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Phil Whitley

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An Old Country Store
By Phil Whitley
Friday, April 11, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A disappearing part of Americana - those old country stores that sold everything from meat to mule collars, my family's store in rural Georgia in the 1950's.

The Store

The first thing Dad did after returning from the war (WWII), was to go to Hamilton, Georgia (the county seat, about five miles away) and apply for a job at Calhoun’s Grocery and Hardware store. Mr. Dayton Calhoun, the owner and operator, told him he would give him a try and see how it worked out. Dad worked there for the next seventeen years, then bought the store when Mr. Calhoun retired.

The store was a part of the family. It was open six days a week, with Thursday afternoons and Sunday off. The hours were 7AM until the last customer left, usually 8 or 9 PM. We sold everything from fresh meat to mule collars. Fresh produce to turnip seeds. Brogans to perfume.

“If we ain’t got it, And Sear’s don’t sell it, you don’t need it”, was the expression I’ve heard my dad say a thousand times.

In 1951, when I was about eight years old I went to work there. Before school and after, I would deliver groceries on a bicycle. The country name for this is “Wheelboy.” Ever hear the term “full service”? Well, this is full service; I went to the customer’s back door, into the kitchen, put the milk into the refrigerator, put the canned goods into the cabinet, picked up the return-for-deposit (2 cents then) soft drink bottles, and sometimes would get a quarter or a fresh-baked cookie as a tip.

On one occasion I really earned that tip. I had taken a big load of groceries to the Huling's place, which sat at least a quarter-mile off the main road (US 27) and up a very steep, curvy hill. I had to get off and push the bike all the way up there, the whole time looking forward to that freewheeling, super-fast ride back down the hill.
As I approached the bottom of the hill, and US Highway 27, I applied the brakes—at which point the chain broke! There was no time for decision-making, even if there had been a decision to make.

Fortunately there were no cars coming as I sailed across the highway, back-pedaling like crazy. I was going too fast to "drop anchor" and
drag my feet, but there is a wide ditch and then the Southern Railway tracks on the other side. When the front wheel of the bike made contact with the ditch bank, the bike stopped instantly; but like a good boy, I obeyed Newton's First Law of Motion, and continued my forward journey, made a full front somersault across the tracks and landed flat on my back in Brother Alex Copeland's flower bed. I was fortunate to have walked away with only a few minor cuts and bruises and a new appreciation of life— and soft, well-tended flower beds.

When not delivering groceries, I would put stock on the shelves (older stock in front), dust the shelves, and wait on customers. Now this is another story about full service – we didn’t have shopping carts. I followed the customer around while they loaded up my arms. Then I would take the load to the counter and run back to the customer for another load. Later, I learned to add up the order, and either write it down on a charge pad or take the money, ring it up in the old manual cash register, and make change. Then I would sack up the groceries and take it out to the car (or pick-up).

Dad taught me how to cut meat when I got older. He always told us to learn anything that anyone wanted to teach you. “As long as it’s honest work, you’ll always have a job,” he said.

Since Hamilton was a farming town, we also sold animal feed. Jam-Up was for mules and Sweet Dairy feed was for cows. Then there was Scratch Feed and Laying Mash for chickens. The mule and cow feed was in 100 pound sacks, while the chicken feed was in 25-pound bags.

We sold plowshares and plow points, plow lines and tracelines. I loved the names of the plow points – Middlebusters, One and Two-horse turners, listers, chisel and disk plows. The names almost tell you what they were used for!

There is a particular group of people from those days at the store that I find myself missing as I grow older. They are those people that knew the difference between a plug and a cut of chewing tobacco, between fat back and streak o’ lean, and which of the above-mentioned plow points to use for the task at hand.

They are the people who knew how many turnip greens it took to make a “mess”, and how much meal was in a peck. A pone of light bread wasn’t a mystery, and they knew the difference between twenty-five cents and a case quarter.

They knew things like how many feet of rope made up a plowline or a trace—not to mention the meaning of terms like “Gee” and “Haw”. They were bi-lingual, these old friends of mine; they spoke Suthun and Mule-Speak!

Their Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes were called slippers, and brogans were to work in, although both came under the general heading of “shoes”.

A trip to the doctor was only necessary if the taking turpentine, castor oil, mineral oil, aspirin or asafoetida that we sold didn’t do the job. (That last one, worn in a cloth bag around the neck, was good for warding off colds or evil spells, and smelled a lot like spoiled garlic).
I almost forgot about the gas pump. We also sold gasoline. It was in an old manual pump that you pumped up five gallons at a time into a glass tank on top, and then pumped it into the cars. When the power went off in town, we were the only place that could sell gas! There was also kerosene, or “lamp oil” as the locals called it. It was out back in another tank. People would bring in their own jugs or cans for us to fill, and if there were no top, we would use a potato as a stopper.

I especially loved Saturday night at the store. Mr. Calhoun would open canned sardines, cut some hoop cheese, and peel an onion. We would “have supper” at the store. I still love sardines to this day! Ever once in a while we would vary the menu with potted meat or Vienna sausages, but the hoop cheese and onions remained, and there was always a bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce nearby. In the winter, we would sit around the pot-bellied stove, eat, and listen to stories of “the old days”.

Speaking of that old stove, there were some local people who would come in and spend the whole day sitting around, keeping warm and telling stories.

One of my very favorites among the old men was “Uncle” George. He reminded me of Uncle Remus, who told the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and the Tar Baby in the movie “Song of the South”.

Not to have an education, Uncle George was one of the wisest men I ever knew. He knew how to bait a catfish hole, clear land, prepare it for tilling, plant the crops, and feed his family. He knew how to build rabbit traps and run a trotline. He also knew how to keep evil spirits away, and what to do when you got wasp or bee stung.

When I first went to work at the store, Uncle George was my first customer. When I asked him, “May I help you?” he said, “I needs a pugga bugga wooga”. My dad was in the back of the store cutting meat, and after about the third time asking Uncle George what he said, I went to dad. I repeated the order to him as best I could. He laughed and said, “Sure we’ve got it, its right next to the Lucky Joe and Brown’s Mule. It turned out that “a “pugga bugga wooga” was “a plug of Bull of the Woods” chewing tobacco!

Knowledge doesn’t always have to come from books. There were so many people that I was exposed to in those days that had knowledge of a different kind—good knowledge that came from life’s experiences. I learned early in life to appreciate the “old folks” as they talked about the old days. These people had already learned from making mistakes and learning from them. Why make the same mistakes over if you could take advantage of theirs?

They are nearly all gone now, these old wise people from my past—along with their colorful, captivating language—and I long to hear those voices again.

       Web Site: Keechie - A novel of survival and adventure

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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 4/12/2008
Wonderful slice of nostalgia here; very well penned! BRAVO!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in Tx., Karen Lynn. :D

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