Old-Fashioned Country Stores
The Gibbes Store in Learned,
operations in 1899. Though the clientele and the merchandise has changed, stepping into this
place is an adventure into the past. Photo by Kathy Weiser Alexander, February, 2013.
“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, 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.”
-- Correspondent in news notes to the
Out of necessity, country stores, or general stores, got their start
during the colonial period for the many pioneers who lived outside
urban markets. Many owners of these mercantiles began as
roving peddlers and once they had accumulated enough capital and
inventory, they often established permanent locations in settlements
where there was a need and likely profit. Others; however, would
specifically move to quickly growing areas or crossroads, knowing that
they would be successful. This was particularly true in boom towns,
such as mining camps or railroad towns. In many cases, the "peddler"
and his "store" would move along to the next booming community if, and
when, the boom town and its profits declined. In many instances, the
country store would be the first business in a new settlement, and
sometimes, the town itself would take its name from the store itself.
This was not necessarily because the area residents wanted it that
way; but, when the number of area residents grew large enough, the
post office was generally located in the General Store. And who was
the potential postmaster that requested a post office and name?
-- The proprietor of that very same establishment. Sometimes, the owner
was also the town clerk, served as Justice of the Peace, or even an
In addition to often being the only provider of "store bought goods"
and the post office, the country store served other roles, including
the social center of the community, as an "exchange bank", community message center, and political club and forum for men in the
community. Somewhere in the store, on a door or a wall, one might find
every type of notice. These might include local events, elections,
auctions, and "wanted posters" for outlaws.
While every store was different, there were similarities among many,
including a front that was decorated by tin sign advertising,
representing tobacco, cigars, soft drinks, hardware, and more.
Usually, the the store featured double doors that opened inward, and
windows that were filled with notions, jewelry and other women's items
to entice them in. For the men, displays might show tools and
When visitors entered the store, they were met with dim light,
rounded glass show cases, and side walls lined with shelves, drawers,
and bins. Other items such as buggy whips, horse harnesses, lanterns,
pails, ropes and more hanged from the ceiling. Produce, nuts, beans,
and nails were stored in bins, usually on the floor or against a wall.
Shelves not only contained foot stuffs, but, also fabric and sewing
notions, household items, soaps, medicines, spices, crockery and dishes,
cartridges and shells, and small farm implements. Generally,
there were no side windows, contributing to the dark interior. The
post office, if there was one, was tucked into a corner, or the rear
of the store.
Sitting on the counter tops, shoppers might find merchandise that
included stacks of overalls, denim and khaki pants, candy jars,
tobacco, and all manner of other products. Also sitting on the
counter, one would usually see the cash register, a coffee
scales for weighing grocery items and nails, and a
wrapping paper unit with string attachment. Virtually, the counter
tops would be filled with merchandise, leaving only enough room for
purchases, and wrapping of the items.
Between floor to ceiling shelves that lined the walls, and the
multitude of items sitting atop and below the counters, visitors would
find a pot-bellied
surrounded by a couple of chairs, a coal bucket, the ever present
spittoon, and yes, a checkerboard sitting atop an empty nail keg.
Elsewhere, in the narrow passage way that was the middle of the store,
could be found barrels that might contain any number of items -- from
pickles, to crackers, potatoes, mincemeat, and more candies.
The store was usually a two-story frame building, painted white, and
fronted by a raised porch for convenient loading and unloading. During
warm weather, the porch also served as the social center as men
gathered on a provided bench, chairs, or the steps, to talk weather,
politics, the price of crops, and more. The upper floor was often only
attic space, which served for supply storage. In cases, where the
second floor was a full floor, it often served as the proprietor 's
home. Reserve stock, fertilizer, livestock feed
and other heavy bulk items were stored in an extension at the side or
For rural families, a weekly trip to the General Store was a social
event come Saturday. With the kids sitting in the back of the wagon,
along with chickens, cream, eggs, and pelts to be traded, Mom would
pack a basket lunch and feed for the horses, and make a day of the
outing. Store bought items were "luxuries" for most farm families, and
were rarely purchased except for need, and maybe something special for
Christmas. Entering the store with anticipation, they were met with
the distinct aroma familiar in many country stores -- a blend of ripe
cheese, pickles, kerosene, produce, feed, cured meats, leather, and
Everyone looked around, perhaps picking out something they hoped for
as Christmas gift. With eager smiles, the children pressed against the
candy displays, featuring peppermint sticks, liquorish, jelly beans,
horehound and rock candy, lemon drops, and maybe some chocolate.
