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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Growing Up in a Country Store


Colonial Bread is Good Bread, most stores had screen doors provided by Colonial Bread Company.
When people ask me where I grew up, I often tell them, “In the back of a country store.” While that is partly true, my parents didn’t simply begin in the store business when I was born. It wasn’t until I was about eleven when they bought the south grocery store (there were two stores at times) in Taberville, but the store came to define my childhood.
Mom and Dad early in their life.

My parents, Lloyd and Mada, had survived the Great Depression, an event and a time that profoundly defined the rest of their lives. They were married November 17, 1934, just weeks after my grandfather James Edward Harper unexpectedly passed away. Because of his death, they cancelled their plans for a simple church wedding and instead eloped, being married at the home of a pastor friend. Their first years together were spent trying to eke out a living on a rented farm outside Johnson City, MO near my grandparents Long. My parents describe those years as the lowest times of their lives. Crops failed, drought decreased the garden to a patch of turnips and the only livestock they had were a few chickens and some hogs. Mother always claimed all they had to eat were turnips and salt pork their first two years together, two foods she despised for the rest of her life.

My parents had run a store soon after starving out on the farm, in Iuka Springs, south of Johnson City, but not owning the building, had to move on when the owners sold the building. They moved to Tabverville, a slightly larger and more prosperous town than Johnson City - Taberville had 50 citizens, Johnson City had 12. My father drove a stock truck for awhile, hauling farmers’ grain and livestock to town. My mother taught school for a couple of years and did sewing for people. After I was born she stayed at home with me and sewed cloth toys and crocheting, items she sold through a shop in Nevada, MO. They rented out a bedroom to boarders from time to time, providing sleeping space and 2 meals a day for road construction crews. When the Taberville store business was offered to them by Roy Dody, who had been running it, they decided to go back into the grocery business. They borrowed money and opened the store.
My parents on the front porch of their store.

The store building was owned by the Taberville Masonic Lodge # 419. It was a two story brown brick building, the lodge hall in the second story, grocery store below. The walls were not insulated in any way, just brick, the ceilings high and the store was difficult to cool in summer and impossible to keep warm in winter. There was no indoor plumbing, no running water, and no well. Water for hand washing had to be carried in buckets from home, bathroom facilities was an outhouse next to the building that housed animal feed. The Masonic Lodge refused to modernize the building, would not agree to any changes nor the drilling of a well. Their stance was, “if you don’t like the building, we’ll rent it to someone else.” My parents put up with conditions that would today seem impossible to live with.

Customers monthly charges were kept in a register under the counter.

Taberville was surrounded on all sides by farms and farm families and everyone in the community came to the store on a regular basis. Because a store in those days was expected to stock just about anything a farm family might need, the list of items my parents stocked was extensive. Boots, socks, overhauls, children’s’ ladies’ and mens’ underwear, gloves, tires, animal feed, salt blocks, seasonal gift items, over-the-counter drugs and first-aid, along with fresh meat, cheese, bologna, watches, produce and canned goods. Stocking shelves was an endless activity, one I could barely stand to do. Because the floor was concrete and very difficult to keep clean with floor sweet, the shelves required constant dusting, another disagreeable job.
My father, mother and me at the front counter.

The store was also the main social gathering place in town. Everyone, regardless of age, passed through our store with regularity. Workers going to work in a nearby town stopped for supplies or a candy bar and cigarettes. School children stopped in on their way to and from school for school supplies or ice cream. Farmers, whose days were filled with the work of raising crops and tending animals, came to town in the evening. The wives, sometimes worn down by days of gardens, cooking for farm hands and canning, came, too. They’d come at dark, after their chores were done and often eat something in the store. My parents made sandwiches out of the deli case upon request. Some people were content with a bottle of pop and a candy bar, anything for a change of pace from their own cooking.

Every day, six days a week, my father opened the store at 7:00 a.m. My mother would finish up the breakfast dishes, do housework, then arrive at 8:00. Most days they would close the store at 6:30 in the evening, but on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, they kept the store open until 9:00 p.m. for farmers who couldn’t get to town during daylight. Because people would predictably knock on our door at home on Sunday morning for some item they’d forgotten during the week and my father would obligingly open the store, he began keeping Sunday hours, as well, 8:00 to noon.

