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Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Country Store And Travelling Salesmen

 The Country Store

When my parents brought me home from the hospital in 1951, they carried me through the front door of their country store on Steele's Creek near Wayland in Floyd County Kentucky.  I had been born at the old Lackey Hospital in Knott County.  That building still exists but has, for many years, been a personal care home for the chronically mentally ill and is now known as Golden Years Rest Home.  The first 20 years of my life were spent in a country store named for my father and known as B. L. Hicks, General Merchandise. The first  six years of my life we lived and operated the store on Steele's Creek not far from Wayland, Kentucky.  In 1957, my parents built a new store and house on Right Beaver at Dema, Kentucky, in Knott County.  This was about three or four miles up Beaver above Wayland. At the time, my aunt and uncle  Corbett and Ellen Terry were also operating a store, which they rented, on Beaver Creek about a mile below the Knott County line.  My parents and my aunt and uncle were always close and a plan was made to simultaneously move them into our store on Steele's Creek on the same day we moved out.  They continued to operate that store for several years until they eventually went out of business. They actually used the same truck and man to move both stores.  We would  haul a load from our store on Steele's Creek to our new store on Beaver Creek.  On the way back, they would haul a load from Corbett and Ellen's store on Beaver Creek to the store on Steele's Creek. 

 For the next fourteen years we operated the store on Beaver Creek. By the time I could see over the counter and count change, I was working, or perhaps I only thought I was working, at least some of the time in the store.  By the time I was 12 or 14, if my parents needed to go to Martin, Prestonsburg, or Hindman to conduct business, I could generally be left alone in the store for a few hours at a time.  As I grew older and began to travel around, I would also, from time to time, be in other country stores.  I still go in them today when I can find one that is actually a real country store.  Based on all this history, I tend to believe I am an expert on country stores.

My father bought the store on Steele's Creek sometime in the 1940's after his first wife, Ora Hicks, became ill and he had to leave his job in the coal mines.  He ran the store until her death and married my mother, Mellie Hicks, not long thereafter.  They continued to operate the store until a few months after my mother's death in 1970.  By that time, my father was 83 years old.  Other than his obituary which appeared in the Floyd County Times and the Minutes of The Old Regular Baptist Church, I know of only one other instance in which he is mentioned in print.  That third mention is a brief story in an oral history book, "Coal Camp Kids: Coming Up Hard And Making It", by Barbara Ford Ritch.  The comment says, in its entirety: "Ballard Hicks, Nora Jean Coontz recalled, had a grocery store at Steele's Creek.  'That is where I had to go to get feed for our horse.  He kept a case full of hard candy.  I would get two hundred pound bags of feed, and make sure the feed sacks were the same, because then Mom could make me a new skirt from the sacks.  Sometimes, I would get an orange Popsicle, and climb a big sycamore tree, eat that Popsicle, and wonder what my future would be.' "  That brief oral history account does or says many things for me.  It means that, at some time, someone other than me was positively affected by my father's country store.  It also says a few things about the way he ran his store and how most country stores in general were run in those days. 