This old general store in
the typical white paint and a false front which was often seen in these old country
stores, photo by Kathy Weiser. This image available for photographic
prints and downloads
Shopping in a general store in Danville,
Vermont, 1942, photo by Fritz Henle.
looked longingly at Barlow knives, Stevens single-shot rifles, Jew’s
harps, and harmonicas, while the girls wished and hoped for china
dolls, "store bought" dresses, glass beads, and pretty ribbons. Mom
and Dad were more practical, perhaps sending wistful glances to new
tools and glassware; but, in the end, they would leave with only what
they needed. This might include basic staples such as flour, salt, and
coffee; some nails, chicken feed, a needle, and thread, and if the
kids were very lucky, one piece of penny candy each. Rather than
placing their articles in a bag, the clerk would wrap it all up in
brown paper, tied up with twine.
Stocking of early stores required that the proprietor make trips to
wholesale and auction houses, most of which were located in the
northeast. Later, a growing number of traveling salesmen called
"drummers" began to peddle their wholesale wares to store owners. With
the expansion of the railroad, buying trips became much more
convenient and ordered wholesale goods could be sent by rail. To the
townsfolk, the arrival of fresh merchandise became yet another social
event, especially during the holidays when a merchant might stock
items not seen during the rest of the year, such as crates of oranges,
boxes of figs, and English walnuts.
In the South, the country store assumed a different significance after
Civil War. Many
stores were the outgrowth of the plantation system. When plantation
owners owned slaves, the often had a commissary from which, food and
clothing was distributed to the slaves.
When the Civil War
was over, the newly freed slaves often became sharecroppers or tenant
farmers, and of course, had to pay for what they need. The commissary
might then become a "general store" which provided supplies on
seasonal credit, often at exorbitant rates of interest. Collateral for
the credit was a crop lien where the merchant had a legal claim to
future profits from harvests. During this time, the number of stores
Because there were so many share-croppers and
tenant farmers, one store owner sometimes couldn't provide credit to
all those who needed it in the area, so, in some small towns, its Main Street might be
lined with several. This was the case in tiny little Learned,
Mississippi, which never had a population of over a couple of hundred
people. Looking eerily similar, four of these old buildings continue
to stand in this small town, which now boasts only about 50 people.
Three are closed, but, one -- H. D. Gibbes & Sons is still open,
continuing to provide the basics to its customers, as well as serving
up great steaks three nights a week. It is run by Chip Gibbes who is
the 5th generation owner, and of the 7th generation of Gibbes in the
area. The store was established in 1899.
In the post-Civil War
South, these stores not only provided needed provisions to area
customers; but, the lien system often placed the merchant at the
center of class conflict and the stores were sometimes condemned as
having a monopoly. Most of the time however; the merchants themselves
were often hard-pressed due to local competition, people unable to pay
off their bills, and their own creditors. When the proprietor tried to
collect on debts owed, he was often attacked by the landlords, who
contested the priority of their claims. They were also begrudged by
the small farmers paying high interest rates, while trying to make a
living in the fickle cotton market.
Most General Stores were heated by an old pot-belly
stove. The H. D. Gibbes & Sons
in tiny Learned,
still caters to local customers. Photo by Kathy Weiser, February, 2013.
In other areas of the country, these small establishments made history
in and of themselves. For example, in
Colorado, during the
silver boom of the late 1870's, a small time merchant named
Tabor, and his wife Augusta, made their way to the flourishing town to
capitalize on the needs of the miners and many new residents. In the
spring of 1878, Horace grubstaked two German prospectors. At this
time, it was not
uncommon in the many mining camps of the
West for merchants to supply
funds or materials to prospectors for a promised share of the profits.
