Slice of Americana alive and well at general stores
Sacks of flour, bolts of fabric, barrels of molasses, jars of penny candy. Folks playing checkers, swapping stories, sharing news. The old general store, the heart of a community in 19th- and early 20th-century America, is today the embodiment of nostalgia—a throwback to simpler times, when farmers traded eggs for seed and neighbors became friends around a potbellied stove.
Several old-timey general stores still thrive in communities across the state, including the granddaddy of them all—Historic Penn’s Store in Gravel Switch.
The oldest country store in America in continuous ownership and operation by the same family, this National Register of Historic Places landmark has always been more than a mercantile. It was the place for gathering to share a meal, the latest news or just a good tale.
Generations of Penns have owned the store, beginning with Gabriel Jackson Penn back in 1850. Perched on the Boyle-Casey county line, Penn’s has brought folks together for 170 years as they stopped in for food and supplies, mail and meds.
“Second-generation owner/proprietor Martin Wilson ‘Dick’ Penn was a postmaster, land surveyor and pharmacist who also practiced medicine and dentistry,” notes sixth-generation owner and operator, Dawn Lane Osborn. “He was known to have a cure for skin cancer, with people coming long distances to be treated with ‘Penn’s Cure.’”
Over the years, Penn’s has adapted to accommodate the evolving community and economic climate, yet it continues to operate as a general store.
“It has increasingly become a tourist destination,” says Osborn, “and has hosted tourists from all 50 states and over 20 countries.”
Reaching back nearly 190 years to 1831 is the Rabbit Hash General Store, served by Owen Electric. It sits on the banks of the Ohio River in Boone County in a setting untouched by time.
Family owned for years, the building housing the store now belongs to the Rabbit Hash Historical Society, which also owns the town—whose mayor is a dog named Bryneth Pawtrow. For the last 20 years, Terrie Markesbery has been the sole proprietor and steward of this time capsule of Americana.
“It is truly not just a physical location but a state of mind and an experience to visit and feel what America used to be,” Markesbery says.
The store burned to the ground in 2016, was rebuilt with reclaimed wood from a mid-1800s barn and reopened in 2018. A hodgepodge of merchandise lines the shelves: antiques, collectibles and Kentucky-made goods, including Bybee Pottery, brooms made at Berea College, Mom Blakeman’s Creamed Pull Candy, Windstone Farms’ blackberry jam and Saponi Soaps. Groceries and other staples needed by locals fill out the inventory.
“I always hope that people get exactly what they expect when they come through the front door,” says Markesbery.
Webb’s Grocery in Van Lear was built in 1912 by the Consolidated Coal Company and known as the No. 2 or No. 5 store. It housed furniture, hardware, feed and grocery stores; a butcher shop; and a Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order window so miners and their families could get goods not stocked by the store.
Sold in 1949, the store had a number of proprietors before being bought in 1976 by Herman and Patsy Webb. Many who visited the landmark on their way to “Butcher Holler” before Herman Webb’s passing in 2018 had the good fortune to meet this “coal miner’s son” and learn about his famous sisters, Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle. In fact, the general store is where, in 1948, Doolittle Lynn first laid eyes on the future Queen of Country Music, then 13 years old.
Today, Webb’s Grocery is owned by Herman and Patsy’s daughters, Connie and Hermalee Webb.
“We love our little country store,” says Connie Webb. “Many tourists return year after year just to visit it and the Homeplace, see our beautiful hills and learn about our eastern Kentucky culture.”
More Kentucky storefronts
Other general stores include Boyce General Store in Alvaton, served by Warren RECC, which opened in 1869 and currently is owned by Brad and Brie Golliher. It’s where friends meet for coffee and catching up over breakfast and lunch. Brie Golliher is known as the Pie Queen; her pies are sold at Kentucky Whole Foods locations and also ship all over the country.
In Wisdom, Hunley’s Grocery Store, served by Farmers RECC, has been in the family since 1940 and is owned and operated by Elbert Royce Hunley Jr. and Martha Hunley. Junior is famous for his bologna sandwiches and knowing his regular’s “usual orders.”
With plans for twin sons, Adam and Brad Hunley, to eventually take over, the Hunley legacy will continue well into the future as a place that reminds visitors of a time when life moved a little slower.
“There is no credit card machine or fancy gas pumps,” says daughter, Sarah Hunley Tallman. “Just smiling faces asking how you and your family are doing.”
Read more about the traditions surrounding Kentucky’s general stores here.
Kathy Witt is an award-winning travel and lifestyle writer based in northern Kentucky and the author of Secret Cincinnati and The Secret of the Belles.