My father obviously made an effort to leave a positive impression.  He also, like nearly every other store owner, made an effort to allow customers to have their own way with regard to the promotional items which often accompanied sales of livestock feed, flour, meal, and a few other items.  Most mothers made some effort to gain enough flour, meal, or feed sacks of their favorite patterns to complete their next planned project.  Dishes were also often given as a promotion with flour, meal, and a few other items.  Many flour and meal sacks were actually pillow cases.  A few other brands gave the dishes away, one piece at a time with their brand of flour or meal.  My parents also kept livestock after we moved to Knott County and my mother also used the brands that gave the promotional items.  I, too, wore feed sack shirts to school until I was in about the eighth grade.  I refused to do so after I entered high school and my mother stopped making the shirts for me.  However, most of the patterns on the bags were more feminine than masculine. But many males also wore shirts made from the bags.  Houses had curtains,  table clothes, dish towels, towels, wash cloths, dishes, and many other items which were either packaging just as it came from the store or packaging altered to meet a purpose in the home.   I have even heard of one or two occasions where women actually fought over the last bag of feed in a particularly popular pattern.  Most of the dishes given to customers this way were plates and cups.  Jelly was also commonly sold in drinking glasses with patterns on the glass.  You ate the jelly, threw away the lid, and had another glass for the home. Silver Dust Washing Powder for many years had either a towel, wash cloth, or dish towel in each box of their detergent depending on the size of the box.  For many men, a favorite part of the old Porter Waggoner Show on television was Dolly Parton doing the Silver Dust Commercial.  She always held the promotional towels just under her most famous assets and that part of the show was one of the most risque things in television in those days.  And, to my knowledge, Dolly never had a "wardrobe malfunction".
The country store was generally an informal community center for the geographic area in a five or ten square mile circumference.  Paved roads were uncommon although both our stores were located on a paved road. Far fewer people had cars than today. Everyone had less ready cash for gasoline even though it was cheap from the end of WW I to about the onset of the Vietnam War.  Therefore, it was common for people to walk to the closest store even if was across a ridge or two.  In a case like that, it might be closer to go to a store by foot over a ridge which might be a considerably longer distance if the roads were used.  I remember one woman, in particular, who came to our store for a few years by walking up the holler from her house, along a ridge for a mile or so, and then down the hill through our cow pasture.  She always brought her own burlap bag for her  groceries.  She would fill it up with canned goods on the bottom and anything soft on the top.  She would tie a string around the opening, shoulder the bag, and walk up the hill through the pasture into the woods and out of sight.

 It was also common for people to ride a horse or mule to the store and carry groceries home in saddle bags or in burlap bags across the animal's back.  Corn sleds on wooden runners were also often a means of transportation, especially if the customer was buying several sacks of livestock feed, seed potatoes, fertilizer, or even a full months supply of groceries.  I also knew two boys who managed to break a bull calf to ride with a bridle, and they often rode him to the store until he became more bull than beast of burden.  It wasn't uncommon also to have a few people who were making moonshine to buy sugar, cracked corn, wheat middlings, malt syrup, and yeast in large quantities.  Most of them came in some kind of truck with the ability to cover their purchases in order to avoid advertising their profession.  Most country store owners knew exactly who was moonshining in their area.  But a few would travel to an adjoining creek or even county to avoid buying from people who knew them.  But the added gas for travel sometimes dictated against this practice.  One of the largest stills ever destroyed by federal authorities in Knott County was found about 3 miles from our store on Salisbury.  Long before the still was cut we knew who ran it and its location not to mention how much sugar, corn, middlings, yeast, and malt syrup  he was using a week.  The man who owned the still was sent to prison in Arizona and eventually murdered by a fellow parolee shortly after his release. That story was actually told in one of the old pulp true crime magazines.  I have read the story but don't remember the name of the pulp magazine in which it appeared. He never made it back to Knott County alive.  When he died, there was still a charge account book in his name on the shelf in our store. 

On one occasion, my father, who often traded in livestock, sold several shoats of about fifty to seventy five pounds each to the husband of the woman who walked the ridge to the store .  Neither my father or the buyer ever drove a car.  Part of the deal was that my father "and that boy will drive the pigs to your house on Saturday morning."  That Saturday morning, we got up at the crack of daylight, fed the shoats to slow them down, and began driving them up through the cow pasture, along the ridge, and down the holler to the buyer.  When we got there, the family was up, the pig pen was ready, and the mother was cooking breakfast on a big wood burning step stove in a log house.  Not many people today can say they have driven livestock through the woods.  On at least one other occasion, my father bought cattle from someone on Salisbury and we drove them down the dirt road out of the holler, down the railroad right of way, across the creek, and down the highway a short distance to our barn.  It was not uncommon for country store operators to deal in anything of value if they had the barns, pastures, buildings, or storage space it required. 

