Traveling the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, the scenic byways are peppered with skeletons of bygone days. These houses, barns and windmills that have fallen into non-use and decay are memories of a different time and a simpler way of life.
The scores of old country stores are now deserted for the most part. Once vibrant with business and camaraderie, they now sit seemingly unnoticed by both time and travelers. Certainly, they were once the local center of retail. The number of stores in the area is very difficult to estimate as most have been torn down to make room for other business opportunities. Even so, you can identify many of the locations where they once proudly sat. Weathered buildings with a front porch and a roof extending to cover the benches and chairs where people sat and socialized are some definite identifying marks. If the store has been destroyed or torn down, the site may still suggest that there was once a thriving business there. Indicators may include overgrown ruins and old rusty poles and signage. This was the beginning of department stores, the Target and Walmart of the day, if you will. A look back at these may jog fond memories held by the older people in the area and provide an inspiring look at a time when things were much simpler. Many members of the younger generation have no way of knowing the excitement these store visits brought.
Traditionally, Eastern Virginia has been slow to adapt to modern customs and conveniences. Being separated from the mainland by numerous wide rivers and creeks, the people living here were mostly farmers, timber and lumber workers, vegetable growers and packers and fishermen. Most of the vegetables, fruit, grains and meat were grown at home and processed there. Daily staples such as coffee, salt, flour, cornmeal, and sugar were available at the nearby country store. These stores provided general merchandise such as canned goods, animal tack, fresh meat, cloth to make clothing, farm supplies, tools, hardware, ammunition, and housewares. Later on, gas pumps, hand cranked oil dispensers and a section of automobile maintenance materials were added. There were also dozens of “penny candy” jars in a rainbow of colors to tempt the children. Candies with names like Squirrel Nuts or Mary Janes and the ever popular peppermint balls struck pangs of hunger. The choices seemed endless. For about 25 cents you could buy enough candy to last quite a while, depending on the number of new best friends you acquired.
Some of the stores in the area were Motley’s Store in Rexburg, Davis’ Store near White Stone, Dobbins’ Store in Caret, Miskimon Store in Miskimon , Weaver’s Store in Reedville, Harper’s Store at Lloyds, Derieux’s Store in Tappahannock, and Downing’s Store in Downing. There were many, many others, but unfortunately they are gone without a trace, victims of time and progress. The ones remaining are the result of careful restoration or constant maintenance.
The common layout inside of these stores was simple and functional to allow for maximum use of space available. Counters lined both sides of the store and shelves reached from the floor to the ceiling. To reach the products on the top shelves, a ladder on wheels was attached to a secure track in the ceiling offering access to both the top shelf and the others in between. There was another such device located on the other side of the store. Tables with clothes and other products were spaced carefully in the center careful not to get too close to the wood stove which provided heat in the winters. Rolls of wrapping paper, string, and a hand cranked cash register were located on the countertop and clerks wrapped and tied customers’ purchases for transport home. Soon after, paper bags replaced wrapping paper and string to aid the clerk by providing a writing surface to tally up purchases.
One of the largest stores in the Essex County area was Ware’s Store in Dunnsville. Built by Eddie Ware in the late 1840s, it carried all of the necessary household products as well as seafood from the nearby Rappahannock River. Things not normally carried could be ordered from catalogues and received by mail or delivered with other freight at the local docks. Ware’s Store was the site of the second post office in the area. For years the first one was located in a house near the foot of Ware’s Wharf. In the late 1920s and 1930s, bridges were being built to span the rivers and the post office was moved to Dunnsville because mail delivery by truck was quicker than the steamboats cruising the Rappahannock River.
Alexander F. Dillard, Jr., a local attorney, who began his “professional working career” as a 15- year- old high school student clerking in Ware’s Store, stated that it was quite an operation. “There was no self-service back then,” said Dillard. “You had to
wait on each customer individually. The shelves were stocked from the floor to the ceiling with all types of groceries and the clerk went to the shelves and returned with what the customer asked for,” he chuckled.
“Ware’s Store was the transfer station for the schools then located in the south end of the county,” said Dillard. “I was also the backup school bus driver and John Haile was the primary. He played baseball so I was the driver during the season and other times when John was not available,” said Dillard.
