A few of them are still around, but sadly most of Kentucky’s rustic country stores have gone the way of the nickel Coke and the 20-cent bologna sandwich.
Many of us who grew up in rural Kentucky during the first three-quarters of the 20th century have fond memories of a country store not far from our house.
Don Carter, who lives on Big Hickman Creek in Jessamine County, was mourning the passing of country stores a few months ago in sentiments bordering on poetic.
The essence of his lament was that country stores were once the cultural hitching posts of most rural communities.
On their porches and around their pot-bellied stoves and liars’ benches, everything was discussed from family problems to politics to farming, to romance and high finance, more often laced with humor than rancor.
Carter remembered a local character known as “Pup” Corman, who had a large family. As Pup left the store one winter afternoon, someone asked, “Pup, why are you leaving so early?”
“I’ve got to get home and crack enough walnuts to feed 13 children,” Pup answered.
At Penn’s Store near Gravel Switch, one of Kentucky’s oldest country stores, the high water marks from local floods through the decades are still visible on the primitive counter.
At R.C. Weddle’s old store in neighboring Casey County, soft-drink bottle caps covered the parking lot, and Weddle’s regular customers all knew that if a stick of firewood was propped against the screen door, it meant the store was closed.
The community of Tolu in Crittenden County is said to have taken its name from a whiskey-based tonic made from a Colombian tolu tree extract that was served at a country store in the settlement during Prohibition.
During the 1950s, there were more than 1,000 country stores nestled among the hollows and crossroads of southeastern and southern Kentucky where the Laurel Grocery Company delivered its wholesale orders.
Don Chesnut of London, whose father, W.J. “Bill” Chesnut, co-founded the grocery company along with George Griffin, tells of a country store owner in Clay County who was unable to pay the wholesaler a $60 debt, a sizeable sum in the early 1930s.
Chesnut and Griffin went to collect and found that there was little left to claim as collateral. Then they noticed a cow grazing behind the store and made a deal with the storekeeper to square the debt in exchange for the cow. They promised to send a truck to haul her back to London.
Weeks passed and winter set in, and the truck never made it to get the cow. Then one day in the spring, there came a notice in the mail from the storekeeper that Chesnut and Griffin owed him a feed bill for keeping their cow all winter.
The bill, he said, amounted to about $60. They agreed to settle the debt in exchange for the cow.