Blog, memories

Country Store Memories, Part IV Final: Ruth Esther’s Store

If you look up the definition for a holler it will say something to the effect of it being a hollow or a valley in the mountains. A holler is much more than that. It is a community within or an offshoot of a larger community. Where I grew up, a holler was somewhat isolated, but populated with a close community. A holler has one way in and you must traverse the same road out.

Our holler was a little more open that some around where we lived, but it was definitely away from the central part of the Valley. At one time (before I remember) there was a small foot bridge that crossed the creek providing a shorter journey into the Valley itself. I believe it was washed out during a bad storm and never rebuilt. The walk into the Valley could be a 30 to 40 minute walk even by walking the railroad tracks which provdes a shorter path.

When the depot closed, Arthur’s store was still not such a long walk, but once he closed his store, that meant everyone in the holler would need to walk all the way to Clarence’s which was in the upper end of the Valley. I have no way of knowing if this is why Ruth Esther opened her store, but it was definitely closer than walking into the Valley.

Ruth Esther and Vernon (her husband) lived in a large white house at the crest of the last large hill before the road dipped down heading into the holler. (When we finally got bikes, climbing this gravel covered road might have been the place you would choose to get off and walk your bike to the top.) I believe Vernon built the bluish block building in front of their house which became the store.

I always loved Ruth Esther. If you read my earlier story about the train depot, you may remember she worked at the train depot when I was a child. I thought she was beautiful with her vivid red lipstick and her vivid red nails. She looked like a movie star to me. She was always well dressed and as I said, such a kind woman.

Writing these stories now makes me wonder what must have required to maintain these little stores and also manage a house and a farm. It could not have been easy, although I am not sure what, if any, regulations they may have been required to follow. Back then, however, this store made a nice halfway stopping point to get a cold drink or a snack heading to or from the holler.

The inventory was slim as I think the intent was to provide basic necessities. Unfortunately, the lack of necessary staples still forced people to go to Clarence’s store to get the supplies they needed. I cannot tell you how long the store was open, but it was short-lived in comparison to the other stores. The building still stands, echoing memories from the past.

The last I knew, Ruth Esther was still alive, living in the same house on top of that last hill heading into the holler.

Blog, memories

Country Store Memories, Part III: Clarence’s Store

You could divide the Valley into three parts, each divided by a bridge that crossed a creek. Clarence’s store was ‘above’ the orange Valley bridge. Even though it was the farthest for many residents, he carried more inventory than most.

Clarence’s store was an old wooden building. In the early days, he sold gasoline — the pump having three small plastic balls that floated around as the gas was pumped. Outside the store was a scattered array of old metal milk crates, turned upside down and used for makeshift stools.

Inside the store was a wooden counter with a base encased in glass. Clarence was almost always in the store, more often than not sitting around the old cast iron pot bellied stove where a game of checkers was always in play. This was the gathering spot and safe haven for the men in the Valley taking a break from the summer sun or the boredom associated with a cold winter and yapping women.

More often than not, you would find Clarence sitting in the back of the store jawing with someone when you entered the store. He would stand and meander over to the counter waiting for you to select your purchase.

The glass-front case protected the goodies from being handled by kids. These treats were usually things like horehound candy, licorice, Tootsie-Pops, Red Hots, Fireballs, Sugar Daddys, Mallow Cups, and Necco Wafers. On the counter were glass jars that contained individual cookies. There was often a cardboard display that contained Moon Pies and Nabs (Nabisco crackers).

Milk and drinks were kept in a cooler with doors than opened on a hinge from the top. Milk was often in glass jugs, produced by local farmers. The selections of pop ranged from King Cola (a local Virginia company), to Nehi Grape, Orange Crush, RC (Royal Crown), Mountain Dew (with its hillbilly graphics), Yoo-Hoo and Chocolate Soldiers (both chocolate drinks), and of course 7-Up. Oddly, I do not remember drinking much Pepsi or Coke. Trust me — pop pulled from one of those coolers was the coldest I’ve ever had! There was a bottle opener on the side so you could pop the top and drink your pop on the walk home.

