The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Old Country Store

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1986

Issue: May, 1986

The Old Country Store. Illustration by Susan Thigpen.The Old Country Store.
Illustration by Susan Thigpen.
In a period of time extending from the early years of this century backwards, our nation was largely agricultural. The majority of the population lived in the rural areas. Communication was poor and travel was limited.

In the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountain ranges, many people lived and died without having traveled outside of their county. Some instances have been reported of persons whose entire life had been confined within their community. Consequently, they had been influenced by only their family and whatever church and school influence they may have been exposed to - with one exception. That exception was the country store. People could be largely self sustaining except for some few staples such as salt and two or three similar items.

Visiting the country store was something of an event and more than purchasing the necessities or selling the eggs for a little cash money. Prior to the U.S. Postal Service establishing the Rural Free Delivery of mail in 1889, all of the rural mail was directed to either a postal facility in a small area of a country store or mill or to the Post Office in the county seat. Thus the country store served as somewhat of a communication center and a news-gathering point concerning news events of the local community and happenings in the outside world.

It is also note worthy that limited though his knowledge might have been, the country store keeper was somewhat of a counselor to his clientele. He was somewhat of an advisor concerning pain remedies for the various parts of the body of man and beast. His knowledge was confined to the various types of medicine that he carried in stock The manufacturer of one such product advertised his product as being appropriate for universal application. This was "Yeager's Liniment - Good For Man Or Beast." The Wallace Company of Marlinton, West Virginia, served a need to rural people who were without physician or medical service. This firm is still in business today. Around the turn of the century they designed a small cabinet or showcase containing a variety of medicines and remedies along with a pamphlet describing the individual contents. These medicine cabinets were in general distribution until after World War II, when the country store began to disappear and fade out of existence.

Through necessity, some of the more diversified country merchants also stocked coffins, later called caskets by morticians. This came about after the Civil War when the railroad facilities became well enough established that coffin manufacturers could distribute their products. Prior to the 1880-1890 decade and long afterward in many communities, coffins were made by a local cabinet shop or carpenter upon the death of a person. With the development of the railroad system, coffin manufacturers began to be established or to expand, send out salesmen and market their products through three outlet classifications:

The first source was the undertaker, who was not called "Mortician and Funeral Director" until embalming of bodies came into general practice in the United States. Embalming was developed by the Egyptians 4000 years ago, but the general practice of it came about in the past century. It was little used prior to World War I, certainly in rural areas. The Orthodox Jews have never completely accepted the practice and many Rabbis prohibit its practice even today. Originally the "Undertaker" was simply a man who owned a horse drawn hearse, sometimes referred to as a "Dead Wagon" or "Coffin Carriage," for the use of which he charged a small fee. That was the limit of his services. It was this individual that the coffin salesman began to visit and convince that he should buy one or two coffins and have them available for ready use by a prospective customer when needed.

The second source of sale for coffins was the furniture store. Being made of wood it was classified as somewhat of an item of a furniture nature.

The third source or outlet of sale was the country store. Surprisingly, from about 1890 country stores in many areas stocked coffins as a standard item. In time they became "Undertakers" and eventually many became qualified morticians and established a funeral directing enterprise. Before World War I my grandfather allowed me to accompany him to visit the store of Mr. Crockett Gwyn. The building still stands about three miles southwest of Hillsville. His family and my grandfather's family were always good friends. Two things impressed me on that first visit to the Gwyn store. One was a "Dancing Sam." This was a toy consisting of a little metal box approximately 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 x 1 1/2 high painted green. On the top, which acted as a platform, was a little man about 3" tall. Out of the side of the box extended a winding key, which when wound and released, caused the little man to jump up and down, turn around and execute a very real imitation of dancing. I doubt that anything has ever fascinated me so much. I wanted it badly but my grandfather said that the twenty-five or thirty-five cents was more than he wished to spend, "and it's not Christmas anyway." The second item that fascinated me was the two coffins that Mr. Gwyn had in stock. I had never seen coffins, "waiting on someone to die," as it was explained to me. Many years later Mr. Crockett Gwyn's son and my good friend for many years, Mr. Gilman Gwyn, when I related this experience to him said, "Yes, that is exactly the way we got into the Mortuary business.

Country store keepers were also innovators of progress by being the means of demonstrating new methods, new ideas and new implements of living. In the early 1930's I was working in southeastern Maryland one summer in the small village of Mechanicsville where was located the general store of Mr. Trice. Trice's Store was well known because Mr. Trice stocked groceries dry goods, clothing, hardware, furniture, fertilizer, some farm implements and miscellaneous other items. However, I was interested to hear him tell me that prior to World War I he had sold automobiles. I said, "What make did you sell?" He said, "I sold the Maxwell..." and I think he named another make also. With the coming of rural electricity many stores sold radios, refrigerators and other appliances.