My father also often bought from or sold livestock to Chester Layne, the area Tom's Candy Distributor.  Chester also owned the stockyards at Ivel and bought or sold livestock all along his franchise area which covered Floyd, Knott, and Pike Counties.  Today , his sons own Layne Brothers Ford in the same spot where the stockyards were for many years.  Chester bought a cow from us once that he always claimed he used as a milk cow.  He also always said he had named her Happy after former Governor Happy Chandler.  I have my doubts about parts of the story since Chester was rather loquacious and primarily bought cattle for resale.  Generally, when my father wanted a new bull, he would arrange for Chester to find him a registered Hereford and bring it to him.  He was one of the first men on Right Beaver to regularly keep a registered bull.  He made a little money on the side by allowing neighbors to breed their milk cows to his bull for five or ten dollars each.  I also have several bull stories which will show up somewhere else later. 

But Chester Layne was a fine example of a traveling salesman.  I loved to see nearly all of the salesmen show up but Chester was one of my favorites.  He and my parents were friends and he always paid attention to me, even as a small child.  Nobody had air conditioning in houses or cars in those days and I am sure that driving a panel truck two hundred miles a day in Eastern Kentucky was dry and tiring work.  Chester would often pull up in front of our store porch, jump out of the truck, say hello, go straight out the other door in the store into the living quarters, use the bathroom, wash his hands, go to the refrigerator for a glass of cold buttermilk, rinse the glass, return to the store and then ask "Well, what do you need today?"  Once when I was about ten or twelve, he offered to pay me a dollar a book to read the Bible if I finished the whole King James Version.  I don't think I even got through Genesis before I quit.  I wonder sometimes if he wasn't actually betting all along that he wouldn't need to give up the money.  It was a Sisyphean task for a young boy.  But Chester was one of several men in those days who influenced me to want to travel and be a salesman.  Chester also had a brother, Kelly Layne, who worked with or for him and sometimes made the run.  Kelly was also a lot of fun but not as much as his brother.

Once when I was working at the Hope Center Homeless Shelter in Lexington, Kentucky, I had a client who told me had stolen one of Chester's Tom's Peanut Trucks from a small country store on Left Beaver in Floyd County. He said he and a couple of other guys were sitting on the store porch about half drunk when the driver pulled up, stopped, put the truck in neutral with the engine running, and ran into the store.  The truck was already pointed down the creek since the driver had come over the hill from the opposite creek.  My client said he was drinking, broke, and unemployed.  So as soon as the store door slammed, he jumped off the porch into the truck and took off to a chop shop in Magoffin County and sold the truck and inventory all to the chop shop operator.  Apparently, no one on the porch admitted to knowing who he was and the state police couldn't have gotten to the scene in less than thirty minutes in those days.  He was probably close to Magoffin County before the trooper ever took the report.  I wish I had heard the story while Chester was still alive so I could have compared it to his version.  I did come to know the chop shop operator later but he also died before I ever asked him about the story. 

Another of my favorite salesmen was Harold Purkey, Jr. who drove a Kern's Bread truck out of western Virginia into Knott and Floyd Counties.  During the summers, Harold would allow me to ride with him from our store down Beaver Creek to the end of his route in Punkin Center between Wayland and Garrett.  He would drop me off at home on his way back south to Virginia.  Harold liked to talk, had a long and cumbersome route, and I am sure he liked the company.  I also picked up a lot of my desire to be a salesman from riding with Harold. 

Bill Parish drove a Chappell's Milk route out of Hazard Kentucky for many years and was popular in the area.  Before my father quit drinking, which took place about the time I was born, Bill used to bring him a case or two of beer from Hazard every week as a favor.  I am sure it was illegal and against company policy. But to my  knowledge, Bill never suffered any consequences for it.  Hazard was wet and both Knott and Floyd Counties were dry which made Hazard beer a lot cheaper than buying from the bootleggers.  I suspect Bill probably did this favor for more than one of his regular customers. 

Talmadge Vanderpool drove a Betsy Ross Bread truck out of Prestonsburg into Knott County for several years also.  Talmadge was a fine individual but he just wasn't as sociable, talkative, or funny as most of the other salesmen. 

