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The Passing Of The Country Store
The loafers, seated on the long benches before a New Hampshire country store, stopped their whittling and desultory gossip and indolently sat up. Even the farmers' horses, nuzzling their soft noses in the three gnawed and weatherbeaten feeding troughs, raised their heads. An important event was about to happen, for the stagecoach which carried the mail and an occasional passenger to the mountain village was due on one of its triweekly trips. The rattle of the huge wagon and the clipclop of the horses' feet sounded down the narrow, dtestv road.
With a flourish of whip and a steadying of reins that almsi swung the leaders to their haunches, the driver brought the stage to a standstill. He flung off the kather bag, and the storekeeper, who combined the drties of postmaster with those of village trader, carried it inside the dimly lighted store. There was an excited buzz of expectancy as the few letters from the outside world were sorted. The storekeeper, however, wis not allowed to read his two letters from Boston! He owed his community another duty. Since he was the only man in town who subscribed to a newspaper, be must first read to the assembled group the news of the war, for they were eagerly waiting to hear new facn about the conflict between the Union and the Croafederate armies.
The storekeeper himself was a "man of parts." Shrewd at a bargain, keen-minded, just, kindly, he was a leader in the vicinity. Among his neighbors he was known as a rich man. His house was the largest in the village and boasted steel engravings and horsehair furniture in the parlor. He had sent his children away to school. His wife's black Sunday silk was rich and heavy. He was a deacon in the church, a justice of the peace, first selectman, chairman of the school committee, and had represented his town at the general court.
In 1840 he had opened a small general store. Now, in the sixties, he had taken his young son into the business, and had moved to larger quarters, taking it for granted that he would pass his "trade" down to his son and his son's son. He never thought of this village, where his personality and individuality were so strongly felt, without his store.
Twice a year the storekeeper went to Boston "to stock up." He was thrifty and careful in buying: blue drilling for overalls, thirty pieces of calico, hoop skirts and bustles, cotton thread knotted in "hanks," red and white spotted bandanna handkerchiefs, cotton batting, "factory yarn," quaint buttons, pieces of glassware made by that "new company down on Cape Cod," a few webs of lawn, a piece or two of sprigged muslin, some webs of lace, needles, pins, an occasional piece of silk, hard candies for the children, as well as the groceries and hardware needed in the daily life of the village: Finally he added a few wall-papers. Patent medicines followed in the wake of the tansy, thoroughwort, pennyroyal, sage and wormwood which the village women had brewed for the family aches and pains. Some of his customers were getting "citified" and didn't have their footgear made at the cobbler's, so he added boots and shoes to his stock. Crockery dishes, tinware, brushes, brooms, nails, hoes, any article that would contribute to New England rural life---he had them all!
The store had the mellow, human look of a place closely associated with a life current of the simplehearted village people. Smoke from the "Franconia" iron stove in the center of the room and from numberless pipes blackened the ceilings. The floor was dark and rough from constant use. The store shelves, arranged from floor to ceiling, were packed with the mixture of groceries, patent medicines, tinware, crockery and dry goods. But in all this medley there was not one can of tinned vegetables or fruit. The storekeeper would never see one, nor could he picture the day when his grandson would fill tier after tier of his shelves with tins of bright-labeled vegetable products, cans of salmon and tuna-fish, and later the glasses of tongue, meats, chicken, marmalades and jams!
The storekeeper sold home-dried apples, home-cured hams, and salt pork from the fall "killings." Pickled tripe floated in kegs filled with brine. And codfish! An entire chapter might be written upon the codfish which varied the menus of the farmers of the period. Not codfish flakes, nor shredded codfish put up in sanitary packages! The codfish which the storekeeper ordered each month in five-hundred-pound boxes were whole fish, and were taken home and hung up on the cellar door where the housewife cut off strips for picked fish and cream.
Odds and ends and notions were piled helter-skelter under the counters. The storekeeper and his son ducked beneath them to bring out articles required by the farmers' wives. And always the mysterious recesses gave up hidden treasures not unlike the famous bag belonging to the resourceful mother in "The Swiss Family Robinson." The odor of molasses, drizzling from a spigot in a hogshead into a tin measure, the scent of coffee, the salty tang of dried fish, the sourness of pickled brine, the strong smell of Medford rum, intermingled into a more or less desirable perfume characteristic of the country store. Rum? Certainly. It was one of the staples of trade and retailed at twenty-five cents a gallon!
Much of the trading was done by barter. Customers brought eggs, dried apples, salt pork, lard, and handknitted stockings to exchange for "store things." Rag-s, too, were exchanged. All New England stores of the period had bins in their attics to hold the bags and bales of colored and white rags destined for the paper mills. What treasure-troves these rag bins were to the storekeeper's little daughter and her friends, until an anxious mother, fearing the spread of the prevalent diphtheria and scarlet fever, forbade the children to make doll dothes from the gay pieces!
Here it was that the New England tin-peddler was of assistance to the storekeeper and more than offset any inconvenience that he might cause by selling his wares to the farm women. The storekeeper unloaded many of the rags upon him and took in payment shining tins from the bright cart.
The story of the tin-peddler is closely interwoven with the commercial life of old New England. The first Yankee peddlers, William and Edward Patterson, came from Ireland to Connecticut in 1740. These enterprising brothers made tinware and carried their products to their customers in saddlebags. Later, when turnpikes were built and when a regular profession was built up by the shrewd Connecticut Yankees, the tinpeddler graduated from horseback to a cart, which was designed to carry the most wares in the least space, and was a maze of secret compartments, hooks and drawers. He was a boon to the isolated farm woman and to the storekeeper of remote country districts, and through him were distributed tinware, buttons, clocks, Sandwich glass hand-lamps and other sundries. His doom was sealed with the coming of the railroads, and only the swarthy pack-peddler of foreign birth was left to remind one in any way of the picturesque figure who once bartered and traded on New England hillsides.
Winter nights in the sixties found the country store full of men assembled to talk over the events of the town and to "thrash out the affairs of the nation." The store became a debating-hall, and as the loafers whittled and listened, the farmers and men of the village exchanged prices of stock and produce, discussed "the elder's" sermon and related school news gleaned from their children. They touched upon important details of sickness and stored up bits of gossip to carry home to their wives. National affairs interested them, and no Yankee farmer considered himself too ignorant to give his views on almost any subject. The customs at these unconventional- lyceums became so widespread that they built up a characteristic institution of New England country life.
Just before town-meeting life at the store began to take on new interests. Usually the store closed at nine O'clock, but during this exciting peri.od it was often known to stay open until ten. There were excited discussions of taxes, of future town officers. The store became an unofficial caucus where plans were laid and factions organized. Occasionally there were arguments and talks that led to bitter feeling, but after townmeeting things usually regained their normal level. These nights before town-meeting stood for something vital in the history of New England, for individuality of personal expression and for promotion of community betterment.
The following years, after the storekeeper's son had inherited his business, found the village growing. Small lumber mills were bringing workers from outlying districts. Summer boarders were migrating in increasing numbers from the cities. The country store grew to meet the demands.
Then appeared two factors which have sounded the knell of the general store as it was known twenty-five years ago-the automobile and the mail-order house. There still remain stores, one is willing to admit, where everything is handled, from "knitting needles to plow points," but the crossroads store as it was is soon to be a thing of the past.