Some storekeepers were most ingenious. One such was Mr. Hugh Raines. He kept an excellent store and was most successful. Two things that I recall will demonstrate his ingenuity. He was in business from around 1890 to 1926 or 1927. Both of these events involve nutmeg which has not been seen in a food market for sixty or seventy years but were a very staple and much used item in its natural form. Powdered nutmeg is still present on every spice shelf but for many years this little spice ball could only be used in a small hand-held nutmeg grinder and was only sold in it's natural form of a ball about one inch in diameter. However, it had a much greater and a universal use compared with today, as a spice in food flavoring and especially with dried fruits such as apple and peaches prepared by housewives in the home. A salesman called on Mr. Raines one day and was quoting prices on nutmeg and said, "But Mr. Raines instead of buying them in boxes of twenty-four each, you can buy them for a fraction of the price if you buy them by the barrel." Mr. Raines said, "Well, they will keep and it may require a lifetime to sell them out and for the price you have quoted, I can afford it. So send me a barrel."

In due time the nutmegs arrived and Mr. Raines began figuring how long it really would take him to sell them. He finally estimated that it would be about fifteen years at best. He began thinking about how he could promote the sale of them. Here is the idea that he came up with: Although he usually went to the bank once a week or twice at most, he began taking all of his pennies to the bank daily. Then when he  made change for customers he would say "I have a problem making change. I have nickels, dimes and quarters but I am out of pennies. They are scarce it seems. Nutmegs are a penny each. Will it be alright if I give you nutmegs for the pennies I owe you? His customers agreed to accept them. Next, he began trying to sell each salesman who called on him something before they left the store - but always they would receive a little change in nutmegs. In time he was a nick-named "Nutmeg Raines" and he sold the entire lot in about two years.

The other nutmeg incident came about by Mr. Raines observing that occasionally it appeared to him a few nutmegs were disappearing from those on top of the open barrel. He thought to himself, "I wonder if someone is stealing a few of these nutmegs now and then. If they are, I wonder if something else is being stolen that I am not aware of." One day he decided that he would see if he could find out if some of his nutmegs were being pilfered. He placed an oversized mouse trap with a 3 1/2" bale, which had a strong spring, under the top layer of nutmegs. Each time he sold any he would be cautious not to spring the trap and to carefully recover it with more nutmegs. Nothing appeared to happen for two months or more. His living quarters were attached to the store building and he could observe the nutmeg barrel each time that he went back and forth between the store and his house or apartment as the nutmeg barrel sat near the door between. One morning he was up in the front of the store when he heard a scream of anguish. Turning around he saw his wife at the nutmeg barrel with three of her fingers caught in the oversize mousetrap. He rushed to unspring the trap from his wife's fingers. Though she was in much pain, she demanded to know why the trap had been set and placed among the nutmegs. He started to express his sympathy for her but she demanded to know why the trap was in the nutmegs. He said, "I thought someone was stealing nutmegs and I was trying to find out if such was the case." She said, "What if they were, they only sell for a penny each. Whenever I needed any I got them and I never paid for them or anything else I needed in this store. Now you stay in here until you figure how many I have taken out of the barrel." With that she returned to their apartment and after bolting the door she locked the other doors and would not let him in the house. He had to sleep on the counter in the store that night. The following day she relented and unlocked the doors. From then on when anyone called him "Nutmeg" he would always say, "I would appreciate it if you would call me Hugh."

The country store and the store keepers as I knew them have all passed in history. But in their day they rendered a great service. When I was in my teens a man died of a heart attack after the evening meal. It was during the depression. The family was without funds to pay for even the very cheapest coffin or casket as it was then being termed. The local merchant called a few of us together and directed us what to do. He supplied several yards of flannel outing with a few other items and sent us to a Mr. Gray, a carpenter. We explained the situation. Mr. Gray went into his shop, sanded off a few boards he had on hand, marked out a pattern and began sawing the boards accordingly. In two hours we had screwed them together to make the coffin, the lid for it, lined with cotton batting and white muslin and covered the entire unit with the flannel outing. The result was very neat and acceptable in appearance. The deceased's family was most appreciative of the coffin and all who had worked on it. The local store keeper was also the burden bearer in many instances, for his community. Certainly he served an age now gone in a way that has long since been forgotten and which today seems never to have existed.