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The Country General Store escapes into history

By Staff | Jan 14, 2014

Robert Webster spoke at the Thomas Taber Museum about the history of the common Country General Store and its significance to American rural life.

WILLIAMSPORT – A bygone era, yet stable enough for some to still remain in this economy. Such was the realization after listening to a presentation about the history of the ‘Country General Store.’

Robert Webster was invited to speak at the Thomas Taber Museum during last month’s coffee hour which had a tremendous turnout. As he looked over the audience Webster proclaimed, “It is a good feeling to see people come I had in class.” For he is well known as a long standing educator of history in the East Lycoming School District.

His message that morning illustrated early rural America and the heritage of our country. “They were so special,” Webster told his audience. The General Store was where most goods were marketed to the people. “Just about anything and everything desired for the farm home could be bought there.” Before the automobile, the General Store was in its “golden days.”

Across from the one room school, Webster recalled visiting the Country Store in Huntersville where he grew up during the ’30’s. It played many uses and served many roles. “It became a place close by for the local people,” he added. It became the center of the community, a place for news and what was going on all over the world. “It was also the entertainment center and the storekeeper, Roy Lockard, got to see everybody, so he knew everything,” insisted Webster.

Other places that Webster fondly spoke of was the General Store near Forksville in 1890 run by the Snyder family, and the Nordmont General Store owned by Charlie VanDine. Swishers Store is still in operation, has been for the last 125 years. And then there was Bailey’s General Store in Picture Rocks where now the Hardware True Value store is located.

A few years ago Webster said he and his family visited the most famous Country General Store in the whole country, and that is Walton’s Mountain in Virginia.

Back in the 1800’s townspeople were grateful for the emerging stores as they no longer had to depend on the traveling peddler who came on foot or horseback with their goods. “No two stores were alike, but there were some similarities.” Webster pointed out that they were always built at a crossroads, the family usually lived in the same building as the store, and family members would go to town to pick up inventory in bulk. Goods were packaged in barrels, bags, boxes, and canisters. “Every sale was a custom sale. It was weighed, measured, scooped, counted and poured, wrapped and tied!” explained Webster. “It was a lot of handling and a lot of work.”

Along the way, some inventions helped ease the work load such as the coming of the tin can. For it was vacuum sealed and allowed storage for out of season items. The first one was created in Boston in 1821. The sewing machine, created by Elias Howe, brought in fabrics to the Country Store. Pig iron opened the door for the tool and hardware business and in 1865 packaging developed.

Soon thereafter, railroads came and the transportation of goods made it easier to arrive at the General Store. “The Muncy Creek Railway & Coal Company was instrumental in this area and brought goods back and forth from Reading to Eagles Mere. It didn’t take long for the storekeeper to go to the railroad station for pick-ups.

In 1880 the cash register came, so there was no more making change from the cigar box. In 1882 shoe sales were added to the inventory due to its patented soles made in factories. “So the General Store was able to sell shoes in many styles and sizes.”

In 1889 the electric sewing machine was invented and clothes were made in a factory and now came to the Country General Store already made.

Stores changed considerably after the Industrial Revolution. Bulk penny candy nicely wrapped and sealed was a big seller and so was tobacco. 12,000 different brands of chewing tobacco were offered in the 1900’s and 7,000 brands of patented medicines from tonics and ointments to pain killers and cold remedies were available. “And everything came in moisture-proof packaging,” added Webster.

Glass bottles were introduced through Libbey Glass and the Owens Company, and soon the start of the soft drink business came upon us. Next came plastic bottles. Automobiles, trucks and gas pumps evolved and in 1920 the National Highway Bill improved roads. In 1933 ten percent of the farmers had electricity.

Things became more complicated after World War II for storekeepers. There were shortages, rationing, collecting stamps and coupons to turn into the government.

Yes, the storekeeper was very much respected, well known by his community, and a trusting friend to most. Webster said, ” He was almost the community lawyer, the man to go to to talk over something, a wonderful witness.” Because of his stature, he could sign “official papers.” He became the community banker. “Invariably, he had a safe and kept valuables in it until customers could ride into town to a bank.”

The Country Store was a social setting. People would congregate at night and set about in chairs around each other and discuss the day’s events. “You can’t find that today,” Webster concluded. Since chain stores and specialty stores evolved, the General Store has not filled the life of rural America for many years.