Another who also influenced me was Bernie Whitt who sold groceries for a company in Paintsville, Kentucky. Bernie was very quiet, low key, and efficient.  He wasn't nearly as much fun as Chester but he was a good salesman. There were actually two grocery companies in Paintsville which serviced Knott County.  I remember the man who sold for the other but can't remember his name.  He died sometime in the late 1950's or early 1960's in a house fire.  As I recall, he woke up to find his gas water heater had gone out and when he struck a match the room had apparently filled with natural gas and exploded.  He once brought me a little, brown, bob tailed puppy he had found at an illegal roadside dump when he stopped to relieve himself. He was hauling the dog along in his car looking for someone to give it to because he just couldn't leave it to die at the dump.  I called the dog Tarzan but can't ever remember the salesman's name.  

Another traveling salesman, I saw a lot of and liked a lot was Jack Childers who was self employed as a meat salesman out of Prestonsburg.  Very few country stores attempted to sell fresh meat and only sold frozen meat plus some bacon and cold cuts such as bologna.  Jack came up Beaver once a week in an old refigerated utility truck much like a wholesale ice cream truck.  He was talkative, friendly, and full of information.  Jack lived not far from the site of the Floyd County School Bus Wreck and another of his customers was a couple who ran a country store and lost all their children in the wreck.  Jack brought us a great deal of information about the wreck, the search for the victims, and the lingering after effects on the survivors.  My parents seemed to have a closer link to that couple because of their shared profession and shared suppliers.  I was also the same age as many of the children on the bus.  We had other salesmen who supplied that couple and our store as well.  However, most of the others just didn't seem to invest themselves into a human relationship with those grieving parents the way Jack did. 

For me, the traveling salesmen represented a doorway to the outside world, travel, extended human contact, and people and places I had not seen.  They were an invaluable source of information for an inquisitive, talkative boy who longed to learn more about the world.  They were usually good talkers, friendly, interesting, and funny.  It was a hard job to be a traveling salesman.  But just like the men who influenced me to sell and many I sold with later, I enjoyed every day I ever spent driving or walking the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia selling a variety of items. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know several dozen other country stores in both states. Living and working in a country store was a good life.  But it was bland compared to the life of the men who jumped in a car or truck five or six days a week, spent their time in different counties or states every day, and knew hundreds or thousands of people over a wide geographic area.  They always knew the most current gossip, who had died, who got married, who bought a registered bull or a fancy coon hound, who had a baby, who got arrested, who went broke, and any other news worth hearing.  

My very first memory is of my father holding me in his arms at the window of our store on Steele's Creek in the middle of the night watching a neighbor's house burn.  I admit that is an odd first memory.  But most of my earliest memories are set in one of the two stores we ran.  Late in the evening, especially in winter, men would gather in from all around the neighborhood and tell stories in front of the old natural gas stove.  No, our stores didn't have a pot bellied stove.  I knew a few that did but not ours.  We would sometimes split the shell on chestnuts and place them on the front of the old ceramic burner stove to roast.  But the best part was listening to my father and the other older men tell stories of the times when they were young, and Knott County had no paved roads.  They talked about hunting, fishing, farming, logging, coal mining, politics, and unionism.  I learned a lot from some of those fellows too.  I learned that you always plant crops and castrate livestock by the signs. I learned that you never keep a chicken killing dog.  I learned that you never cross a picket line and nothing is lower than a scab.  I learned how Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman saved the world.  I learned that a straddle pole is nearly as low as a scab.  For the uninitiated, a straddle pole is a person who crosses party lines to vote.  I learned how to be a Yellow Dog Democrat and I have never forgotten.  I learned what a Hoover Box and Hoover Times and a Hooverville were and I learned who caused all of them.  But Hoover Boxes kept a lot of poor people alive during the depression.  They are a homemade box trap, made from chicken wire or wood, baited and set out to catch possums, ground hogs, rabbits, and coons to prevent starvation.  For those of you who don't know the song, listen to Tom T. Hall's "Don't Forget The Coffee, Billy Joe".  It never mentions a Hoover Box.  But it says an awful lot about the times and attitudes I am talking about. 