Tabor provided the two miners with $17.00 in provisions that first day, and
additional supplies on two more occasions, for a total of $54.00. For
the provisions, the miners promised Tabor a one-third interest in any
ore produced by their finds. The German prospectors located a claim on
Fryer Hill, which they named the Little Pittsburgh and began to dig a
On April 15, 1878, Tabor's
generosity hit pay dirt when the two miners -- August Rische and George
Hook, announced to Tabor that
they had found silver at what would become the Little Pittsburgh Mine. By July,
nearly a hundred tons of ore had been taken from the mine and each of
the three partners had an income of $50,000 a month. In the fall, Hook sold out to Tabor for $98,000.
sold his interest to Jerome Chaffee and David Moffat for over a
quarter of a million dollars.
In the end, Horace Tabor, who earned the moniker of the "Silver King"
became extremely wealthy and influential. He served as a U.S. Senator
briefly and began a "fling" with a younger woman named "Baby Doe". He
left his wife, married Baby Doe, and ultimately lost his fortune,
resulting in the rags to riches story of the Tabor Triangle.
Another interesting tale of a general store occurred in Lincoln,
Because of the importance of these stores, they often became
monopolies, and the greed of the store owner sometimes capitalizing on
the needs of the area residents. This was the case of the
Mercantile in the south central frontier town of Lincoln. In the early
1870's, Lawrence Murphy and
owned the only store in Lincoln County, which,
at the time, was the largest county in the nation, covering 1/5 of New
pair, who also owned large cattle ranches and had
influential territorial ties to
Santa Fe, controlled the region. In 1877, a couple of "upstarts" named Alexander McSween and John
Tunstall, had the gall to set up a rival business, which erupted
in what is known as the Lincoln
County War. It was this frontier "range war" that set none other
Billy the Kid on his short-lived, but, well-known life as an
These are but a couple of interesting tales involving old general
stores. If walls could talk, there would be dozens more.
country stores, advertising wasn't a primary focus, prompting
one storekeeper to say, “Advertising don’t take the place of dustin’”.
However, many a store might give away paper fans or yard sticks with
their name printed on them. However, advertising did become important to
manufacturers, especially in the late 19th century as they
began to brand their products. At that time, old
country stores began
to display all types of signs, calendars, lights, fixtures, and even
murals on the sides of their buildings advertising soft drinks,
tobacco, farm implements, and more.
At about the same time, other things began to change for the old
General Store. In 1896, the postal service began to offer
Rural Free Delivery (RFD), cutting down on the number of trips made to
the post office, which is often inside the general store. The new
rural delivery also opened the door for rural customers to receive
merchandise catalogues from mail order companies such as Montgomery
Wards, founded in 1872, and Sears, founded in 1893. Catalogs kept rural
families up-to-date on the latest goods, featuring all manner
of merchandise from dry goods to canned vegetables. In many cases,
when their products arrived they were delivered to the local
storekeeper. Alarmed merchants began to call the mail order catalogs
Mail delivery to rural areas also meant that the government built new
and better roads and when automobile travel began, people began to go
to bigger cities where they could shop at a greater number of merchants
who were more competitive. In the 1930's, supermarkets began to spring
up and gradually, and unable to compete, general stores began to close.
Today, there are few places that
can evoke pleasant nostalgic memories among old-timers, like that of
the old fashioned general store. Many remember, with great fondness,
the family shopping trips, penny candies, and the shared trading of
philosophy around the pot-belly stove in the winter, or sitting upon
the broad porch in the summer. Among other focal points of small town,
such as the school, church, and courthouse, the country store
life blood of the community.
This crossroads store in Louisiana
testifies to the era of manufacturing advertisement.
Of the hundreds of old stores like these, only a fraction remain, and,
of those, most serve as museums, antique shops, and tourist
attractions. However, that is not always the case. Though they have
adapted to changing needs,
mostly as "convenience stores," without the look of the ugly modern
stores of today, there are many that continue to play the role that
they always have, offering everything from canned goods, to gasoline,
to farming equipment.
of America, updated May, 2017.
General Store Slide
Images available for prints, canvas wraps,
downloads and more HERE.
The old country store in Lorman,
turned restaurant. Owner-Operator,
Arthur Davis serves up some great
old-fashioned fried chicken and entertains customers with his songs of his grandma's
cornbread. Great fun!! Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2013.
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