Tag: Pearl Mill

Thoughts on Country Stores

Artist’s rendering of Fortsonia community in Elbert County, with its country stores

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.

 

 

A Christmas in Pearl Mill

If we’re lucky in this life, some of the best Christmas presents we ever receive are stories. This is one of the favorites of my own family:

The Christmas of 1933 the Great Depression was four years old. In the newspapers and on the radio the politicians were promising better times, but in the Pearl Mill mill village an end to hard times seemed nowhere in sight. There seemed little reason for even having hopes of an end anytime soon.

As unlikely as it might seem now, in that time and place events played out that gave my family the gift of a story told at least once every Christmas down through the decades since.

The village had risen along with the textile mill, built in the early 1890s about eight miles east of Elberton along Beaverdam Creek, offering workers a modest prosperity as an alternative to hardscrabble sharecropping. All that ended when the mill burned in 1929, the mill workers and their families forced to find new lives even before the ashes had cooled. In time most of the over thirty mill houses stood empty and the mill property gradually slipped into the receivership of Elberton’s First National Bank. The crumbling hulk of the burned out three-story brick and stone mill loomed over what was mostly a ghost town.

My grandfather farmed near the village. He had worked in the mill several times, boy and man, beginning when he was six and his family had moved from Jackson County to Elbert, and now he scratched a living out of the red and gray dirt, with a few acres of cotton as a cash crop. Like most small farmers, even before the first boll was picked the greater part of his crop was owed to one of the combination storeowner-cotton buyers in Elberton for seed and fertilizer and what food couldn’t be raised. It was a very good year that saw him end up with two hundred dollars in cash when the cotton was sold.

The First National Bank also paid him $3.50 a month for being a night watchman of sorts over the mill property. With my grandmother, my two aunts and my father, then five years old and the youngest child, to provide for, in addition to a frequent houseful of relatives in need of a place to stay, the extra money was more than welcome.

Over time a few people, mostly older couples, with no real livelihood and nowhere else to go, drifted back to Pearl Mill and squatted in the mill houses. As long as the squatters took care of the houses, the bank president told my grandfather, there was no harm in letting them stay. Pearl Mill almost became a village again, but hardly a thriving one. “Looking back later, it was hard to see how they made it through,” my father always said in the telling the story he’d been told, himself remembering some of the later Depression years. The relief that filtered down through the county was limited, and looking for work was almost a lost cause. Hundreds of men, black and white, from young and spry to old and shuffling, according to the December 1 edition of the Elberton Star, thronged an unemployment office in Elberton the last week in November to register for jobs under relief programs. But, the paper noted, R.H. Johnson, manager of the unemployment office, made clear to all that registering was no guarantee of work.

Among the mostly old, there was one young family in the village. Marshall Stanley, his wife and their three daughters, the girls in ranging from maybe six years old to no more than 12 in recollections, had moved into a mill house. Stanley had been a mechanic, and a good one by all accounts, somewhere in the vicinity of Commerce before coming down with an illness that kept him bedridden much of the time. Mrs. Stanley had relatives in Elbert County, so the family landed in Pearl Mill as the likely the only shelter they could find. With some sewing and the occasional odd job that turned up, Mrs. Stanley earned what little money they had, but no matter what, four to five dollars a month had to go for medicine that was her husband’s only relief. Neighbors, then as now and maybe more so, shared what they could and not from any abundance. The Stanleys scraped by.

People looked forward to Christmas then maybe more than now, it seems, and certainly in the country they made sure it lasted longer. On the farms, most of the hardest work was done till spring, and the pace could slow a little. Two weeks or more before Christmas, the children were set to sweeping the bare dirt yards as the women and older girls looked to what they needed to cook and bake. If they could afford it, that would be a lot. Not because Christmas was looked on as a reason to over indulge but because a country Christmas lasted from Christmas Eve till at least New Year’s Day. Visitors were expected during those days and nights and a good part of the cooking and baking, especially the baking, was preparation for welcoming them. Groups of younger people, usually “courting age,” sometimes joined by some older folks, would go from house to house at night in the community caroling, accepting offers of cake and, for the men, maybe a glass of persimmon beer or a dram of high-proof Christmas spirit from a fruit jar of a local moonshiner’s best.