Dillard also remembered locals who frequented Ware’s Store. “Mr. Willie Campbell was the person you went to ask what fish were biting and what they were biting on,” noted Dillard. “John Haile was the trapper and would bring in muskrats to be sold for their hides.” But the most interesting gentleman according to Dillard was Willard Corbin. “He had an uncanny talent for predicting the weather. He would come in each morning and give accurate forecasts. No one knew quite how he did it. We found out later that he would read the afternoon edition of the Richmond paper that came in on the evening bus the night before. He pulled one over on us for some time,” Dillard laughed.
Bristow’s Store in Urbanna is one establishment that has not only survived but, as of late, has thrived. Purchased from the Bristow family several years ago, Mrs. Pat Marshall decided that she would keep the iconic store open. “After some painting and a little fixing up, the store looks pretty much like it did when it opened in 1876,” Mrs. Marshall said proudly. “We now have some more modern items, but we try to keep certain things that will remind people of what was offered back then,” she added.
Looking around the store, things are divided into certain departments. Ladies clothes, costume jewelry, shoes, work clothes, men’s clothing and a gift section share the space with old country store items such as nuts, bolts, screws, nails, chain, galvanized buckets, horse leather, etc. She still has a few of the things that made Bristow’s one of the best in Middlesex County. “Not many, but a representation of what was available here years ago,” Marshall said. A period hanging scale with items in the pan adds to the antiquity.
The original wooden floors, sanded daily by foot traffic and held down by its original cut nails , as well as the long counters and original interior woodwork still remain. In the shoe department, three chairs noting the names of the shoe companies Bristow at one time sold are lined up like sentinels. Purses, scarfs, and other items are hanging from the original supporting interior posts. Today’s styles and colors are tastefully blended into yesterday’s store.
Finally, a store in lower Lancaster County also disappeared but left a lasting memory that the residents just would not let it die. Located in the small crossroads village of Ocran was J. C. Davis and Son, General Merchandise. Over the years, the store was known by three different names: J.C. Davis Merchandise, J.C. Davis Company and finally J.C. Davis and Son. Opened circa 1912, the store was built on the pattern of most stores of the day. It was rectangular with shelves from floor to ceiling along the entire length of both long walls as well as the end opposite the front door. Groceries, household items, hardware, farm needs and in this case, supplies needed to work the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers, lined the shelves. Davis’ store was the center of the bustling village.
According to Barbara Ashburn, the granddaughter of Clifton, it was a fun place to be. “As a child, I would play around the store, under the watchful eye of my grandfather. I used to love to sit on the glass cases. As I grew, one day I broke the glass and fell into the case. My grandfather was not even concerned with the damage to the case only that I was not cut,” said Ashburn. “He was the kindest man ever.”
As a tribute to Mr. Davis, family and friends have collected many of the items located in the original store, and they are housed in a scale model store front at the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington. Davis died in 1968, and his son continued operations for about 10 more years.
The era of the country store has passed but the memories have not. They were a local gathering place where friends and business associates could meet and discuss world events, local news and occasionally a little gossip. The stores themselves were visible, appreciable places of history, but the storekeepers, the men and women who owned these stores were equal parts of a long lost time. Even in Eastern Virginia, the land of pleasant living, things were not always idyllic. Crop failures, small seafood harvests, deaths in the families and plain hard times placed a strain on customers’ finances. During these times, people would take some eggs, vegetables, seafood, crops or farm animals such as chickens to the store and barter them for groceries. The storekeepers would trade an equal dollar amount of food and clothing for the items brought for trade. In emergencies, an IOU or a tab at the store, usually written on a slip of paper, would be held until such time as funds were available. Neighbors and merchants had the welfare of the community at heart. During sickness and hard times, they cared for each other.
The next time you’re driving around and pass the skeletal remains of these old stores, remember the bustling businesses that they were. Some stores have been preserved or restored. The Dragon Run Country Store in Middlesex is one of these places where a look in the front window reveals a dress with a hooped skirt on a mannequin. If you stop and listen you might hear the gleeful voices of children comparing their bags of candy or the sounds of business being done. Just close your eyes; listen and remember.