Missing those old country stores
by Jack Ward Skinner
Back in the 1940s, young kids got three whole months off for the summer, though a lot of teens found summer jobs of mowing lawns or working in the hay fields. Actually, more than three months off. We got, from the end of the 1st or 2nd week in May, all of June, July, and August off, then went back to school after Labor Day. And we sure had fun. But, after a couple of months, we began getting a little bored.
I think it was one of those times when Dad, up early in the morning, said, “You want to go with me today?” Now folks, rules and regulations were a lot more lenient back in those days. You could actually go visit a relative in another school, and spend the day. Or, you could go to work with a parent. The term, “shadowing”, had not been developed yet, so it was not just one certain day; you could go just about any day.
My Dad, back in the 1940s and early 50s, drove a Sinclair Oil Truck. Plus, before Perry Johnson bought the business, he worked out of the Fredericktown Milling Company office. This part of the business was known as The Home Oil Company. Mr. Whitener and Mr. Thompson were the owners. There was a fleet of drivers, but only two gas truck drivers: My Dad and Joe Dunn. The other drivers were ‘over-the-road’ drivers, delivering flour and feed.
Although gasoline was cheap back then, during the War, it was rationed, so farmers didn’t spend any more fuel than they had to. Plus, with the coming of the automobile a few decades earlier, people in rural areas needed a closer source of fuel than driving all the way to Fredericktown. As a result, little stores sprang up all across the county (as with other counties). These stores carried the necessities of milk and bread, and can goods of all sorts.
In addition, they, usually set up a couple of gas pumps out front, or in a separate building next door. This building supplied regular and ethyl gas in two, gravity pumps. Also, inside, there would be a large box, full of oil, with a crank on top, and a measuring can nearby. There were only single grades of oil, no 10w-40 stuff back then.
Also, on one side of the store, you might find a separate room where feed, flour and grain were kept in one hundred-pound bags, or, as they were called back then, “toe sacks”.
So, when Dad asked me if I wanted to go with him that day, there was no hesitation. I knew I was in for a treat. The question was, “Which places would we go?”
So, I, quickly, threw on my clothes, ate a quick breakfast, and was ready to go. Mother had packed a lunch for Dad in his old black, lunch bucker. I didn’t have one, so she packed mine in a paper bag. And off we went.
Dad parked his truck in the back yard of where we lived, so it was a quick access, climb the running board, and hoist myself up in that big, tall seat. Boy, I would be sitting so high I could see forever. Having an imagination helped, too. Then, we were off, to North Town, where the milling company was located. Dad would go into the office and get his orders. Next, we would drive about a block up the street where the large storage tanks were located. He would hook up big hoses to the truck, through hatches on the top, and fill the tanks. Then, after all the filling was done, we returned to the milling company, and they loaded 100-pound sacks of feed on the sides of the oil truck.
And then, we were off. Following are some of the little country stores that we made trips to, though not all in one day. Buckhorn, Little Vine, Jewett, Patton, Castor Station, Mill Creek, Cornwall, Higdon, Oak Grove, Twelve Mile, Gregory’s (South on Hwy 67), Mine La Motte, Liberty Ville, Roselle, and Marquand, though I never made any trips with him to Marquand. And, I am, probably, missing some from back then. Sorry if I left one out.
Several of those old stores had tin ceilings with ornate designs, similar to what is in the Olympic Café in Fredericktown. Some of the walls were wall-papered, but a lot of them were 4-inch, tongue-in-groove, walls with oiled wood floors. A few items might have been sitting out in the middle of the floor, but all can goods, sugars, flours and coffees, and such, were lined up on shelves behind a counter. You had to ask the clerk for what you wanted. The counters always had an old fashioned, manual adding machine with a crank handle on the side that was pulled down with each purchase; if you bought 5 cans of something, the clerk had to pull the handle down 5 times, once for each can.
Also, on one end of this counter would be a glass case, some with a curved, glass front, and all kinds of hard candies and candy bars inside, maybe even a row of Cracker Jack popcorn. To compliment this, on the other side of the room would be a big red or yellow cooler. Sodas in glass bottles would be sitting in this cooler, along with about 6-8 inches of water, and a chunk of ice that was delivered by an ice truck a few times each week. Also, in back, there might be an upright cooler, chilled with another block of ice, to keep milk and butter in. Later, when electricity came to rural areas in the mid-50s, electric coolers replaced the old ice boxes. Electricity replaced the old kerosene (some used the term “coal oil”) lamps that had hung on the side walls. Now, a cloth-wrapped electric cord hung from the ceiling with one light bulb on the end.
Of course, this renaissance with electricity was happening in farm houses, too, all across the land, but the main source of heating in those old stores was either a cast-iron stove, or one made out of tin, that sat right in the middle of the floor in the winter time. It was possible to find a couple of wooden chairs, or even a wooden bench, circling the heating stove as the local patrons, with more time off in the winter, dropped by to “chew-the-fat” with others that were like-minded. These topics ranged from the pros and cons of Roosevelt in the White House, how the New Deal was working out, the War situation, Old Age Pension, if winter wheat was looking good, or if the Cardinals were going to win again, or if the St. Louis Browns would trade with the Yankees. This latter topic of baseball around those stoves gave rise to the term, “hot stove league”, where people all over the country traded players they didn’t have, and spent someone else’s money like it was going out of style.