By custom − and how and why it came to be, no one recalls − my grandparents would never do any shopping until the day of Christmas Eve. Some years, the eight-mile trip had to be made by horse-drawn wagon, with them leaving before daylight. During the hardest of the Depression years my grandfather could seldom turn over to my grandmother as much as ten dollars to buy what the children needed or wanted, more likely closer to five dollars − and what was needed got priority. Any needed clothes were bought first, and then a plain toy or two for each child (one year around this time my father received the first of his several “Big Little Books” of adventure stories, some of which I still have). But “buying Christmas” mostly meant buying things not usually bought any other time of the year − candy, nuts, fruits you didn’t grow. In 1933, you could buy a lot of that in Elberton for a few dollars − if you had the few dollars. Fowler’s Grocery, where my grandfather preferred to shop, advertised its full holiday line in the December 22 edition of the Star that year:  Mixed hard candy, 10 cents per pound; peppermint sticks, 23 cents a two-pound box; chocolate creme drops, a two-pound tub for 25 cents; oranges or apples, a penny apiece; bananas, 11 cents per pound; fresh grapes, 10 cents per pound; seeded raisins, two 15-ounce packages for 15 cents; Brazil nuts, 15 cents per pound. Cheese was a favorite thing for Christmas in the Chandler family − a rarity any other time − and the grocery offered “Best Cheese” at 15 cents per pound. It’s hard to imagine now macaroni and cheese as a holiday delight, but in that time and place it was just that. Fresh coconuts for the coconut cake that no Christmas in the Chandler family would be complete without were a bargain at 5 and 7 ½ cents apiece, depending on the size. Their whole haul from all this buying would probably no more than fill a modern shopping cart, but the scarcity of these items most of the year at Pearl Mill made it a cornucopia of abundance.

But in all this readying for Christmas a troubling question hung in the air: What kind of Christmas were the Stanley girls facing?

That was answered on Christmas Eve, when three small boxes found their way to the porch of the Stanley house for the girls to find the next morning. The $5 to $10 or thereabouts had been made to stretch even further.  Each girl got a paddle ball, a simple wooden paddle with a rubber ball attached with a string, surprisingly a novel toy in the early 1930s. And with that each box also had some fruit and candy. “They came up to the house on Christmas morning, showing us what Santa Claus had brought them,” my father often recounted. “They were as proud of all that as children today would be of every toy in a store. They had probably been told not to expect anything.”

In time, Marshall Stanley’s health improved so he was able to get a job as a mechanic back near Commerce and the family moved from Pearl Mill. The story doesn’t end there, though. His and my grandfather’s paths would cross again a few years later.

It was during a trip to visit Chandler relatives in Jackson County. A mishap on a country road ended in a broken car axle not far from Commerce but a long way from home. Then it was recalled that Marshall Stanley had moved back to the area. By word of mouth he was found and came to the rescue, and in a matter of a few hours he had a new axle in place.

He refused any and all payment. His only reply to my grandfather’s protests and urging was, “No, Raymond, you paid me years ago.”

And so the story was always repeated over the years, never growing with the telling but sticking with the bare facts.

A good deal of the mill village was blown away by a tornado in December 1942. In years afterward my grandfather was able to buy the whole mill property, farming in the shadow of the burned and crumbling building that loomed over the landscape. The few surviving mill houses became barns. My grandfather and grandmother moved into what had been the mill superintendent’s house, bigger and finer (in its day) than the rest. In that house as a child in the 1960s I spent some of my own happiest Christmas Days. At least three generations of the family would be at hand. Tables would hold more food than could be eaten in a week (including macaroni and cheese by every contributing cook). And my grandmother would see that every child got at least one small toy.

And at some point, and sometimes more than once, the story of that Christmas of 1933 would be told.

This story is no sermon, and I’m not looking to make it one. Each can look at it in his own light. It’s just a simple story that became part of one family’s Christmas catechism. A simple act of seeing that three little girls were not left out of the joys of the season was repaid in practical terms many fold. It involved no lavish and expensive gifts − in that time and place there were none to be had − but instead small tokens given not out of excess or even abundance but given from meager means out of simple caring. Small gifts that gave happiness far out of proportion to their price tag. No matter how little their money in hand, neither of my grandparents would have been happy in the season in their own right with lacking, disappointment and the heartbreak of children near enough for them to touch. The three boxes left on the porch in the dark of a Christmas Eve were gifts they gave themselves. The story of it all, never told in its own time but only years afterward, is a gift to the rest of us.