Monday, December 18, 2006

Hilton Grocery

I was reading a blog post the other day that mentioned an old-fashioned country store. My grandaddy owned a country store, and portions of my younger years were spent there. Maybe I can paint a picture of it (as I have aboslutely no photos of it. I'll have to check with Mom to see if she does.)

It was situated at an intersection of a state road and two county roads on a gravel lot about 10 miles from town. Across the state road was the post office. (or post shack - it was tiny. My uncle ran it until it was closed.) The store was built of wood and had a front shelter where two gas pumps and a kerosene tank were located. You entered through the front screen door (with the Colonial Bread logo painted on it) or the side screen door - there was no air conditioning. I can still hear the slap of the screen doors closing. The wooden floor had worn where years of traffic had worn paths around the store. There were two windows across the front, one on either side of the front screen door behind one of which I would sometimes sit to watch for cars to pull up for gas. (I would race my brother to the pumps to see which of us got to pump the gas).

Just inside the front door in the left front corner were the drink coolers. When I first started going/working there there were no can drinks, you got either 8 or 10 ounce cokes (all soft drinks are coke in the South) and Pepsi had a 16 ounce-er. There was a crate beside one of the coolers to put your empties into. Along the left wall beyond the 2nd drink cooler was the milk cooler (with other dairy products, eggs, etc.) and then the gas heater with chairs around it - my grandmother used to sit by the fire during the winter and crochet (she taught me to crochet there) when there were no customers. This was where people would come to chat during all times of the year. There was almost always someone sitting there. Papa used to hitch one leg on the counter and talk with the current sitter(s). After the heater was the the wall phone (it was on a party line, so to make a call you picked up, listened to make sure folks weren't talking and dialed 4 digits for those on the same party line or 7 digits for town folks.). Next was the side entrance and finally a passageway to the back of the store.

Down the middle of the store from the front was a shelving display unit (bread on one side, odds and ends on the other) and at the end of the shelves was a place where bags of dog food as well as extra bales of sugar were stacked. (sugar came in 100 lb bales - 20 5lb bags or 10 10lb bags) (I used to sit at the top of the stack and pretend to be driving a stage coach.) After the sugar/dog food stacks was an aisleway in front of the meat cooler. Displayed in the cooler were souse meat, sausage meat, pork-chops, balogna, bacon, and a few sundries (now that I think on it, he didn't sell beef). The balogna, souse, and bacon were sliced to order. I can remember on weekday mornings when I would go with Papa to open the store I sliced a ton of balogna for lunch for the crews going to work on the nuclear plant being built nearby. They also bought a lot of potted meat and crackers, or vienna sausages. (both are uniquely southern comestables eaten on crackers with hot sauce). I would catch the bus from there to go to school.

On the right just inside the door was a passageway leading behind the right counters, first of which was the candy counter. Candy bars, bb's (they go together, right?) and a few candy-type items. Inside of a glass display case above the candy bars was where the penny candy was kept (some were 2-fer's). Next to the candy were 3 tall glass jars with heavy glass lids that held cookies. Behind the cookies was the cash register (that didn't work except for the cash drawer) and the hoop cheese cutter. The cutting of this cheese was reserved for Papa as he liked giving the customer ONE slice of cheese exactly the amount requested. The cutter had a flat round table on which the cheese wheel sat, it had a perpendicular handle that you pumped to and fro to move the cheese under the hinged cleaver used to cut the cheese (no jokes, please - this cheese cutting was a serious business!). Next to the hallowed cheese cutter was a brief expanse of counter, a passageway through, and then more counter at the end if which was the adding machine, complete with a handle to pull after each number entered. (I can still remember when it was upgraded to an electric model. Boy, were we in high cotton!) All behind these counters on the right were the shelves lining the wall from floor to ceiling where most of the groceries were. On these shelves also were cigarettes, loose-leaf tobacco (to roll your own) and snuff. (we sold a lot of snuff.) There were also the hanging displays of shoe strings, doan's liver/back/whathaveyou pills, plastic sunglasses, wallets, etc. A customer would come in, stand at the counter and would call out their order setting me or whoever else to fetch it. Their order was added up on the adding machine and bagged. Some folks were allowed to carry a "ticket" that was expected to be settled up at month-end. It was a big deal to me to be allowed to fill out the ticket.

Beyond the adding machine on the right was where the meat counter that ran across the back of the store met the right-side counter. Under the counter at this corner was where the cash box was kept - with a pistol on top. NOT TO BE MESSED WITH. Across the back of the store behind the meat counter was more floor to ceiling shelves. In the middle was a band saw to cut hams into slices, pork loins into chops and chickens in half. I was rarely allowed to do this, but I was always allowed to clean it. ugh.

Behind the store was a old burnham van body (off of the chassis) used for storage (sugar bales that didn't fit in the center, cattle feed and salt licks) and the outhouse. Yep - an outhouse. Although we were modern in that we kept toilet paper in it. During the summer Papa would send me home in his truck to get the tractor to bush hog behind the van body/outhouse to help keep the snakes and vermin away.

I would most often ride the bus down to the store after school and work there until closing at 6:00 PM. Sometimes during the spring and summer he would take me to the house, get out the tractor and start me plowing the field and then leave me to it while he went back to the store. (Papa also farmed corn and peanuts). Sometimes during the summer if I didn't go with him to open the store I would sleep in and then walk the railroad tracks the few miles to the store. Occasionally he would get up an order for someone and ask me to take his truck to deliver it - down a miriad of dirt roads that I knew by heart. Other summer days I would play with my brother and sister on his farm, frequently getting out his hunting jeep to ride around through the woods. Across the state highway beside the post office was a railroad siding. The train would stop there most days after switching and the crew would come over to get a coke & crackers. (I would go over and put coins under the engine's wheels to flatten them.) Empty boxcars would be left there for the papermill. Mr. Y.T. would come from town to clean them out. I would help him (in mid-summer heat) because he would let me drive his truck.

Papa's store is gone now, as is he. There are times I miss the hell out of him - and his store. In retrospect it was idyllic. Excepting those few years living with Papa (and Mama, and Mama & Papa Smith (great-grandparents) and my great-aunts & uncles, cousins, etc. etc. etc.) I was a city boy. My grandaddy was one of seven children all of which (but the one killed in WWII) lived within a few miles of each other. So living with him put me slap in the middle of a huge family. Despite spending most of my life moving from city to city I most often identify with these country roots - much more so than the years spent in suburbia. They are the clearest and most cherished memories I have of growing up.

4 deeply creased, dogeared comment(s):

Mother of Invention said...

You've painted such a wonderful picture of a classic store of its time! I loved the penny candy and the bottles of orange, grape, lime or cream soda Crush.

urban-urchin said...

what a cool place! That's wonderful that you have such vivid memories of your grandparents and the store.

Bob said...

mother of invention: here in the south, it's coke. you can have different kinds of coke - like grape, orange, pepsi or dr. pepper.

urban urchin: I moved so much growing up. I don't regret it but I've always had a secret envy of people who grew up in the same place, knowing everyone all of their lives. Maybe that's why I've latched onto the times I lived nearby Hilton Grocery.

Oh, The Joys said...

Yes, yes. They sound so similar, yours and mine.