Of course, Clarence sold things to adults, too. Corn meal and flour, a small selection of canned foods, bread, fishing lures and of course tobacco products (chewing tobacco, snuff, and cigarettes). Chewing tobacco was the favorite for many farmers and snuff was used by a lot of the older generation women.

Clarence spoke with a slow drawl. Once you made your selection, he would do his figuring on the side of an unfolded paper bag while he spoke as he computed: “2 and 2 is four, plus 7 is eleven carry the one.” It would all be written on the side of the bag he put your purchases in.

Clarence had the misfortune of living beside the store. I can remember so many times my grandmother saying “Go up and ask Clarence to open the store. I need some shortening.” Oftentimes, his wife, Mary Ellen, would open the store on these out of hour requests.

Almost everyone in the Valley had a tab at Clarence’s. I assume this was because people only got paid at harvest time, or perhaps at the end of the month when checks would come in. People were honest. No one would think about reneging on what they owed him. I liked Clarence. I can still see his face vividly.

When Clarence passed away, his son Eddie took over the store. It soon became “Eddie’s store” and a new block building was built beside the old store. The gas pumps were long gone, but the milk crates and checkerboard remained. Eddie passed away last year. It is hard to think this will be the end of such a long legacy.

Blog, memories

Country Store Memories, Part II: Arthur’s Store

My grandmother’s house was on the main road in the Valley. I am sure it must have had a county or state route number, but I never knew what it was.  The main road came to a dead end at another road. Arthur’s house was at this intersection – a small white house with a poured concrete porch. It was Arthur’s house I wrote about in a post about taking solace from the storm.

Arthur’s store was about halfway between my grandfather’s house and his house. I can still see him leaving his house in his denim overalls and walking down the road to the store. The building’s exterior was covered with brown asphalt shingles. On the front facade was a large tin sign that read “Say Pepsi Please” and a large illustration of a Pepsi bottle. There were lots of those old tin signs gracing the front of the building.

I do not remember Arthur as a particularly kind man. When my brother was young, he used to ‘tease’ him by telling him he was going to cut his ears off. He would reach in the pocket of his overalls and pull out his pocket knife. I guess he thought it was funny that my brother would cover his ears and run. Looking back, it was a terribly cruel thing to say to a child. I think he did something similar to my father when he grew up there.

Like many country stores, they were opened only when convenient for the owner. Any other work, like farming or chores around the house came first. If someone desperately needed something and the store was not open, it was common to go to their house, knock on the door and ask if they would open the store for you. Imagine doing that today.

Arthur’s store was not large. It consisted of a small rectangular room with a counter behind which Arthur stood. His image fades in and out as I try to remember him. I am sure we kids might have been a nuisance to him running in and out to buy candy because he never seemed particularly happy. Along the counter were glass jars filled with rectangular shaped coconut cookies which I loved. I am sure they probably cost about 2¢ each.

Beside the counter, Arthur had a chest freezer. The lid was hinged on the back, facing the customers and opened toward him. This is where he kept frozen items and for me that meant ice cream – a Nutty Buddy, a Push-Up or a Fudgsicle. My most vivid memory of his store was the day I went in to buy an ice cream. I was so excited!

When Arthur opened the freezer, it created an opening along the lid. As I waited for him to retrieve my ice cream, I inadvertently put my fingers in the crack created when he opened the freezer. When he had my treat, he let the freezer door drop onto all eight of my fingers. I screamed until he opened the lid. No broken bones – perhaps there was insulation around the lid of the freezer that protected me somewhat. What a memory!

When Arthur closed the store, he used the building for storage. At one time I think they may have used it to hang tobacco to dry. It was still standing the last time I went home unlike Arthur’s house which was eventually torn down.

Tomorrow I will introduce you to Clarence and his store. It was the men’s social gathering spot and the store that stayed operational the longest.

