From Walton Mountain to Sound Beach Avenue, the evolution of a Country Store

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 2.01.08 PMAs far as I’m concerned, “The Waltons” tv show from the 1970’s was a documentary.
Who did I want to be when I was 10 years old?

 

 

 

 

John Boy Walton….writer, dreamer, all around American , son of a sawmill owner, trusted part-time employee of Ike Godsey.

My infatuation with country stores can be traced back to two original influencers.
There were two merchants who introduced me to the romance and intrigue of a traditional general store.

One of those merchants was “Old Man Mr. Patrick” who owned Patrick’s Country Store in Old Saybrook, Ct. (Opened in the 1930’s). And the other was Ike Godsey who owned Ike Godsey’s General Merchandise on Walton Mountain.

Raise your hand if your world stopped spinning when The Waltons opening music played. We would run to get a good spot in front of our 150-pound black and white TV.
Shhhhhhhh!

Patrick’s was my real life Godsey’s.
I can close my eyes and hear the crooked screen door with the bell on it. Wide plank worn-out and warped wood floor…..high glass counter keeping all the confectionary delights safe from my ten skinny fingers and 7 skinny siblings. Paper airplanes, fire crackers, the latest copy of Mad Magazine. SO many kites!

Mention Patricks to any of my siblings and they will sigh and respond with their favorite candy. I did a “reply all” with them the other day and the responses came flooding in like a clerk ordering candy from their supplier. Bazooka bubble gum was somebody’s favorite. Rock candy was mine. No, maple sugar was mine. Along with black licorice. And those hard candy root beer barrels. Sugar in any shape was my favorite candy. And let’s not forget the cold Coca Cola in those glass bottles.

That was the beginning of my country store obsession and I didn’t even know it.

Ike Godsey’s store was an historically accurate depiction of a country store.
He would hand out mail, give directions, let you use the only phone in a 100 mile radius.
In rural America, to this day, there was/is a general merchandise store. The country store is a socio-economic byproduct of the American settler movement. A movement that was both literal and figurative. As the country expanded inland from the coasts, the production of food and timber and produce became “industries” as opposed to subsistence endeavors. Entrepreneurial merchants packed their wares onto carts and headed to the hills to peddle knives and soaps and perfumes and exotic products like Irish linen or indigo dye to all the homesteaders. (Indigo was such a valuable trading commodity it was referred to as “blue gold”).

If you didn’t have currency the peddlers would trade for non perishable commodities like maple sugar, butter, eggs, smoked meat, yarns or cloths. Anything that could be converted into gold or silver in the city, or used to buy more products, the peddler accepted.

Eventually the peddler was making enough money in a two or three village area that he would put down permanent roots and start operating out of a room in his own house, near the church. The birth of a “town”!

No more weekly “commuting” to Boston. The peddler would accept shipments on the stage coaches and eventually the trains. His shelves would be stocked with seed, tools, barbed wire, pies, pots, and luxury items. He was now a merchant, no longer a peddler.

If you want to learn about the settling of inland America you can get it all by studying the General Stores. (Which I have been doing for 45 years).
They go by many names, including Mercantile, Dry Goods, General Merchandise, Grocery……potato, potahto, a country store by any name smells as sweet.

The general store was where the locals gathered to gossip, hear the national news from the stage coach drivers, collect their mail. Everything happened at the General store. Tobacco was chewed, smoked, rolled, traded. Rocking chairs were rocked on the creaking front porch. Everyone knew your name.

The Waltons tv show was inspired by Earl Hammer’s semi-autobiographical book , “The Homecoming”, and Ike Godsey’s store was based on the S&H Grocery Store…..still standing in Hammer’s real-life hometown, Schuyler, Va. (Pronounced Sky-ler)

We describe the Back40 Mercantile as a modern interpretation of an old fashioned country store. We don’t handle your mail or let you borrow our phone, but we would if you asked. We won’t trade you a hand carved wood bowl for butter, but we might, is it from your farm?
We want to be sellers of unique and well made products by small batch purveyors, local whenever possible.

Unfortunately the old-fashioned country store was broken open as the butcher, the baker, and the candle stick maker opened their own free standing stores. They wanted to cut out the middle man. (The very fate served cold to the next generation by that other Walton family, owners of Walmart)

Newspapers started delivering the news directly to our homes, we all got our own phones, and woe to us all, China started making all our products. And then it got worse! Walmart, Kmart, Stop and Shop, Target, Costco….supply, demand, volume pricing, convenience, 24 hour news, high speed trains and paved roads….They all have contributed to the demise of the general store, and a wearing down of our consumer experiences; a fraying of our human interactions with our neighbors.

Where is the romance and charm of buying a hand crafted gift, made by a local artisan? Where can you buy honey harvested by one owner and jewelry hand made by the other? Where can you buy a book written and published by your neighbor? At the Back40 Mercantile.

If you see me sitting on the bench in front of the store, smoking the occasional cigar, after driving my 1939 Farmall tractor to the store, you can bet I am pretending it is 1940 and I own a thriving pumpkin farm and sawmill.

The traditional General Store is almost extinct. There are still some incredible hold outs that have survived the paving of paradise…..The Warren Store in Warren, Vermont is by far my favorite example of a classic country store. Their molasses cookies! The antique ice box that still sells the local farmers’ milk and cheese and bacon. Unique sandwiches. Uneven floors, creaky stairs leading to room after room of perfectly curated products in every possible category. You wander in looking for a sandwich and you walk out wearing a turquoise bracelet from an artist in Santa Fe, clutching a bag filled with books and honey, a chunk of fudge, and maybe even a kite.

A moment of silence and respect for the intrepid and industrious peddlers who helped America grow into the Great country that it is.

Goodnight Mary Ellen
Goodnight John Boy.