The development of “graded roads” (improved rural roads maintained by county crews using motorized equipment) changed the way that country folk bought basic necessities. Country stores soon dotted the landscape, usually at crossroads sites. They often were central parts of rural communities along with schools and churches.
Earlier, rural residents bought and sold during occasional trips to town or cities. Passable roads and bridges were scarce and distances often were great. A quick trip to town for some item was impractical or impossible. However, traveling a few miles to the country store was easy.
Why crossroads locations? Well, that made the store centrally-located for people living five or six miles in all directions, a drive of 10-15 minutes even on muddy, sandy or “washboard” roads.
My earliest memory of a crossroads store is of its gas pump. Customers told the owner how much gasoline they wanted. The store owner used a hand-levered pump to fill a glass reservoir at the top of the tank. The reservoir was marked by lines that measured gallons up to a maximum of 10 gallons. (Who could afford more than that?) A hose from the reservoir drained the fuel into customers’ vehicles.
Country stores were a bit like general stores, offering a range of goods, but only a few carried clothing and shoes (AKA dry goods). Their inventory reflected the needs of their customers, the “staples” of everyday life: flour, salt, sugar, canned and dried vegetables and fruit.
Since most such stores pre-dated rural electrification, one of the most important commodities was kerosene to fuel indoor lamps and lanterns for outdoor activities. In addition to its use as fuel, it could be splashed on the blade of a crosscut saw to counteract the gummy effects of tar from pine logs.
Our most frequented crossroad store, owned by Mr. Silas McLain, had an unusual feature. It had a modicum of electricity, enough to run a few lights hanging by cords from the ceiling. The source of power was a bank of batteries regularly recharged by a small gasoline-driven generator, labeled “the Delco” by Mr. Silas. I once was allowed to watch him fire it up after the lights inside the store began to dim.
For children, the most important things in the store were treats: cold drinks, candy, chewing gum, packaged crackers and moon pies. Drinks were kept cold in insulated containers with plenty of chipped ice. It seems that all of the drink boxes were supplied by Coca-Cola, colored red and sporting the iconic Coca-Cola sign on the side. However, the bottles inside held drinks of all sorts. The favorite of most boys was RC (Royal Crown) Cola, with 10 ounces of refreshment in contrast with six ounces for Coke and eight for the fruit-flavored drinks from Nehi. There were other 10-ounce “belly washers,” including one named Upper Ten and Pepsi before its makers changed to a more sophisticated product identity.
A trip to the store was a big deal for country kids, not as big as going to town but still big. Money, small in amount and hard-earned by field work or “putting in” tobacco, was invested in treats after careful calculation of pleasure. Thus, a 10-ounce RC. The largest side dish was the moon pie, two large sweet cookies sandwiching a sweet core and sealed with a wax-like, slightly chocolatey frosting. Not gourmet food but filling. So, the country song goes, “Give me an RC Cola and a moon pie...” Most ladies and the “girly” girls drank Coca-Cola with crackers or a candy bar. Bottle tops provided a side sport for boys who sailed them like tiny frisbees, vying for distance and style.
There were seasonal differences in inventory in country stores. Even with the coming of electricity, the buildings were not designed for air conditioning. The high temperatures of summer emptied the shelves of semi-perishable things like cheese and most chocolate candies. Somehow, heat did not seem to affect moon pies.
Often things cost more at country stores than they did in stores in town. Limited volume of business and loss due to spoilage affected prices. Owners who extended credit (run bills) to farmers ran considerable financial risk and sometimes endured considerable loss. Higher prices could be justified but eventually contributed to the demise of country stores.
The end of World War II ushered an era of unprecedented prosperity. Farm to market highways were paved, making trips to town quicker and easier. Stores in town offered more things at lower prices. Not only was there more money to be made from crops and salaries, but sources of credit were more readily available. Children had more options than choices among soda pops, crackers, candies and moon pies. In town, they had these and more: fountain Cokes, ice cream cones, milkshakes and the picture show.
Country stores did not close down immediately. Some had favorable locations or faithful customers who came to “just visit” more than buy. However, in time, most closed, although a few can still be found. The buildings, no longer in use, can still be seen, reminders of a time when life ebbed and flowed differently.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.