The country store in the 19th and early 20th century was the focal point for the community, frequently serving a radius of three or four miles. Lighting was by kerosene or gas lights. The store had a coal stove with benches around it. The post office was usually in a corner of the store, so the residents came each day to get their mail, buy their stamps or money orders, and send orders to Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck.
The store carried the staples country people were unable to produce for themselves. Salt, sugar, rice, beans, and hominy were stored in barrels and weighed out by the grocer to the amounts requested by the purchaser. Tea, cheese, prunes, and dried peaches were also bought in bulk. Twenty-five-pound bags of flour and ten-pound bags of cornmeal were always available. The store had spices, coffee, tea, candy, chewing gum, cornflakes, cream of wheat, rolled oats, smoking and chewing tobacco, cigarettes, and snuff. Fresh meat was not stocked before refrigeration became available.
The housewife could buy cotton cloth by the yard, as well as thread, pins, and needles. A cabinet with a locked door held patent medicines: castor oil, camphor, turpentine, Vicks Salve, and Raymond’s Red Oil were available. Feed for the farm animals was stored in a side room, along with horse collars and collar pads, horseshoes, nails, staples, wire fencing, and farm tools. Any item the farmer needed could usually be found, including shoes, boots, overalls, work jackets, socks, stockings, and underwear. Shelves held writing tablets, pencils, crayons, pens, and ink. A glass case held eye glasses and gift items. One small room contained a barrel of kerosene to be sold by the gallon for lamps.
The country store performed a valuable function by providing a center of trade in a cash-short economy. Butter or eggs were bartered for groceries. If eggs were scarce, the chickens were traded and kept live in a building outside the store. In the winter black walnuts were cracked and sold to the storekeeper. Field-dressed rabbits were also bought by the storekeeper and shipped to New York, their fur to be used in the garment industry. Stores commonly bought ginseng and other herbs, and other items of country produce.
On summer evenings the store was a neighborhood gathering place for the men for a game of horseshoes or for baseball practice. In the winter or bad weather they gathered inside by the stove for dominoes, checkers, or a card game.
This Article was written by Eileen Cain Stanley