As I said early in this posting, there are very few real country stores today.  There are many who still claim to run country stores.  The old country stores sold you a bologna and cracker sandwich not a pizza or chicken wings.  The owners knew they were running a store and never tried to make it a restaurant.  They never crossed lines.  They generally never endorsed candidates in politics but allowed all candidates to leave their campaign materials on the counter and stapled to the outside walls beside every body else's.  They sold fifty pound buckets of lard, onion sets, seed potatoes, brogan shoes, Levis, horse shoes, and nails.  They let people charge a month at a time and most of the people paid.  They might from time to time let you sell a few food stamps or pay your bill with them.  It might have been illegal but it kept their neighbors afloat and that is much of what they were about.  Very few owners of country stores ever got rich.  But most died with hundreds of friends who remembered times their children would have starved without the store owner's generosity. 

Photo of A Country Store

There were several other country stores I was in on a fairly regular basis over the years.  Right above the store on Steele's Creek was a store  owned by Earl Manns.  Earl bought scrap metals which my parents and most other store owner's didn't do.  As teenagers, myself and my cousins Johnny and Jack Terry often sold a little  scrap metal to Earl when we could find it.  Right beside our store on Beaver Creek was another owned by Miles and Alta Hall.  For several years, Alta and two of her daughters also ran the Dema Post Office.  I am not directly related to Miles and Alta but one of their sons is my uncle by marriage, Edgar Hall.  One of my mother's brothers, Mabry Hicks, married Alta's sister Hazel Layne.  Another of my mother's sisters, Eva Hicks, had a son with Hazel and Alta's brother Milt Layne.  It is interesting that two families could have intermarried and intermingled so much and I am still not directly related to most of them.  Right up Beaver Creek about two miles, Silas Slone ran another small store for many years.  Silas and his wife had no children and their store died when they became too old to run it.  Silas had two unmarried sisters who also ran a store for many years on Caney Creek about four or five miles from ours. 

I can only think of four genuine, or nearly genuine country stores left in the entire nation today.  I have added the link to Hog Island Cottages And Country Store in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan not far from Mackinac Bridge.  They have a website, a liquor license, and rental cabins which all says they aren't a real country store.  But they sell smoked fish and a few years ago when I was there their coolers, shelves, and display cases were about the same models as the ones my parents were using in the 1950's.  It is well worth visiting if you are ever in the Upper Peninsula.  They also sold me the first pastie I ever ate.  A pastie is a fried meat, rutabaga, carrot, and potato pie which the Welsh iron ore miners used to carry into the mines in the area.  They are awesome, rib sticking food, and where else can you buy food which contains rutabagas.  Near Cannel City, Kentucky, on Highway 191 at the Junction of Highway 1000, is the Caney Valley Grocery run by Roger Finch.  It also sells pizza and chicken wings and has a tanning bed which says it isn't a real country store.  But it is located in an old two story store building that is nearly a hundred years old with some display cases and shelves close to that era.  Roger is also in the antique business and the store is filled with hundreds of items, in addition to the groceries, which go all the way back to the days of the  genuine, early country stores. Plus, Roger Finch, his family, and their employees are all so friendly that they compensate for the drawbacks.  It is well worth visiting.  The third store I want to mention, I don't even know for sure if it's still operating.  But the last time I drove from Whitesburg to Harlan over Cumberland Mountain there was a store in operation there which had been in a family for three generations, had all the original shelves and display cases, didn't sell pizza or chicken wings, and smelled and felt and looked like it was about 1955.  If it's still there let me know and go buy something to help keep it open.
The fourth country store I know of is the Family Market #2 on US23 between Ulysses and Louisa in Lawrence County Kentucky.  It is owned by Bob and Dianne Castle who also own a couple of others in Lawrence, Martin, and Johnson Counties.  They run a deli which makes the best bologna sandwich in Kentucky.  As of 2013, you can buy a loaded bologna and cheese sandwich there for about $2.00 which is a phenomenal price for a couple of slices of bologna, bread, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayonnaise.  I stop there nearly every time I visit my cousin in Lawrence County and recently and auctioneer friend of mine from Huntington told me he also stops there for a bologna sandwich when he is on the road in Eastern Kentucky.  The Castles also sell a few antiques and a lot of the older, more rural, and less common items that aren't found at Seven Eleven.  It is also well worth a stop if you find yourself on US23 in Lawrence County Kentucky.  Now go out and find your own favorite country store and send me a message about it. 

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