Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The General Store - Charlene Raddon

There are more ducks killed around the stoves
on the dry goods boxes at the customary haunts
of local nimrods every evening between seven
and nine-thirty o’clock, than are slain in twenty-
four hours along the Illinois River from source to
mouth. Unless the legislature puts some restriction
on this method of wholesale slaughter, the time
will soon come when there won’t be any duck-shooting
stories to tell -- that anybody will put any confidence in.

-- Correspondent in news notes to the Carrollton Patriot

General stores came into being during the colonial period for the many pioneers who lived outside urban markets. Early owners of general stores or mercantiles often began as traveling peddlers who established permanent locations in settlements where there was a need once they had saved up enough cash. Others moved west with the specific intent of opening a store once they got there. This was particularly true in boom towns, such as mining camps or railroad towns. Frequently, the "peddler" and his "store" would move along to the next booming community if, and when, profits declined. In many new settlements, the country store was the first business established, in which case the town often took its name from the store or store owner, partly because the store usually stood in as the local post office. The store owner might also serve as the town clerk, Justice of the Peace, or undertaker.

The country store served other roles, as well, such as community center, "exchange bank", community message center, and as a forum for men in the community. Somewhere in the premises one might find a sort of bulletin board for local events, or wanted posters.

Every store was different, but there were similarities from a front decorated by tin sign advertising that represented tobacco, cigars, soft drinks, hardware, and more. Most had double doors that opened inward, and windows filled with notions, jewelry and other women's items to entice customers. For the men, displays might show tools and boots.

Each visitor was met with dim light, long counters, rounded glass show cases, and side walls lined with shelves, drawers, and bins. Buggy whips, horse harnesses, lanterns, pails, ropes and more hung from the ceiling. Produce, nuts, beans, and nails were stored in bins on the floor or against a wall. Shelves contained foot stuffs, fabric and sewing notions, household items, soaps, medicines, spices, crockery and dishes, cartridges and shells, and small farm implements. Side windows were rare, adding to the darkness of the interior. The post office, if one existed, stood in a corner or at the rear of the store.

Stacks of overalls, denim and khaki pants, candy jars, tobacco, and all manner of other products likely occupied the counter space, along with the cash register, and possibly a coffee mill, scales and wrapping paper, leaving barely any space for the customer to set down purchases.

Somewhere inside, usually in the center of the room, a pot-bellied stove would be surrounded by chairs, a coal bucket and a spittoon. An empty nail keg might house a checkerboard. Stored along the narrow aisles would be barrels containing pickles, crackers, potatoes, candies, etc. 

Since many of the customers were share-croppers and tenant farmers, one store couldn’t provide credit to all who needed it, resulting in one small town boasting several stores. In Learned, Mississippi, which never had a population of over two hundred, there are four general stores still standing, though only one is still in use.

In 1896, the postal service began to offer Rural Free Delivery (RFD), cutting down on the number of trips a person had to make to the post office, and therefore the general store. The ability of residents to receive mail order catalogues by RFD also took away from the store’s profits as people would mail in their orders. Some alarmed merchants called the mail order catalogs “town killers.”

Along with mail delivery to rural areas came improved government built roads, allowing people who owned cars to travel to larger cities and bypass the local mercantile.

Today only a fraction of these old stores remain and these stand mostly as museums, antique shops or tourist attractions.

Charlene Raddon began her fiction career in the third grade when she announced in Show & Tell that a baby sister she never had was killed by a black widow spider. She often penned stories featuring mistreated young girls whose mother accused of crimes her sister had actually committed. Her first serious attempt at writing fiction came in 1980 when she woke up from a vivid dream that compelled her to drag out a portable typewriter and begin writing. She’s been at it ever since. An early love for romance novels and the Wild West led her to choose the historical romance genre but she also writes contemporary romance. At present, she has five books published in paperback by Kensington Books (one under the pseudonym Rachel Summers), and four eBooks published by Tirgearr Publishing. 
Charlene’s awards include: RWA Golden Heart Finalist, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award Nomination, Affair de Coeur Magazine Reader/Writer Poll for Best Historical of the Year. Her books have won or place in several contests.
Currently, Charlene is working on her next release. 


  1. Hi Charlene,
    Thanks for sharing the details of general stores. These shops are rare, but so wonderful. I live in a small town with fewer than 300 people, and our only store is a mercantile. The owner's motto is, "If we don't have it, you don't need it." And trust me, it is seldom that you can't find what you came in for.

    1. I always wanted to live in a small town, Carol, having grown up in an LA suburb.

  2. Oh! did you bring back memories! Growing up in a small New England town, that is what we had was a small general store for all our supplies. We would go down to the big city of Springfield to the larger groceries for monthly supplies. When I moved toCalif. in my late twenties, the old Victorian town of Ferndale on the northern coast with all the old style houses and in the center of town was a Merchantile.It looked just like your photos above. They had large glass jars of candies behind the counter, diplay rooms upstairs of the dresses worn back in their day (Cindy would have loved that. I used to buy my Sassafrass(sp)tea there all the time as it taste just like root beer. Thanks for the memoirs!

    1. I envy you your memories, Shirl. Ferndale is a great town.

  3. Charlene, thanks for sharing such wonderful information and photos of general stores. This is a keeper! You've also given me an idea for a post I need to write for Friday on Sweethearts of the West. See you over there.

    1. Thank you, Lyn. I'll look forward to reading your post on Sweethearts of the West.

  4. Interesting piece. We still have a few of those stores in Oregon. One that used to be near us had a kind of bar on one side, store goods on the other. Unfortunately it burned and when it went, it really went due to cleaning the old wood floors with kerosene. (not proven or charged but everyone knew it was arson by a couple of disgruntled hill type men who abruptly left the country right after the fire) It was rebuilt and still is a kind of country store but with a modern looking building and not the same. It lost its gas pump when the regulations changed and there wasn't enough money to redo the tank to meet them. I think the most fascinating old time store I have been in was in Georgia and hardware with little bins for the nuts and bolts, totally the old way with shelves to the ceiling and full of goods. That was about 14 years ago; so hard to say if it's still there.

    1. I'd love to wander through some of those old stores.

    2. You'd love this one then, Char. Yoder Country Store. I haven't been there in awhile but got a cool straw hat there as few years back. It carries some of everything.

  5. Char, I just reposted a snippet from your post on my blog site, Lyn Horner's Corner. This is such a great topic that I recommended it to my followers.

  6. This is the only post of yours I found here. It doesn't seem to be about Taming Jenna but thought I would go ahead and post here since I am here.

    quiltlady110 AT gmail DOT com