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Pot Bellied Stove and Cat Were Store Staples

Hello everyone. I hope you are having a good week.

The country store saga continues.  First I’d like to thank graphics for their contribution in the June 11 column. Hope all of you enjoyed it as well. This week I thought I’d give you a look inside the county stores from the end of the War Between The States until the end of WWI. 

Almost without exception the country store of those days had one thing in common.  It was the pot bellied stove located in the middle of the building. 

This was by design in the hope that it would heat both ends of the store with some degree of impartiality. By the same token this was why most of the stores had a front porch as shown last week. This was the gathering place during the hot summer months. 

There were usually several chairs as well as some nail kegs and a checker board. Go to any Cracker Barrel today and you get something of an idea of what it was like except the chairs are for sale and the checker board has king sized checkers. Another staple in most stores was the cat.  They had a cat door so the animal could come and go as it pleased. Without exception the  clerks in those days were male. 

Nannie Badley’s older brother, Elijah Haddox, worked for the Jennings company in Water Valley for thirty years until they closed their store. One of the sons, Epsy Jennings came to Memphis and became one of the largest land owners in Shelby county and in later years was administrator of the Baptist Hospital. 

Clerks worked long hours with no overtime and on Saturday it could be until midnight. They got Sunday off to go to Church and if they were fortunate enough, court a young lady.  Clerks were expected to dress in a suit and tie although they were allowed to take off their coats.  They could not roll up their sleeves, but could wear sleeve protectors.  Crackers, sugar and coffee came in barrels and were sold by the pound.  Cheese came in hoops and was sliced to the customer’s request. 

The only meat in most stores was bacon which was really fatback. Most customers raised their own chickens and the only time they had beef was when someone would butcher a steer and sell from house to house. 

Many storekeepers served as unofficial bankers and a farmer would sell his cotton and leave money with the merchant. Most farmers and laboring people were intimidated by banks and in Water Valley this was true of the railroad shop workers who were uncomfortable going to a bank in their greasy work clothes.

In the early eighteen nineties a group of carpenters and mechanics approached J. V. Blackmur about starting a bank and the Mechanic’s Bank came into being and is still doing business today. When you consider that the shops employed nearly a thousand men and paid in cash, Mr. Blackmur had a tremendous block of customers from the start.

As usual I digressed but all of you expect that from me and there is still so much more about the country stores that we’ll have to continue in future columns.  I’m looking forward to the material that Eva Kimzey-Williams  is compiling and I’m sure you will enjoy it. 

Probably some of you have information about stores you know about, so email me at or write P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tenn 38101 and have a great fourth.

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