Roads Created Market For Country Stores
By Charles Cooper
Hello everyone, I hope you’re having a good week. Sometime ago I mentioned the country stores that once dotted the landscape and are now mostly a memory. Some of the background I researched came from the late Thomas D. Clark.
Dr. Clark, while on sabbatical from the University of Kentucky, traveled through the South calling on stores and interviewing old timers about the history of the country stores. My other information comes from my own memories and stories my grandparents relayed.
Following the War Between The States, northern wholesale houses in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville saw a golden opportunity to sell their goods in the South. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad was being pushed south. Illinois Central had completed their main line from Chicago to New Orleans just before the war, so they had established transportation routes. The problem was how to get the goods to the consumer over the practically non-existence roads in the country. The South came out of the war with no real plans for a road system.
The road supervisors “warned” citizens to donate a certain amount of time to road work. Every “warned” man was expected to bring picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, slip scoops, and sometimes mules when he showed up.
The supervisors soon learned that if he was patient, each man would eventually answer his “warning” and saving the supervisor many weary miles on horseback to look him up. The meeting place was at the nearest country store.
The wholesale houses motto was “a store within reach of every cabin in the South.” The one problem was the poor financial condition of the South during the Reconstruction period. The wholesalers solved that by looking up responsible individuals and encouraging them to build a store at a good location.
The wholesalers shipped goods on consignment, and from this humble beginning many Southern stores came into being. Some of the stores are still around today.
The railroads, not to be outdone, offered to put enterprising young men in business by providing capital and locating the store by the tracks, thus giving the railroad the lucrative freight business. Consequently the storekeeper was also a freight agent. This explains why, in so many towns, the main street ran parallel to the railroad. It also helped small settlements including Taylor, Springdale, Velma, Bryant, Pope, Courtland, Enid, Tillatoba, and Scobey thrive for a time.
When the railroad ran a local train, they would have flag stops that looked much like the bus stops in the cities. These stops contained a red flag that was used to stop the train. This solved the problem for the wholesale house getting their goods to the communities, but that was only the beginning of the distribution problem as they had to reach the outlying stores.
The representatives, called drummers, had to find transportation from the railroad to the isolated stores. This created another business, the livery stables, where a drummer could hire a horse and buggy and travel to his customers. At night they crowded into the available boarding houses and, in some instances, stayed with farm families if no other accommodations were available. I realized after I started this week’s column that the background information would take up so much space that I would have to start naming the individual stores next week.
I know there are some of you out there that had a direct connection to some country stores and I welcome your input. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great week.