By Phil James
The country store has long served an important role in society, and still does, right alongside the local hardware. There are simply too many times when no one wants or needs to walk seeming miles of aisles for a notion or two, a quick fix-it item, or a grab-’n-go snack.
If you are fortunate enough to have a community store nearby, it’s likely run by one of your neighbors—or somebody’s neighbor, if you’re just passing through. It serves as a landmark for giving directions and a familiar place to meet up with a friend. The business may have been in the same family for generations and its name has probably been a local identifier for ages.
Plastered with advertising signage, the front porch might be lit by a naked light bulb or two when the sun drops below the horizon. Come springtime, handmade painted birdhouses hang from nails driven into a rafter; in the fall, those same hangers carry baskets of mums.
One Saturday evening some years ago, this writer happened into Wyant’s Store in White Hall. Local laborer Ed Raines was sitting on the worn, scarred storefront bench, one of his long thin legs braced against a white porch column, watching but not looking straight into the traffic passing through the intersection directly out front.
“It’s one of Roosevelt’s benches,” he barked in response to a question probing for a local history tidbit. “Came from up at the C.C.C. camp. The CC boys built ‘em.”
Ed had lived in a tenant house on the 200-year-old Maupin family farm for close to a half-century, working with Dan Maupin, and Dan’s father before him, on the thousand-and-one tasks needed to keep the place producing and in good order. On most evenings, Ed walked up the road to Wyant’s to banter with the help, watch traffic go by, and wait on closing time.
Tiring of his bench seat, Ed got up and moved inside, took a bottled soda from one of the cold boxes and pulled a chair up to the dinette table beneath the store’s picture window. A portable radio played just inches away on a wooden shelf. On Saturday nights, WFLO, a country music station down in Farmville, broadcast a gospel music program. That probably counted as church for Ed and more than a few others on many weekends.
An occasional car or pick-up truck halted, then went right or left at the stop sign out front. A few stopped in for soda, beer, cigarettes or snacks. Ed made conversation with those he knew and carefully avoided making eye contact with the rest. And there he sat until closing, chain-smoking cigarettes, his legs crossed at an acute angle and an elbow resting on one knee.
“What’s keeping you busy on the farm this time of year?” someone asked.
“Just feeding cows and trimming fruit trees,” was Ed’s short reply.
Dan Maupin moseyed into the store, speaking to each person as he passed. An outgoing, neighborly man, he has lived his entire life, except for a stint in the military, in the close-knit community of his ancestors. A knowledgeable keeper of the history of the village, he always seems agreeable to pause for a chat. Unlike Ed, Dan engaged in conversation, and after only a few minutes, made one feel as though he had known him for a long time. He was recognized and respected by most all who came in, and the subjects changed with each new customer.
Cecil Collier entered the store, grabbed a soft drink and joined the small circle of old acquaintances. A cattleman and truck driver much of his life, he had also been a trusted school bus driver for many local youngsters. Cecil was the go-to man if someone needed livestock moved or hauled to the stockyard on sale day.
During a pause in the conversation, Dan was asked about a picture he had of his family’s gristmill. What had been the old mill’s fate: flood or fire? It seems one of those two ends came to all of the old river mills.
“Neither,” said Dan, as he glanced over at Cecil. They began to recall that day when the early-19th century Maupin’s Mill ceased to be. For many years, it had been relegated to duty as a hay barn. While working together in the hay field one hot July day in 1978, Dan and Cecil had stopped for lunch. Dan went back to his house for a noon meal and Cecil came up to the store.
Returning a short while later, Cecil was waiting on the hill in his truck for Dan to return when the event occurred. A small twister appeared nearby and, as it passed directly over the old mill, Cecil watched with amazement as the venerable structure was lifted up from its stone foundation and, just as suddenly, dropped back down. After more than a century-and-a-half of service, the mill collapsed into a great pile of splintered wood. Only the massive center beam that ran the entire length of the building was found unscathed in the wreckage.
They bantered back and forth about exactly which day the mill went down, when, suddenly, Cecil said, “I’ll be right back,” and he left the store. Returning a few minutes later, he announced that the mill had been destroyed the same day that local farmer Mervin Sandridge had been buried. Cecil had pasted his friend’s obituary onto the ceiling of his pick-up truck and it remained there these many years later. He had gone out to check the date, but then realized that he had driven a different vehicle.
Cecil had given his older work truck a break that evening and rambled out in his newer one. You don’t drive just anything down to the store come a Saturday night.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2015 Phil James