Country Stores

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Casanova JunctionBack in 1993 I wrote a story for  the Fauquier Times-Democrat about the country stores that dotted the county. Reviewing that story today, I can almost recall the creak of the old wood floors and the smell of stale cigarette smoke. That story was a walk through the past two decades ago, and now still evokes memories of a time long past.

I wish I a pdf of this story because its illustrated with some great photos by Scott Ferrell, like the one above which is a scanned black and white copy.

The story is below:

Fauquier Times-Democrat, Warrenton, VA., Wednesday, June 16, 1993

Country Stores Preserve Rural Legacy

By Steve Campbell

Times-Democrat Staff Writer

King Edward, Prince Albert and Red Man share a shelf below the counter where thin strips of Slim Jims stand tall next to a portly jar of Hannah’s pickled sausages.

Big K radio plays softly in the background, joining the hum of the Royal Crown Cola cooler. The screen door slams. A fly buzzes in. And up rolls the Merchants Grocery truck, delivering a week’s work of canned sauerkraut and beans, dishwashing soap and diapers, lunch meat and cheese.

Welcome to the last frontier of small-town American—the country store.

The great granddaddy of modern supermarkets and their uppity cousins, the convenience store, the humble country market, once a fixture in every small town, is quickly going the way of the railstop and the one-room school house.

Taking the names of their towns, like Calverton Market or Casanova Junction, or the names of their most recent owners, like Owens and Wright’s grocery stores, these tiny establishments have a rich history dating back to the beginning of the century.

“In 1939 we carried everything, dry goods, tires, inner tubes, bolts, nuts, screws, a little bit of everything,” said Mrs. Helen Owens, who with husband Raymond owns and runs the Rectortown store.

Mrs. Owens’ parents, James and Annie Slack, bought the store in 1939. She grew up living in the apartment above the store, which at one time was a dance hall. She and Raymond live there still.

Behind the front counter were shelves full of loose Nabisco cookies, “great big marshmallow-topped” ones. Candy bars, dwarfing the ones for sale nowadays, sold for five cents, as did a bottle of soda to go. Gas, from a hand-cranked pump, sold for three cents a gallon.

Bread arrived at the store via the rail line in Markham. Ice came from Warrenton and beef for the butcher shop in the rear of the store came from local farms. So did the produce. “It has changed. You be surprised how much it’s changed,” Mrs. Owens said.

“We’d get up early in the morning and have cattle come down the street. You’d have to run out to protect your yard,” she said.

Mrs. Owens still uses the 1880-vintage cash register on the counter. Adding the prices of sodas, cigarettes and a bag of chips by hand, she logs the total on the back of a cigarette carton, on which she keeps track of credit accounts. Come payday, the three farm hands who stopped in for a late morning break will come by again and settle their accounts.

The scent of kerosene and boxwood blossoms fills the air at Wright’s Store in Hume. The little market on Route 688 is another store that, until recently, was run by the same family for decades.

Established in 1930 by Roy and Gertrude Wright, the store was run by Mrs. Wright until shortly before her death in 1991 at the age of 90. Helen Eastham, the Wrights’ daughter, rents the store to Buck Fewell.

While both stores bear the names of their most recent owners, each as a long history preceding those families’ ownership. Fewell points with pride to a picture dated 1916 which shows a horse and carriage parked in front of the store next to an early automobile.

Like Mrs. Owens, Mrs. Eastham was raised in an apartment above her parents’ store. Her earliest recollections include memories of a pot-bellied stove around which local men would sit, play checkers and swap stories, some too outlandish to be believed.

“They would sit around at night telling stories and playing cards,” she said. “My father loved that.”

At Christmas time, her father drove to Colonial Beach to buy oysters. “People up here really thought they were a treat because you only got them at Christmas,” Mrs. Eastham said.

In those days, the country store was indeed the center of town. Often next door to the U.S. Post Office, the store filled a need at a time when travel distances were far greater than today.

“Back then, people didn’t have cars, they didn’t have any place to go but walk,” Mrs. Owens said.

The encroachment of suburban-styled shopping has taken its toll on Fauquier County’s country stores. When the Food Lion store opened in Bealeton, a number of smaller markets—Allen’s Store in Catlett, Calverton Market in Calverton and the Casanova Junction—all saw a drop in sales.

“Everybody wants a big fancy store. They’re not used to a little place like this,” said Robert Hodgson, who along with wife, Ruby, bought Calverton Market 18 years ago from long-time Calverton native David Botts, whose father owned the store during the early part of the century.

Those big stores, whether they be Food Lion, Giant, or Walmart, have colossal buying clout and can sell their goods a whole lot cheaper than a county store can.

“They can sell things cheaper than I can buy wholesale,” Hogdson said.

That’s why many stores, like Allen’s Store in Catlett, which is run by Korean businessman Hyung Yul Sohn, ventures into other areas, such as a green house business, and a dry cleaning service. “I try to do a little bit of everything,” Sohn said.

The new management at Casanova Junction did a survey during its first few weeks at the helm of the tiny store near the intersection of Routes 616 and 602 to determine just what its customers wanted.

“Everything here was brought in by request,” said manager Dorothy Despots.

That effort paid off. In the past couple months, the store’s sales jumped $4,000 a month and now average $14,000, according to Mrs. Despots.

Mayhugh’s Grocery in Midland keeps well-stocked shelves of a wide variety of foods, household items, hardware, fishing tackle and hunting gear.

“We give our customers what they want,” said Mayhugh employee Claudia Olinger.

All three stores, Casanova, Midland and Wright’s in Hume, have added delis and do a brisk breakfast and lunchtime trade among local farm hands and construction workers.

Elvin Smythers, president and general manager of Merchants Grocery Co. Inc., a Culpeper-based wholesale distributer of groceries servicing Fauquier County, said the small country store offers a “charm” not found in a 7-Eleven or Sheetz convenience store.

“These country stores still have a lot of charm. People will stop if they have a nice store, reasonable prices and good variety of merchandise,” Smythers said.

Buck Fewell, who rents Wright’s Grocery from Mrs. Eastham, wants to install gas pumps and has a petroleum company investigating that possibility now. Gasoline sales have long been the bread and butter of country stores.

But many, like Calverton Market, got rid of theirs because of hassles dealing with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“When they took away our gas tank, they took away half our business,” Hodgson said.

Owens’ Grocery lost about five months of gasoline sales while inspectors dug up its tanks looking for a leak which had allegedly fouled a nearby well. As it turned out, the leak came from an above-ground tank at nearby farm, according to Mrs. Owens.

In spite of the changing circumstances, country stores still fill an important role in the communities they serve, according to merchants. While most of their neighbors will go to town for “big shopping,” they will stop in from time to time for gas, cigarettes, an extra can of green beans or a gallon of milk.

“You get to know your customers. You know what they want. Of course, I grew up here, so I know everybody who comes in the store,” Mrs. Olinger said.

The stores provide a gathering place for neighbors to catch up on local gossip. “If you want to know what’s going on in Casanova, hang out here. If it’s happening, you’ll hear about it,” Mrs. Despots said.

On summer nights, Wright’s Grocery in Hume takes on the look of another era. “From time to time, they’ll stand out there and eat ice cream like they used to years ago,” Fewell said.