Growing Up Watching the General Store
by Maxine Carter-Lome
For those of us who grew up in a city or were born after 1930, chances are our only real association with the 19th century general store is what we saw on TV and experienced at restoration villages such as Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village or Old Bethpage Village Restoration. I’m a product of the 1960s and 70s sitcoms so what I knew before putting this issue together was basically what I saw on such TV shows as Little House on the Prairie, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. Although each show was set in a different time period, each made a trip to town and the general store an important fixture of life in their characters’ small, rural town, and its shopkeeper, a central character actor.
Who could forget Drucker’s General Store in the fictional community of Hooterville, the “town” central to life on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres? The Store’s owner, Sam Drucker, portrayed on both shows by the late actor Frank Cady, was a key character on both sitcoms, providing the girls on Petticoat Junction, and Oliver and Lisa Douglas on Green Acres, with everything from the staples of life to news, gossip, and unsolicited advice. True to the businesses and store-keepers upon which this iconic character was based, Sam Drucker sleeps in the back room of the general store and is also the Town’s postmaster, constable, Justice of the Peace, Superintendent of Schools, and editor, publisher, and apparently sole employee of the Hooterville World-Guardian, the town’s weekly newspaper. He also operates a “bank,” which is merely a cash box kept under the counter in his store, plays the bass drum in the Hooterville Volunteer Fire Department Band, and is a fireman with the Hooterville Volunteer Fire Department.
On Little House on the Prairie, a trip to Oleson’s Mercantile, the only general merchandise store in Walnut Grove, was a central experience on the show. Like Sam Drucker, Harriet and Nels Oleson, and their children Nellie and Willie lived above the store, which carried everything from fabric and notions to cookware and anything else Charles Ingalls needed that he could not make, build, or grow. Going into town and to the general store was an outing enjoyed by the whole family as it offered something and more for the entire family. Although these shows stopped airing decades ago, both Oleson’s Mercantile and Drucker’s General Store have a fan-based Facebook page in their memory, a lasting tribute to the general store legacy.
In westward-expanding rural farming and mining communities across North America in the 19th century, a general store helped to turn outposts into fledgling towns. In addition to being a mercantile, the general store often served as a post office, bank, pharmacy, marketplace, message center, and source for news and gossip. It was the center of life in a community, and its owner, one of the Town’s more prominent citizens. Our contemporary image of a group of locals sitting around a pot-bellied stove in the general store playing checkers and shooting the breeze is one based in fact portrayed by made-for-TV characters.
In the first half of the19th century, the general store played an important role in American commerce in what was then primarily a credit, barter, and trade economy. The storekeeper worked with the farmers in his community to bring their fresh produce and farm-made goods to the nearest city market, using their market value to purchase inventory for his shop and customers. In this role, the storekeeper was his community’s primary and regular conduit to what was happening in the “big city,” bringing back news, the latest fashions, and the newest products to his more isolated community.
Since most general stores were not that big, every inch of shelf-lined wall space was filled with inventory, typically laid out in sections. What was not on a shelf could be found on the countertops, and in barrels and wooden crates on the floor. Early on, the general store’s inventory focused on the staples but after the Civil War, America changed, and so did the general store and its consuming public.
As a collectible category, this one is huge, popular, and can be very affordable and accessible. In this issue, we look at some of the collectible items most associated with the general store: coffee grinders, countertop scales, notions, and packaging – from apothecary jars to tin spice boxes, cheese boxes, and sacks. We also look at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, AK, housing a collection dedicated to preserving the Mooney-Barker Drugstore Collection, saying, “They never threw anything out.”
Competition from department stores, specialty stores, catalogs, and traveling salesmen ultimately led to the demise of the local general store as it was, and as we’ve grown up remembering it from our favorite TV shows. The last self-proclaimed continuously operating general store in America closed its doors in 2012. Sadly, nostalgia alone could not make it a sustainable business.
Growing Up Watching the General Store