The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

October 14, 2012

Old general stores a piece of Americana


A reader submitted this interesting picture of Isaac Rice and his store. He and five other men faced the camera for this picture taken in Newtown, Ind. The photographer was Bailey & Son, and the picture is undated. A history of Fountain County notes the Rice store burned in 1868; perhaps that was the store in this picture. In 1881 Rice had a store with the Odd Fellows lodge on the second floor. There is no second floor on the building pictured, just the usual false front to give the little building a more imposing look.

A note on the back of the picture observes Rice is “pictured first to right.” All the men have facial hair and look to be wearing boots. On the far end of the platform in front of the store, a dog is sleeping soundly. Rice stands near the dog, a large cigar in his hand. The platform is higher than the board sidewalk it connects to; this was to make it more convenient to load goods into customers’ wagons. Several rolls of wire are visible on the platform.

A barrel and other containers are in view at the side of the building. The old general stores received numerous items in barrels, including sugar, which could weigh up to 300 pounds. The barrel has metal bands, not the wooden hoops used to hold the staves of earlier casks together. Empty barrels did not remain around long; farmers bought them for a few cents to use for various purposes, including the storage of sauerkraut and cider. A small sign on the building above the third man from the right advertises yeast.

A large wooden box beside the man standing in the doorway is marked Lump Starch. It appears to be propping the door open; a small keg is used for the same purpose on the other door. A lantern sits atop the pole at the far left of the picture, suggesting Rice kept long hours at his store.

The two large wooden boxes in front of the store were probably well used by the regulars, who whiled away their spare hours there. Some of the men in the picture with Rice were probably members of this group. The man sitting on the box with the slanted top demonstrates how this illustrious gang made use of almost any surface as a resting place.

Stores like Rice’s were often the social center of the community. Whether they were located at a country crossroads, or in a village, they were where people came for news as well as supplies. Often, the U.S. post office was located in the stores, and the owner was postmaster. Distributing the mail-order catalogues to customers when they came in to get their mail was probably a distasteful part of the postmaster position. But the general store owner had a big advantage over the mail order folks; catalogue houses operated on a cash basis and the local store offered credit, and took trade goods. Catalogue companies were not interested in taking a farmer’s excess turnips or a few dozen eggs to settle an account.

Pictures like this speak across the years, and they keep the memory of a uniquely American institution alive — the old general store.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.