The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Waiting For The Rolling Store

By Lucy Tharp © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

To a child in our contemporary society, a trip to the supermarket seems rather routine. To the average city child, it is only a short walk to the nearest convenience store or shopping mall for a slush puppy or a can of soda pop.

It was not so, however, during my childhood. I grew up in a rural section of Tennessee where perhaps one family in ten owned an automobile. The nearest store was miles away and a rare trip to town was a treat indeed.

When the rolling store started making its weekly excursions to our community in the years preceding World War Two it was a real boon. As a general rule, the rolling store carried only staple items, but these were the ones rural folks needed the most. For the most part, people on farms were self-sufficient in those days. The rolling store did not make house to house deliveries. In our community, it stopped at the local school yard. On Wednesday afternoons, when it made its appearance, the school yard would be crowded with people waiting to purchase whatever items they needed.

The rolling store had matches, dried beans, dried fruits (such as apples, peaches and apricots), salt, black pepper, sugar, flour, cornmeal, rice, cocoa, coffee, oatmeal, pet milk, canned sardines and salmon, Apple chewing tobacco, Prince Albert smoking tobacco, as well as Tubrose snuff. There were staple items and few name brand choices.

One other staple item bears mentioning; Kerosene, or "coal oil" as it was called. Attached outside at the rear of the rolling store was a kerosene barrel with pump. Kerosene was a source of lighting in our community since we had no electricity at that time.

During the winter months, the rolling store carried salt pork, hoop cheese and bologna which we referred to as "poor man's steak." That cheese and bologna tasted better than any that I have tasted since. A crudely lettered sign on the side of the store read "Bologna 20 cents lb." That bologna and cheese was a gourmet delight to many.

During trading days, the barter system was much in evidence. If a customer had no cash, he could trade eggs, live poultry or fresh country butter for staple items from the store.

I spent many a pleasant hour waiting for the rolling store, but there is one particular day that stands out vividly in my memory.

I had been collecting and saving pennies until I had ten bright, shiny coppers in my possession. They were bright and shiny because I handled them constantly, pampering, rubbing and playing with them like they were cherished pets. I was saving up what I considered to be sufficient cash for my own personal shopping spree at the rolling store. In 1937, ten pennies seemed to me like a lordly sum.

On this particular Wednesday I went along with my mother to meet the store. It was about a three mile walk to the school yard where the store made its weekly visit, but on this morning, I wouldn't have minded if the distance had been twenty miles. I ran and skipped along, my ten pennies jingling in my tiny purse.

We got to the school yard early and that meant that we would have some time on our hands before the store arrived. My mother welcomed this opportunity to visit with friends and neighbors. On the other hand, I soon became bored and started looking for a diversion while waiting for the store.

First, I counted my pennies over and over. As this soon became tiresome, I began playing a game of hiding them in the grass and looking for them. I would place them in a neat stack, walk away a few steps, then return and pick them up and start the process all over again.

I suppose I must have hid the pennies quite a number of times, each time to recover them successfully. Then I must have gotten cocky and careless. Suddenly, I couldn't find the pennies, I got down on the ground and crawled through the grass in search of the pennies but they were not to be found.

Soon I started to panic and became disoriented. I had no idea of where I had placed the pennies. At first I was ashamed to ask for help. I realized I had done a stupid thing. But as time for the store grew nearer, my pride began to evaporate. I started to cry. People started to notice the little girl standing off to herself, sobbing bitterly.

"What's wrong, honey?" one man asked. "Are you hurt?"

"No," I snuffled. "I lost my pennies. I dropped them in the grass."

Quickly, the yard was full of sympathetic people crawling around on their knees looking for my lost assets. It didn't take long. One sharp-eyed lady located the pennies and brought them to me. She also had a sharp tongue.

"You say you dropped the pennies in the grass?" she asked tartly. "That sure is strange. The pennies were stacked neatly just like they had been placed there."

I didn't blame the lady for being skeptical, but I didn't bother to respond to her accusatory tone of voice. I was too happy. I had my pennies back and that was all that was really important.

Suddenly, there was an excited chant among the crowd. "Rolling store is coming! Rolling store is coming!" The store signaled its approach with an "oo-ga" "oo-ga" sound.

Although the rolling store was state of the art shopping to us, it wasn't much to look at by modern standards. It consisted of a homemade cabin-like van built onto a long bodied panel truck. A thick cloud of dust trailed it as it wound down the graveled road toward the school.

As I lined up by the store, I found myself struggling to make a decision. What would I buy with my pennies? For a nickel, I could buy a Baby Ruth candy bar twice the size of the ones available today for 50 cents For another nickel, I could get an iced-down Royal Crown Cola.

Then, something else took my eye. There was a box of black pocket combs on the counter marked at 10 cents. I don't know if it was vanity or compulsive buying, but the idea of owning my own personal comb appealed to me. I dropped my pennies in the storekeeper's outstretched palm and selected my comb.

I never regretted my choice. The comb was a prized possession of mine throughout my childhood. It was like a valued piece of jewelry to me. The comb was engraved with the words "CAMEO BLACK FINISH." To me, that was like saying "14 - carat gold."

The frame and bodies of the old rolling stores have been laid to rest, long since having been overcome with rust and corrosion. Now anachronistic to a culture of readily accessible, dependable, and swift transportation to the glamorous supermarkets, the rolling store is no more than the reverberation of an era in the memory of many rural folk. They are remembered with fondness, but unfortunately, as just another passing feature of folk culture.