Holiday Time At The Old Country Store

Millions of Americans, reared on a farm or in a country village, still treasure the recollection of December shopping expeditions to the old-time general store as one of life’s most permanent and agreeable memories. The crossroads store, around the turn of the century, was still in its full glory. A bazaar for all lines of merchandise required by its trade—which meant, in the words of the firm of Merrill & Hinckley, at Blue Hill, Maine, “Almost Everything”—the old store also provided many other services as community message center, parcel room, informal bank, political forum, male club and reading room. It was also a United States Post Office, fourth class.

A door, wall or pillar served as bulletin board. There were notices about horse thieves, church socials, elections, farm auctions. Here handbills announced in wood-block type that a turkey shoot would be held, or that a Hambletonian stallion “will make the season … at the home of Frank Varble … at the modest sum of $10.” The general store was indeed the communication center of the area it served. The storekeeper, or “merchant” as he was called in the weekly newspaper, presided over the busy scene from the postoffice window, or a strategic location behind his old roll-top desk. The office of the town clerk was, like as not, tucked into a pent-roofed room off the rear warehouse. The storekeeper himself was clerk of the town, custodian of the land records. Or perhaps he was justice of the peace, with the power to sit in judgment or perform the marriage ceremony. A man of many talents, he could also doctor a horse, explain the law of replevin, or draw a viable contract.

The arrival of fresh merchandise was an event, noticed with keen interest at any time by the whole countryside, but especially so around November and December when the big dray unloaded large wooden packing cases, barrels, bales, boxes of figs, jute bags of coconuts and English walnuts, crates of oranges—never seen at any other season of the year—and wooden pails which almost certainly contained stick candy with barber-pole stripes winding up each stick. The weekly newspaper over at the county seat look notice of the occasion, commenting editorially on the “large consignment of seasonal goods reasonably priced and well adapted to the local trade, representing one of the finest assortments ever stocked in this part of the state. See large display advertisement on page four.”

About this time every country family decided upon a major expedition to the crossroads to inspect the holiday goods and possibly do a little trading. The trip would be made on a Saturday. The whole family went along, the youngsters sitting on a bed of wheat or oat straw in the light spring wagon. Or, more likely, Father would decide to take the heavier Studebaker or Columbus & Weber farm wagon. He would throw in a few live chickens, legs tied together, stash away a can of cream, or load in whatever butter they had on hand. The boys would take along their pelts—not many so early in the season—and Mother would be in charge of the eggs. This last item was of particular importance to her, since it was a firmly established folkway of farm life that “the Missus” kept the egg money for her own personal use.

Fortunately, the hens were usually busy by December, after their moulting season. Egg prices would be on the way up, good for around seventeen cents a dozen in trade, maybe a little less in cash. A basket lunch of fried chicken for the family and oats for the horses, stowed away at the last minute before the team started up, assured that they would make a day of it.

The store was a two-story building of frame construction, painted white, with gable end facing the road, the store itself on the first floor, the G.A.R. Hall upstairs. Warehousing for reserve stock, poultry feed and other heavy bulk items was provided for in an extension at the rear. There was commonly a porch or raised platform at the front of the store for convenient loading and unloading of farm wagons, with either a hitching rack or shed shelter nearby for the wagons and bobsleds—an early version of “free parking for customers.” A bench ran along the store front for accommodation of the local philosophers and those who were either temporarily or permanently disengaged from any gainful occupation.

Here in pleasant weather they sat “from can to can’t” —from the time they could see to the time they couldn’t. They whittled, assessed the political situation, recollected the great comet of 1881, discussed in detail the more comely women customers, and told tall tales of farming, fishing, fighting and hunting. They would not be visible, however, to a farm family bent on Christmas shopping. Come hog-killing time, the regulars moved inside to the comfort of the “captain’s chairs” provided for them around the cherry-red chunk stove, squatting in its bed of sand, with the raised, cast-iron letters on the side “Made by W. P. Ford & Co., Concord, N.H.”

 

“There are more ducks killed around the stoves on the dry goods boxes at the customary haunts of local nimrods every evening between seven and nine-thirty o’clock,” wrote an Illinois country correspondent in a sheaf of news notes to the Carrollton Patriot , “than are slain in twenty-four hours along the Illinois River from source to mouth. Unless the legislature puts some restriction on this method of wholesale slaughter, the time will soon come when there won’t be any duck-shooting stories to tell—that anybody will put any confidence in.”