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Country Stores - Page 2

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In the South, the country store assumed a different significance after the 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 grew tremendously.

 

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.

 

Most General Stores were heated by an old pot-belly stove. The H. D. Gibbes & Sons country store, in tiny Learned, Mississippi, still caters to local customers. Photo by Kathy Weiser, February, 2013.

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.

 

Leadville, Colorado todayIn other areas of the country, these small establishments made history in and of themselves. For example, in Leadville, Colorado, during the silver boom of the late 1870's, a small time merchant named Horace 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 American 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 shaft.

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. Later, August Rische 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, New Mexico. 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 Murphy & Dolan Mercantile in the south central frontier town of Lincoln. In the early 1870's, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan owned the only store in Lincoln County, which, at the time, was the largest county in the nation, covering 1/5 of New Mexico territory. The pair, who also owned large cattle ranches and had influential territorial ties to officials in 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 than Billy the Kid on his short-lived, but, well-known life as an outlaw.

 

These are but a couple of interesting tales involving old general stores. If walls could talk, there would be dozens more.

 

In most 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.

 

 

 

Crossroads Store in Louisiana

This crossroads store in Louisiana testifies to the era of manufacturing advertisement.

 

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 "town killers."

 

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 was the life blood of the community.

 

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 convenience 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.

 

 

 

©Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, February, 2013.

Old Country Store Restaurant in Lorman, Missisppi

The old country store in Lorman, Mississippi has 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!!

 

 

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Rocky Mountain General Store LogoFrom Legends' General Store

Legends' General Store provides a number of items for our nostalgic and traveling readers. Here, you'll find a wide selection of new and used books, postcards, vintage photographs, Route 66 memorabilia, videos,, museum quality art prints, Custom Products only available through the Legends' General Store, and much more. Come on in and take a look around.

 

Tee-Pee Trading Post

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Route 66 Emporium

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Books at the Rocky Mountain General Store

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Old West Mercantile

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