If you grew up in the small communities that dotted the South, then you probably have fond memories of the ol’ country store. Whether it was a trip to get a soda pop and candy or just to look at some much wished for treasures, it was always an exciting time. Hard earned money left your hands, but returned itself in a seemingly scarce, much desired item.
The country store was the back bone of many a community. Not only did they bring in much needed items to rural areas, but they were also a main social establishment. If you had the best of luck or overwhelming tragedy, there was no Facebook to post it, so the store was the main place to gather some advice, some sympathy, or just a little help.
Games of checkers always waited on the porch, along with the liars bench. A sympathetic ear waited behind the register and if you visited the right store, maybe a drink of two of comfort might be found out back.
It was common for country stores to run a tab or credit for most of their customers. This was extremely beneficial for those surviving on seasonal work such as farming. During the winter months when no crops could be harvested, and most of the farm battened down for the cold weather, this line of credit often meant the difference in a families survival.
To help with these bills there was a little money or trade to be made by the customer too. Women sold or traded eggs, butter and even picked geese for their feathers, to earn a little extra income. Children trapped rabbits, killed squirrels, and gathered medicinal herbs and plants to sell or even picked berries. These would be purchased by the storekeeper who in turn resold them for a profit.
Storekeepers were everywhere as stores were everywhere. Industry was basically non-existent and that left mainly farming and what other inventive ways that could be thought of, so running a store seemed worth a try to many. There was the regular store which might have a wide assortment of items to the jot ’em down store, which wasn’t very big and only basic items. Times began to change though and roads and transportation improved. The ol’ country store started to evolve too. But still through the years it kept it’s importance to the community.
It is with these thoughts in mind, that I feel inspired to give a salute to one specific storekeeper that lived in our area. This man helped many members of my family and community to make it through the hard winters and keep food for their children.
These people were not just his customers, they were also his neighbors and friends.
He was known by everyone as Alt. Alt operated two different stores in our area. The first store he opened and operated for several years, but closed after it was said more people asked him to “put it on my tab” than ever told him, “I came to pay my tab”. Not to be outdone, Alt worked at other pursuits for awhile and then went a few miles up the road and opened another store. The tales from Alt’s are still legendary amongst the older crowd to this day.
Storage was tight in the new store and all extra inventory was just sitting in the main part of the store. On cold winter nights, when the old cast iron stove would warm it up to hot temperatures, the sodas would begin to pop too. The tops would pop off of them and Alt would be forced to hand them out to loafers (people who came for the social aspects of the store and bought little, but stayed for hours). Knowing some of the loafers that hung out at Alt’s, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that they put a few more logs in the fire than were required or that they pushed the drinks closer to the fire. A cold drink wasn’t to be had at the ol’ country store except for winter time when you could put your drink in the snow.
Another unique feature at Alt’s store that emphasizes the difference in then and now was there was a pole in the store that turned around. It seemed one of the poles that made up the store so no one knew why it turned around, but when the loafers got bored it made for some good sport as someone hung a target on it and then they spun it around and shot at it with their rifles. Apparently, there were not so many safety regulations at this time.
Alt’s was always a place for entertainment and one of the best stories that circulates our area is when chief practical joker Avery Hanks and some of his cronies decided to play a joke on Alt. Avery found one of the raccoon fur coats from the 20’s and decided to do his best bear imitation. So after dark when Alt was locking up and heading for his home, the bear appeared in the shadow, growling and doing what bears do. Poor Alt, set off running to his home which was behind the store. Deciding he didn’t have enough time to make it in the door he begin to circle his house still running. After about the third trip around his house Alt called out to his wife, who was inside the house, “I’m going to make one more trip and when I come back around you have the door open for me.” In the end the bear was revealed and a laugh was had by all. Alt was a forgiving man.
So in my reminiscing, I want to say a big thank you to Alt and the many other storekeepers who made such a difference in the growth and development of our mountain home. Some of them could be considered the unsung heroes of our country for store keeping was often a thankless job, that netted little or no profit.