The front porch of the store had a long, wooden bench and a couple of nail kegs and in summer people would gather there to visit. Old men took up residence there on a daily basis, bored, just wanting someone to talk to. In the evening, because the store had no windows that opened for air, patrons and my parents sat outside on the porch, as well. But in winter, the spit and whittle bunch gathered around the old gas heating stove in the back of the store. Up front, near the cash register and counter upon which it sat, were 2 old wooden folding chairs and those were often occupied day and evening. Not by my parents but by people who just came to socialize. It was often a frustration to my parents that people would come and sit for hours at a time, taking up space and my parents patience and energy, and sometimes not buy anything but a ten cent bottle of pop.

There was no place to sit for my parents. The store’s concrete floor was painfully hard and they had to stand, eight, ten, twelve or more hours a day. There simply wasn’t room behind the counter for a chair or stool, and since the folding chairs were always occupied, my parents stood. On winter nights when it got dark at 5:30 and farmers and their wives came to town, the old chairs, pop cases on end, even the counter, had people sitting for hours at a time. My parents would stand and patiently listen to stories, carry groceries to peoples’ cars, socialize, all the while wishing people would go home so they could close. There are more nights that I can remember when people would stay, sitting, talking, long hours after closing time. My parents never said, “We’re closing now” as they thought that rude. Instead they stayed, feet and backs hurting, wishing for supper, anxious for bed.

As a young teenager I bored quickly of the life in the store. Sometimes I’d sit and listen to the older people tell stories but usually in wintertime I had homework to do. I hated homework but I hated going home to an empty house even more, so my habit was to sit in the back of the store on the piles of sacks of pecans that were waiting to be trucked away, and do my homework. I was within earshot of people and activity, but far enough away that I wasn’t distracted from my math and reading assignments.

In the summer my escape was delivering groceries on my bicycle. The little town of Taberville was made up mostly of retired farmers who had moved to town in their old age. There were a couple of families with kids but those were older than me, so I felt like the only kid in town. The older widow ladies would call the store and make an order for groceries and my mother would tell me who they were to be delivered to. There wasn’t any charge for the service but the treat for me was getting out of store duties and getting to visit with old ladies who liked flowers, remembered stories and who sometimes would feed me cookies or a piece of pie they had saved just for me. Delivering a bag of groceries two blocks away, by bike, would take me about two hours or longer, much to my mother’s displeasure.

My parents worked very hard running their store business. In the back of their minds, there was always the memory of the Depression days, of their first years of nearly starving and of having failed at farming. It caused them to be frugal in ways that seem silly today - saving aluminum pie pans, for instance. Or of sewing patches upon patches on bed sheets rather than buying new ones. I wore homemade shirts to school and by the time I was in high school, I was embarrassed when I would splurge and buy myself a new, not-made-at-home shirt with my own money, earned from summer jobs.
Mom and Dad, late in life, after retirement.

I learned my work ethic from my parents. In grade school I would buy penny candy from my father at his wholesale price of 60 cents for a box of 100 pieces, for which I charged my school mates a penny a piece, netting a profit of 40 cents. I mowed lawns for neighbors, I worked in the hay field for farmers, raking hay and bucking bales into the barn. I cooked in a local restaurant on weekends. I learned to work because that’s what my parents did, all day, every day. Even on holidays, work at home for them was the garden, canning and freezing, keeping some cattle or shetland ponies which they sold.

So that question, when it arrises of, “Where did you grow up? can pretty much be summed up, “In the back of an old country store.” It was a hard life, sometimes fun, rewarding in that it provided us with a living. It was a time and a place that no longer exists but remains part of may peoples’ history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story on your early life Jim. I feel privlidged to know you and be a friends with you. You have taught me alot and I love coming out and see your gardens. Wishing you and Josh a very Merry Christmas.
Marc