Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Country Store of Adam K. Wyant

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Wyant’s Store, since the 1880s, has welcomed community and travelers at its prominent location at the intersection of Brown’s Gap Turnpike and Garth (formerly Owensville) Road. (Photo by Phil James).

Country stores are treasures. Each of the ones fortunate to continue to serve their neighbors and curious passersby has a unique identity. To their customers of old, that identity was one of familiarity and trust, a genuine lifeline for many in an era when travel and communications were slow at best and, oftentimes, nigh unto impossible.

A.K. Wyant Jr. (1893–1973) would have smiled and nodded understandingly had he read the opening line of a memoir written by his once distant neighbor (of four miles) Dr. Sidney E. Sandridge. “I grew up in a country store,” wrote Sandridge, “and I have never been able to figure out what children do who grow up in any other environment.”

Adam Jr. was the 7th born of Adam Keblinger and Emma (Anderson) Wyant, and he grew up next door to his father’s store in the small but busy crossroads village of White Hall in western Albemarle County. Enveloped in that world of business from the time he could crawl, the 6-foot-tall Adam was boarding in Rockingham County while adding to his retail experience as a clerk in Thomas P. Yager’s General Store by age 16.

Adam K. Wyant Jr., on right, and Grant Gilson, share news on the front porch of White Hall’s Wyant’s Store in the 1950s. (Courtesy of the Ruby Via Doughtie Collection)

On January 1, 1913, the seasoned 19-year-old assumed ownership of the White Hall store business that his father had operated for 25 years. The store’s signage was changed to “A.K. Wyant & Son.” Adam K. Wyant Sr., Moormans River (White Hall) postmaster at that time, continued his postal term until 1914.

“When I became a merchant,” Adam Jr. related to Daily Progress columnist Boyce Loving in 1963, “almost every day about 100 wagons passed this store on the way to Mechums River [the principal railroad shipping point for the White Hall neighborhood in those days.] They were loaded with tanbark, railroad crossties, telephone poles, saw logs, or apples.

“In those horse-and-buggy days, I stocked team harness, horse and mule collars, horseshoe nails; also bolt goods, oil cloth, men’s ready-to-wear clothing, men’s and women’s shoes, farm hand tools, plow points, quantities of plug tobacco, and more kerosene than gasoline.

For more than a century the front porch at Wyant’s Store in White Hall has beckoned old friends and passersby to slow down and just sit a spell. (Photo by Sally James)

“There weren’t as many pre-packaged goods. Molasses came in barrels and lard was dispensed from wooden tubs. Coffee, green or roasted, was weighed out by the pound, as were salt, brown and white sugar, flour and meal. I also sold coffins for some years.”

In the spring of 1914, a windstorm swept the region. “At White Hall,” the local newspaper reported, “Mr. A.K. Wyant’s dwelling house and James Slaughter’s blacksmith shop [next door to Wyant’s Store] were unroofed. The kitchen chimney of the Methodist Parsonage was blown off and the back porch injured.”

The United States declared war on Germany in 1917. June of that year saw young Wyant register for the military draft. Thirteen months later, at age 24, he was enlisted in the U.S. Army and served six months as a machine gunner with the 41st Infantry Division in France while his father stepped back in to operate the store. This proved to be Adam Jr.’s only absence from his store business during his lifetime.

This view across the timeworn threshold at the c.1919 Wyant’s Store building has changed little over the past century. The c.1806 Brown’s Gap Turnpike turns south at the c.1910 former St. Alban’s Church reflected in the store’s front door glass. A.K. Wyant’s sturdy fruit packing shed, ahead on the left, built from rough sawn hardwoods cut on shares in Sugar Hollow, has also stood the test of time. (Photo by Phil James)

To say that the year 1919 was one of great changes and events in the life of Adam Wyant Jr. would be a gross understatement. In January, he was released from his term of military service, and returned home to White Hall, safe and sound. Settled back in business, in June, he married the love of his lifetime, Miss Irene Margaret Clark. Only ten weeks later, it may have seemed that life might not turn out the way they had hoped.

On August 26, the newspaper headline trumpeted BIG FIRE AT WHITE HALL. “White Hall was visited yesterday by a fire which threatened at one time to wipe out the village.

“The blaze started about noon in the residence of James [and the late Lucy Ann] Slaughter and spread to the adjoining blacksmith shop. A.K. Wyant’s store, a two-story frame building was next consumed, together with a large stock of goods.

“Fanned by a strong breeze, the flames leaped across the street and devoured a small mill, owned by Mr. Hale and operated by gasoline. An unoccupied brick house came next in the path of the fire but the tall walls of the building checked the flames. Had the fire gotten beyond this building, which was owned by Mrs. Hale, the Methodist Parsonage, and the residences of Dr. Roberts, Mr. Driscoll, Mr. Thomas and others would have been consumed.

“Mr. Wyant’s loss is said to have been quite heavy…”

Foxhunters and their excited pack of hounds gathered in front of A.K. Wyant and Son’s Store in downtown White Hall, c.1915. Original Wyant’s Store, pre-1919 fire, is on right; St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, constructed 1910/1911 on left. In the distant background is Piedmont Store, dating to the 1850s. (Courtesy of the Ward-Bishop family.)

With the energy, strength and optimism of their youth, the Wyants determined to rebuild the store. Soon thereafter, Dr. Roberts purchased the former Hale property and offered to sell the vacant two-acre lot on the corner diagonally across from the store to the newly-weds. Five days before Thanksgiving, that deed was recorded, and the young couple offered up thanks for silver linings behind dark clouds and renewed hope for their future life together.

Straightway, Adam and Irene reestablished their store business from the ashes up. In due time, they also built a house on that corner lot. Their home was blessed with five sons and plenty of baseball games.

Adam operated five fruit orchards, one of which along Sugar Hollow Road was bisected for the gateway to the Camp Albemarle Civilian Conservation Corps Camp (1933–1942). He was called on again to loan his farmland for public service for 21 months in 1944–1946 when that former CCC camp was outfitted as Virginia’s first prisoner-of-war side-camp, an “experimental camp, to determine how advantageous such labor is to employers.”

Sixty years and a handful of weeks from the date of his first day as owner/operator of A.K. Wyant & Son Store, Adam Jr. was called heavenward to his reward. Faithful to the end to his family, church, and community, his passing occurred on the first day of a new business week while at work in his store: “in harness,” the elders might say. To date, a total of five generations of the Wyant family have had a hand in operating the country store long identified with their family name. 

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 © 2003–2019 Phil James

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