Tom Dillard: Country stores sold most everything rural families needed

We would like to think of our Arkansas ancestors living lives of sylvan independence -- growing their own food and taking the game of the forests and the fowls of the air. But while settlers on the frontier could be amazingly self-reliant, they still had to go to the store for coffee, sugar and salt, if nothing else. The stores offered plenty more.

By 1900, Arkansas was home to hundreds of general stores, even the tiniest hamlet having at least one. Arkansas Post, the former territorial capital located in Arkansas County, had only 50 people in 1902, but five general stores. The tiny Arkansas County community with the unfortunate name of Booty had two general stores, one of them owned by Mrs. America Booty.

Given their relative isolation, country stores often stocked a remarkably large and diverse selection of goods, even before the Civil War. An 1861 account book from the Fisher & Southall Store in the Black River port town of Black Rock in Lawrence County documents a vast assortment of products. On March 20, 1861, Andrew Hendrix purchased 25 pounds of coffee for $5, Samuel Henderson bought 14 pounds of assorted nails for $1, and Hugh Rainwater "& Lady" acquired 20 yards of calico, a card of buttons, 1 ounce of indigo and a vest -- all for $6.25.

Among the more expensive items on the Fisher & Southall shelves were matches. A single box of matches cost $2.40 in June 1862. The high cost caused settlers to take pains to keep a fire going at all times. Vance Randolph recorded stories of families sending an older child to a neighbor to "fotch a chunk o' fire."

While many families made lye soap at home, store owners found a steady stream of customers seeking "toilet soap." Northern manufacturers produced a wide variety of colorful and perfumed soaps bearing such names as Wild Rose, White Clover and Pear's. Pear's led the market until after the Civil War when national brands such as Lifebuoy, Palmolive and Ivory floated to the top.

Fisher & Southall sold an incredible amount of whiskey and tobacco. One entry in the ledger recorded selling a gallon of whiskey to a sick farmer who sent his young daughter to fetch the jug. In early Hot Springs, Hiram A. Whittington, the young New England owner of a one-room general store, found a ready market for liquor.

"Well, you must know that the people here are very fond of whiskey," Whittington wrote to his brother in Massachusetts. E.B. Dickinson, owner of a general store in Baxter County, in the summer of 1851 ordered 171 gallons of whiskey for the coming Independence Day celebration.

Americans, both men and women, have always consumed quantities of tobacco. While often smoked -- especially in pipes -- it was more often consumed as chewing tobacco or snuff. Throughout the 1800s, boys started chewing tobacco at an early age.

Thousands of small tobacco shops flooded the South with hundreds of name brands of plug tobacco. Once the tobacco industry was consolidated after the Civil War, chewing tobacco production soared. R.J. Reynolds got his start in 1875 when he started a chewing tobacco plant in Winston, N.C. His most popular plug tobacco was Brown Mule.

Snuff dipping was the messy handmaiden of chewing tobacco. Women were major consumers of snuff, since chewing tobacco was considered indecent for the fair sex. Some women smoked pipes, but that was usually practiced by those who were older. The wife of the squatter in the famed Arkansas Traveler folktale and painting has a corn cob pipe in her mouth. Snuff was sold under hundreds of trade names; Garrett was a popular brand here in Arkansas.

Store owners often sold on credit. They often served as a sort of community bank, offering loans to tide over farmers who had no cash until the sale of their cotton harvest in the autumn.

Well into the last century it was not unusual for rural store owners to accept farm produce in lieu of cash, including cream, chickens and especially eggs. Many a poor farm wife saved her eggs in order to afford a little perfume, or a bar of scented soap, or perhaps oranges for Christmas stockings.

Rural store owners also accepted animal hides as payment, and Dickinson's store in Baxter County would accept horses in lieu of cash, having taken two in 1851-1852, each valued at about $70.

The general store was far more than a mere emporium. In the days before senior citizen centers, the general store was a place to socialize. The late historian Thomas D. Clark wrote that in rural Southern communities "everything of importance that ever happened either occurred at the store or was reported there immediately."

During the warm months, store porches were home to a changing cast of loafers, the men often chewing tobacco and whittling on sticks. When the last warm days of autumn passed, visitors tended to congregate around a large cast iron stove and talk about cotton prices, the new preacher or the recent election results. Many country stores doubled as post offices, which also facilitated visiting.

Modern economic forces have put most general stores out of business. This process started in 1896 when Congress authorized Rural Free Delivery, making it less expensive to order from Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and other mail-order retailers. The growing availability even in rural Arkansas of automobiles and passable roads after World War II enabled residents to drive past the general store on their way to larger and less expensive shopping opportunities in bigger towns.

Perhaps the best-known general store in Arkansas history was the Jot 'em Down Store in Pine Ridge. Made famous in the 1930s as the setting for the nationally popular "Lum and Abner" radio program, the Jot 'em Down Store still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been a tourist attraction for years, although it does not actually serve as a general store. The last I heard, the store was for sale, so its future is unknown.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County, where he has the choice of shopping at three Dollar General Stores within 10 miles. Email him at [email protected].

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