I think my favorite of all these stores was the one at Castor Station. At the time, it was owned by Lee Gregory. It had all the features described above. Also, like many of the other stores, it had a great front porch, with benches out there to accommodate the local philosophers.
But there was a smell that came with those old stores. Of course, in the winter, you might detect wood smoke from the stove in the center of the floor. But, at other times, there was a pleasant oder that I never get in today’s modern stores. I don’t know what it was----maybe the oiled floors. Store owners used to get bags of treated (oiled) sawdust, which they scattered all around the wood flooring in the morning, then would sweep it up. This helped to keep the dust down.
Castor Station had a separate building for their gas and oil. The store was located at the south end of a steel bridge over the Castor River, on Highway 61; it is now a private dwelling. On the side of the hill, toward the river, a flat place had been carved out and a professional croquet court was set up; that was a popular activity back in those times. Also, people, sometimes, parked on the end of the gravel parking lot and walked down to the creek for swimming and picnicking. On Saturday night, in the summer, it was common to have square dances out front of the store.
The owners lived on one side of the store, so, closing time varied. Also, there were times when something was needed, or something in an emergency, and Lee could always go into the store to fill that need. Highway 61 ran right in front of the store, and travelers might stop for refreshments or to fill their gas tanks.
When I would go with Dad to Castor Station, he would pump the fuel into the station’s storage tanks. While this happened, he would get the store’s dolly, and wheel the sacks of feed and flour into a storage room on the side of the store. He had frequent back problems from lifting those hundred-pound sacks of feed off the side of the oil truck. But that was part of the job.
In the meantime, I would saunter into the store, and begin eyeing the candy counter. There were so many good choices, it was hard to decide on just one. But one would be the limit, and I cherished that piece of candy until it was gone. I worked with a fellow, one time, that said, when he was a kid, they had wooden barrels, full of crackers, sitting in the middle of the floor. He could buy one stick of peppermint candy and all the crackers he could hold in one hand, for a penny. I never did find any of those bargains. He must have been before my time. Norman Rockwell immortalized the pot-bellied stoves in those old stores with a painting of two, older gentlemen, sitting opposite an upturned keg, with a checkerboard on top, enjoying the surroundings of the local meeting place.
And, that’s what they were—the local meeting place. Sometimes, during an election, if there was no local school house to vote in, people went there to vote. During WWII, the latest information was shared there, and information of a personal nature, too. “Have the Smiths heard from Lowell yet?”, “I heard Ralph was missing, but then turned out okay.” “That was too bad about that Jones boy. He was a good kid, a hard worker.” “Heard the price of hogs went up yesterday. Might be the time to sell.” “Where’d ya hear that?” “Ted Mangner’s Farm Report on KMOX this morning.” “Heard that Paul and his wife had a ‘nother young’n. That makes about 5, doesn’t it?” “Hey, did ya hear that the Castor Frogs beat that bunch from Saco Sunday afternoon. Close game.”
But for those who chose to spit and whittle, there was that bench out front. It wasn’t encouraged, because the highway, passing right in front of the store, brought frequent visitors and tourist in for a visit. But it wasn’t banned, either.
At least, one store I know of, the Oak Grove store, had a ball diamond in the field across the highway from the store. As local crowds gathered, it was just a hop-skip-and-a-jump to run across the road to the store and get a bottle of soda, or a cool ice cream bar.
And I mentioned the square dances on Saturday nights. Now that was a thing to see. You had to slow down when driving through that part of Highway 61 (now Hwy 72), because cars were parked everywhere, even along side of the highway. The reason? Castor Station’s parking lot had to be kept clear for the dancing. A fiddler and a guitar player always showed up from somewhere, and there was always someone to ‘Call’ the dance. These were just plain old farmers and families, coming to enjoy their fellowship. No fancy costumes. The women in pretty print dresses, some made from feed sacks. The men in jeans or bib overalls. And those who did not square dance, sat around on rocks, car hoods, or just stood and watched, often clapping their hands to the music. With all the canning and plowing and harvesting, I don’t know where those dancers learned to move to all those calls: “Allamande left”, “Half Sashay”, “Dosado”, and off they would go.
Ah, but it was a simpler life. People, just getting together. And Castor Station, and all those other little country stores that became vocal points for rural areas, are gone now. Gravel roads turned to paved roads, making it easier to get to town. Big old clunky cars and trucks became sleek, streamlined vehicles, making traveling more desirable. With the coming of supermarkets in towns, people made the trip there, because volume buying made prices cheaper than the little stores. Full service, gas stations in town garnered the people who used to pump their own gas, and crawl under their own cars for grease jobs. And television’s dawning in the 50s meant everyone could get their own news.
Yes, I certainly miss those old country stores, the friendships, the fellowships, the smells, the stories. They have just ‘do-see-doed’ right on into history, to be forgotten by some, and never experienced by younger generations.
But I remember. And some of you do, too, I bet. Because we keep these things in our hearts.