farm or property. Horses, cattle, and oxen would aide in the farming of the land. Sheep were raised in these mountain hillsides for wool to be woven into thread that became blankets or other warm weather clothing.
Yet, despite all of their mountain independence, there were items that all of these families wanted and needed forming a bond between them and the local community store. Storeowners would rely on the farmers to bring their produce and eggs into their stores for their own benefit and to be sold to those who were unable to raise their own. Bartering was often a way of life among those in the communities of Appalachia as well.
Mabel North Carolina
There were many items that could not be grown on these local lands and farms. Coffee, tea, salt, pepper, and kerosene fuel for lanterns to mention a few. Community store owners would have these trucked in to their stores from larger “off mountain” towns. Many local farmers including my great-grandfather made the transition in 1910-1915 from complete subsistence living on the farm to “wagoning” or “trucking”. He would sell his own produce, laying away potatoes and cabbage from the prior harvest—burying them in the ground and covering them through the winter to dig them up again in the spring. He would then take them by horse drawn wagon from his farm in Watauga County down the mountain to the communities of Lenoir, Hickory, and Morgantown, North Carolina.
My Aunt Isabel Zuber interviewed my grandfather at length when she was doing research for her novel Salt. Through listening to these recorded interviews I can hear my Grandfather providing me with simple and yet much more intimate details of the impact of one general store in the community of Mable, North Carolina—deep in Watauga County—near the Tennessee border. This store’s name was “Marion Reese’s” store, although I am not completely sure of the correct spelling, as all I have is the phonetic naming by my Grandfather.
One very special general store experience was felt through Christmas. My grandfather describes, “We always hung up our stockings. And we always got a toy of some kind. And, uh, the boys, and we got usually two bunches of firecrackers. Some of ‘em, some little, and pretty good-sized salutes. And uh, these were laced together you know, and fire them all at once, but we always took ‘em apart separately. And then uh, a box of roasted peanuts, and uh, the toy could be something that we wanted or needed. A knife that wouldn’t cut, or a watch that wouldn’t run.” My Aunt laughs out loud and said, “…like crackerjack prizes or something?” And my grandfather said, “I still have one of those upstairs”, and they laughed again. He continued, “…it was never anything of great utility.” Aunt Isabel then asked about candy and he said, “Oh yes, a stick of candy.” He stated that stick candy was the only kind he ever had until later in his life. For as long as I can remember, my grandfather always bought a box of the “stick” candy every year at Christmas though Marion Reece’s store was no more.
Later in his life, his mother became ill and as her oldest child, he became the Christmas shopper for the family. He related, “I know that at that time, I got most of the things. She told me what to get. I took the eggs and I traded them and brought the stuff back and helped her hide it and keep it away from the other children.
A few minutes later in the recording Granddaddy tells of his mother always making biscuits every morning until he said, “We became terribly displaced because we had to have cornbread for breakfast. I mean it was tough!” Isabel asked him “Why were things tough?” And he replied, “Panic, sort of a panic condition. They call it a depression now. That’s the time when I was sitting around on the back porch and Daddy had a quarter and they were talking about what to do with it. That was the last one in the house. And they finally decided that they’d give it to me to take down to Marion Reece’s store to buy a quarter’s worth of brown sugar. At that time brown sugar was about 4 cents a pound, something like that. It was almost like a prayer meeting, when they sent me off with that last quarter. And I went down and got the sugar.” My grandmother was always listening to the interviews while she puttered in the kitchen and at this point in the recording she is heard saying, “They really trusted you!” And my grandfather responded, “They didn’t have to trust me, they knew that I would do just what they said.”
He then continued, “But that summer, that’s the only time when Dad ever operated on credit. He arranged with Marion Reece to charge everything that he could for that summer until the fall. And you know, uh, Ab was there nearly all the time and there were my father and mother, I, Aubrey, and Graydon and Belle. (These were his brothers and sisters) And what do you reckon he had to pay that man in November?” Isabel then said, “He didn’t have to buy very much.” And Granddaddy replied, “Seventy-two dollars and everything that they bought he bought on credit through that store.” Here, my Grandfather provides us with a glimpse of the realities for those Appalachian mountain families living through the Panic of 1907. The role of a general store owner became much more than simply supplying the basics of groceries. As described for us here, they became the only means of credit and outreach to those in need.
Isabel then asked him, “What types of things were available at Marion Reece’s store?” Granddaddy said, “Oh, he had cloth. Kerosene, lamp oil.” They talked then about the garden and the sources of food the family had available and Granddaddy said, “Food was not the problem. They just didn’t have money.” “Because of the depression?” Isabel asked. “Money was scacer than hen’s teeth.” he replied.
“What else did Reece carry in the store?” Isabel asked. And he said, “Well, he had shoes. That’s where we got our rush hats. We got practically everything we go, we got from Marion Reece.” Every spring my grandfather and his brothers would get a “rush hat”, a woven straw hat made from bulrushes. They would purchase one for a nickel and it would last them until the end of summer, he said.
Another man by the name of “Maddrin”, who had come in to the community in 1908 or 1909 and my Grandfather said, “He didn’t stay, he didn’t stay more than a year.” He went on to say that this gentleman’s store had, “shirts and shoes, men’s suits, all sorts of dry good, and groceries. He brought a bunch of bananas in there. I guess most of ‘em spoiled before he could sell ‘em.”
“He bought, he was the first place I remember seeing postage.” Granddaddy said. “What about sewing notions, needles and things?” Isabel asked. “Oh, a man couldn’t operate a store without needles and pins! Thread and uh, dye and uh, oh ribbon.” And this specific recording stopped right here.
These recollections, descriptions, and tales of the general or country stores in Appalachia fill me with wonder as I consider again the Native American belief I shared in the beginning, “…every event that occurs at a place will always live at that spot” (Murray). And it is also believed that the spirits of those who have passed on are either pleased or displeased by any disrespect shown to these places and sites. It gives one pause to consider this in the light of the reality that is the now empty general store at the crossroads.
Is it merely a symbol of the passage of time that has allowed these sites of Appalachian history to become silent and empty? Is their decay a sign of disrespect to those who passed through them before, leaving their moments behind within their walls? Or are these stores merely another dilapidated echo of an era passed, as the old homes and barns one can see scattered among the mountainsides?
Perhaps someone new will come into these communities and attempt to breathe life into one or more of these empty places. And there are a few mountain communities that still feel the anchor of a general store. Events continue to happen there, children picking out candy, old men sharing news, soda pop and eggs still being sold.
But I believe that I will always feel that sense of loss and even a small tingle of a presence when I stop and capture on film these Appalachian treasures at the crossroads. As Murray described in his text, “Along the regions woodland paths there is a gentle aura of ancient spirits that have passed before…” (Murray). I wonder just what echoes of Appalachian spirits one might hear if we only knew how to listen?
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Fields, B L Grayson County: A History if Words and Pictures. Winston-Salem: Hunter Publishing Company, 1976.
Fisher, T and K Sparenborg. Lost Communities of Virginia. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011.
Murray, K. Footsteps of the Mountain Spirits: Appalachia: Myths, Legends, and Landscapes of the Southern Highlands. Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 1992.
Unknown. "Grayson County Towns and Communities." Virginia Heritage Foundation, Inc. . Accessed 2015.
Williams, J A. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.