Blog, memories

Country Store Memories, Part I: The Train Depot

My memories of the depot are fuzzy.  A large wooden counter separated the open room from the merchandise. There may have been benches for people waiting on the train — I do not remember. The depot was also where everyone got their mail. A bank of individual bronze-faced rectangular boxes lined the back wall. Box numbers were assigned (ours was P.O. Box 23) snd mail was accessed by turning the small gold pointer back and forth entering the appropriate combination.

The main room was quite big and open with a long wooden counter behind which Ruth Esther worked.  She was a local resident, married to a farmer and raising three sons who looked like their father and a daughter who favored her. I thought she was beautiful with her bright red lipstick and bright red fingernails. We never saw people wear lipstick or paint their nails much in those days. She was filled with kindness with such a gentle manner. If I close my eyes, I can still see the little scrunch in her eyes when she smiled. Ruth Esther sold penny candy to the kids. That was my big takeaway. I honestly do not know what else they sold because I was only interested in the candy.

Uploaded by TeVe, Railway turnout – Oulu Finland, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Being a depot, there was a railway switch that could guide the trains to another track. For our community, the switch was used to route the trains off the track while stopped or as a holding place when the cars were not used. We loved it when that happened! That was a prime playground for us.

The resting railroad cars were never locked and there were never more than one or two cars parked at any given time. I have written before about the hours we spent playing there.

When the trains stopped carrying passengers, the depot closed. This would leave two stores in our little Valley and would inspire Ruth Esther to open her own. Join me tomorrow when I introduce you to Arthur who owned the store closest to my grandparent’s house.

Blog, Grandfather, memories

More on Pocket Knives

My Paternal Grandfather – Seated

Yesterday’s post about Swiss Army knives brought up a few memories of my paternal grandfather. I grew up in southwest Virginia, and all men carried a pocket knife. Young boys often received pocket knives as a coming of age gift for a birthday or maybe Christmas.

The knives were never like a Swiss Army knife. The one I most remember from my grandfather might have been a Case two-blade knife with a bone handle. He used this knife for everything. My Dad gave me my grandfather’s knife to pass on to my son and I think I may have it locked away in the safe deposit box. (Note to self: Give this knife to my son.)

These folding knives were sometimes known as a jackknife (and may be where the jackknife dive acquired its name). I do not profess to be a knife expert. There are thousands of different styles and types and materials.

Image courtesy of Pixabay (altered)

In thinking about how this knife was used, I was showered with memories. I can close my eyes and see my grandfather sitting on the porch step whittling away. Whittling is a term used to describe the practice of shaping wood using a knife. Unlike carving, whittling usually produced simple objects, often functional in nature.

For example, if we were roasting marshmallows or hot dogs, a branch would be cut from a tree and the leaves and twigs removed with the knife and the end whittled into a point. Stakes were whittled for gardens and often simple toys like whistles were whittled from a good branch.

Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Agriculture in Britain- Life on George Casely’s Farm, Devon, England, 1942 D9817, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Dowsing sticks (also called divining rods or witching sticks) were cut for the practice of finding underground water sources. A dowsing stick is cut from a flexible tree branch that contains a place where the branches fork. The ends were often shaped and designs sometimes carved into the length of the stick. The term ‘water witching’ has nothing to do with magical powers but most likely got its name from the use of a witch hazel branch.

It was important that these knives remained sharp. I remember seeing my grandfathers methodically sharpening their blades on a whet-rock or a whetstone – a finely grained stone used for the purpose of sharpening knives or other tools and implements. (Whetting means to sharpen.) If they had no suitable whet-rock a leather strop was used or even the leather belt they might be wearing.

Beyond cutting branches or rope or vines, the pocket knife was also used to peel or slice an apple out under the apple tree if they were hungry.

The knives were used for grooming, too. I remember my grandfather cutting his nails or cleaning out from under his fingernails with his pocket knife. Might sound gross to think it was also used to cut fruit, but these knives were kept clean and pristine and always sharp.

Memories are certainly a thing of mystery. I never imagined my post yesterday would bring me down this path. All good memories. It’s good to know my synapses are firing.