When I was coming up in the ’50s and early ’60s, won’t no such thing in rural parts of our county as convenience stores. No-sir-re, they were all mostly Mom and Pop grocery stores. If’en you didn’t get what you needed in town on Saturdays, you did without, borrowed from a neighbor or visited a local country store.
In the first half of the 20th century, just about every little neighborhood or village had a locally owned general store. Most mill villages had their own company stores that mostly served their employees.
There are several old mill store buildings still standing today in villages like Roberdel, East Rockingham and Cordova, even though they have long since gone out of business.
There are also a lot of privately owned store buildings — like Buck Walls off Cartledge Creek Road, Slack’s Grocery off Richmond Road and Mathison store in the Mangum Community — that still stand as a reminder of a much simpler time. ‘Bout the only old store that I can think of that is still in operation today is the store in Derby.
During the World Wars, things like sugar and gas were rationed out and were hard to come by. Seems though as in any hard times, if’en you could come up with the money, things still could be bought on the black market.
A lot of these Mom and Pop stores gave credit to good customers, while mill employees were sold or given coupon books which could only be used to buy merchandise at their own company stores. Here a while back, I got a hold of one of those old coupon books that was issued by Operative Trading Co. here in Rockingham. Inside the little book are five dollars of coupons, from fifty cents to one cent.
You ask, what could folks buy back then for a penny? Well, there were such things as penny candy, bubble gum, Fireballs, pencils and even two Jack’s Cookies that could be bought for a penny.
As a boy, I remember going into Homer (Dynamite) Benoist’s General Store at Five Points. Like the other country stores, he sold things like hoop cheese, bottled soft drinks, candy, salted fish, sliced bologna, country ham, crackers, canned stuff, sugar, flour and even bags of hog and chicken feed. When times got hard, folks would take those colorful cloth feed sacks and make underclothes. How would you like to see your underwear hanging on a clothes lines with Twin State Hog Feed written on the back? Women would often pick out special design patterns on the cloth bags to make their dresses out of.
Some old country stores even sold gas and oil. Back then, most folks didn’t drive new cars and trucks like they do today. In those days, you drove what you could afford. Why, some of those old clunkers used a lot of oil and you could even buy used or slightly refined motor oil from those country stores. Why, some folks on the mill hills, didn’t even own a vehicle. Didn’t really need one because they walked to work and the company store was in hollering distance of their house.
Folks worked hard back in the day but most, having big families, just couldn’t fork out change for their kids to spend at the local store. I remember taking my bike (which had a wire basket on front), riding it up and down the highways looking for drink bottles that folks had thrown out. Our local store would give me a penny or two for each empty bottle and that’s how I got my candy money. Why, with a quarter, you could buy a whole sack of candy.
Back in the first half of the 20th century, Richmond County was a dry county. No type of alcohol was sold legally at the country stores or mill stores. Now I’m not saying you couldn’t get some, because bootlegging and moonshiners were everywhere. Folks in Richmond County kept it voted out until pressure from legal sales in South Carolina and adjoining counties in North Carolina forced it to be sold in this county.
I think our younger generation has missed out on a lot. One case in mind is, when you walk into a convenience store today, you don’t even know who owns the store. Seems all they want is your money and they don’t want you hanging around after they get your money. Just won’t that way during the days of the old country and mill stores, no-sir-re. Why, back then, just about everybody knew who you were and they knew your family. Most old stores had a wood or coal heater in the back and folks sat around on drinks crates, playing checkers, telling stories and most owners made you feel welcome. Even though all you might buy was a drink and pack of crackers, you were welcome to stay ‘til closing time.
Like I said earlier, a lot of stores would give credit to local people, but like today, folks might fall on hard times and get themselves in way too much debt. The old expression, “I owe my soul to the company store,” was a reality.
When short time or layoffs came at the mills or crops failed, some folks went hungry and there won’t any such thing as Social Services or food stamp programs. An old timer told me a true story about an experience he encountered back in the ’30s. Seems he and his wife and most of his neighbors were employed by a local mill, did business at the company store and lived on the mill hill. Things were going good for a while, but won’t long, the mill went on short time — and wasn’t much longer a lot of the mill employees got laid off, including this old timer and his wife.
As the short time continued, the company store quit giving credit and winter was coming on. A few of the folks on the mill hill packed what they had and moved during the night, still owing the company store and rent on their houses. The old timer said he wasn’t brought up that way, but still the hunger pains were gnawing on him and his family.
The old timer said his wife’s family were sharecroppers on a local farm. They didn’t have much money, but by having a garden and raising a few hogs, they got by.
So happened, one cold Saturday morning, the old timer said he and his wife walked the four miles to his in-laws to help kill a hog. Knowing the couple’s predicament, his father-in-law gave the couple a hambone and a bag of dry field peas to take back home.
That night after they got home, the old timer said his wife put the hambone and peas in a big pot of water and placed it on their wood heater. The next morning the sweet smell of them field peas and hambone had drifted all over that mill hill. Why, folks from all over that mill hill started following their noses right to the old timer’s house.
That next week that hambone got passed around from house to house and was cooked so much that a dog couldn’t even smell it.
Folks, I know time marches on and things change, but that still doesn’t fade my good memories of the old country and mill hill stores that were once were so prevalent in our county.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writer’s Club, Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and author on his new book “Just Passing Time.”