Monday, December 9, 2013
Christmas Hospitality In Appalachia
An Interesting Evening In Menifee County Kentucky
This past Saturday, December 7, 2013, my wife Candice and I took a trip from our home in White Oak, Morgan County Kentucky down US460 into Frenchburg, KY, the county seat of Menifee County to post some handbills for an upcoming auction. Along the way, we stopped at nearly every kind of business one can find in a small county in Kentucky or in Appalachia in general for that matter. Altogether, the trip was probably about 80 miles since it is roughly 35 miles from our home to Frenchburg and we took a bit of a side trip to Cannel City on our way home. We spent the biggest part of the afternoon on this trip, had a ball, and experienced one heartwarming dose of Appalachian hospitality like I had not seen in a while. We put out a few handbills along the way and came to the Oldfield Farm Store and Mize, KY, post office where we once again saw a US Post Office being run inside a privately owned business which does not happen much anymore. Mize is one of the small post offices which came up for possible closing last year as the post office management tried to complete a plan by which it can become profitable again. But, like many other small post offices across the country, Mize escaped the budget axe at least for the present.
After a brief stop at Mize, we travelled on west into Menifee County. Along the way, I reminded Candice of a place just across the county line which we had visited several years ago known as the Swamp Valley Museum. It had been run for about 50 years by a man named Clayton Wells who also had several old log buildings full of assorted antiques along with his country store. Clayton Wells is now dead and I told Candice the store was probably closed. But as we rounded the curve, I saw wood smoke coming from the store chimney and surmised that maybe Clayton's children were continuing to run the store. We pulled in and I walked inside just as I would have in the past only to find that the store was actually closed and now being used by his children, widow, and other younger descendants as a family gathering place. But I was invited inside the store anyway by Clayton's son, Gary Wells, a former deputy coroner of Menifee County and current member of the volunteer fire department. There was a large number of the family in the old building which has been kept just as it was when Clayton was alive. There was a large cast iron Dutch oven full of homemade beef soup steaming on the wood stove and Gary Wells, the cook, quickly invited us to have a bowl. I told him I would have to check with Candice, who is in a wheelchair, to see if she was interested. Candice usually stays in the van when I am making short stops rather than make the effort to get in and out of buildings which are not handicapped accessible. It turns out she was interested in going inside and eating with the Wells Family and Gary and one of his brothers helped me get her up the single step & through the door into the store. The family made room for us, passed out paper bowls & plastic spoons for the soup, and gave us both a cold Ale 8 One, the national soft drink of Eastern Kentucky. Ale 8 One is a mild ginger ale made exclusively in Winchester, KY, not far from Frenchburg & is drunk daily by thousands of Appalachian Kentuckians. It probably deserves a separate post at some time in the future since it is a Kentucky institution. The store, although it is just as it was the last time I was there in about 2001, is no longer operating. This was a family gathering in a place that is near and dear to their hearts and which had become a shrine dedicated to family memories. But they still invited two strangers in, fed us, talked for about an hour about country stores, antiques, local politics, family life in Appalachia, and a dozen other topics just like we were all old friends. They even allowed us to bring our 13 year old Dachshund, Giggles, into the store too. She walked around in the floor along with a small great grandchild of Clayton Wells and was ignored just as if she was also a member of the family. The soup was great. The hospitality was a wonderful reminder of how people all across Appalachia used to treat strangers. It reminded me of many visits I made as a traveling salesman or simply a traveler to many stores and homes across Appalachia in the last 60 years. It also reminded me of how many times I had seen my parents doing the same thing in our country store in the 1950's & 1960's. The experience was a bright spot near Christmas which showed us the Christmas spirit as it had been long ago and may well never be very often again. We enjoyed it greatly and I will post some photos in the near future of the Swamp Valley Museum and Store since I did not have my camera with me. Perhaps in the spring I will go back on a Saturday when I can find the family in and take photographs for a while.
For now I will let a description suffice. The store is a small wood frame structure with a low porch in front. Nearly every square inch of the building is covered with vintage to antique advertising and political signs. The parking lot is slightly graveled and gets muddy in wet weather. There is an old wire corn crib right beside the store and a fine old log house full of antiques which used to serve as the Swamp Valley Museum about 75 feet downstream on the side of the parking lot. It is fine place to visit although it is no longer being operated commercially and I would not expect the Wells Family to always be this hospitable to the random stranger. But it is a fitting reminder of life in general stores in Appalachia when I was a child.
When we started back home, we took a side trip to Cannel City, KY, to stop in at the Caney Valley Grocery which I have mentioned in this blog in the past. It is an old wood frame two story store, still being operated by Roger Finch and family and also filled with antiques. I was pleased to see a small display case full of vintage to antique patent medicines on the top shelf in the store to protect it from too many hands. I had sold Roger Finch most of the patent medicines a few weeks ago and he was so enamored with them he brought the antique display case down from the upstairs antique shop to display them. They include Dr. Drake's Glesco, Old Settler water treatment, Cloverine Salve, and several other items no longer on sale anywhere. Altogether, it was a fine day on the road in Appalachia and I cannot wait to do it again. I highly recommend a day long drive along US460 in Eastern Kentucky anytime one can find the time. The remaining two lane sections of the highway contain some very interesting places to stop, visit, take a few photographs, talk a while, and occasionally see a bit of the Appalachia I remember from my childhood. US460 runs all across Kentucky from the Virginia border in Pike County to the intersection with US60 in Frankfort. It is well worth spending a day or three driving all the remaining two lane sections in a leisurely trip to see a few reminders of life as it used to be. At some point in the future, I will try to write a longer post about US460 in the My Favorite Places In Appalachia collection. But for now I just hope it is also one of your favorite places.