I took a drive down memory lane last week and about halfway through, my trip decided to turn into an old country store and rest a spell. I walked over to the drink box and pulled out an ice-cold Co-Cola in a 6-ounce bottle and poured a bag of Lance peanuts into it. Then I sat down by the pot-bellied stove in the corner and decided I would sit a spell.
I know we have a “convenience store” on every corner and a Walmart in every town, but I wish I could find a real-life old-fashioned country store to frequent — without having to drive to what passes as one in the North Georgia mountains.
Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until we don’t have it.
Remember how the counter used to look in an authentic store? There would almost always be a big jar of pickled pig feet sitting right beside the register. I was never man enough to eat one, but I admired those who did. It may be a coincidence but I think everybody I ever saw eating a pickled pig foot was wearing overalls.
Right beside the pig feet was a jar of coins with a picture of a smiling gap-toothed little boy or girl vying for the title of Mr. or Miss Local Elementary School. Remember how that worked? Candidates for the coveted title would collect money for the school and the kid who got the most money would be declared king or queen of the school. It was probably terrible for the self-esteem of the losing children and didn’t send a very good message to the winner, either — but a lot of chalk and craft paper was purchased with nickels and dimes and quarters dropped into empty mayonnaise jars.
A lot of the proprietors of those old stores would stretch the limits of the law a little by setting a punch board out on the counter. Now the state of Georgia has cornered the numbers racket, but in those days penny ante gambling was still a free market proposition. In case you don’t remember, this is how a punch board worked. The board was full of numbers and if you paid a dime — or a quarter or a 50 cents piece — you got to punch out a number with a metal stylus. If you were lucky your punch would reveal a cash prize — just like a scratch off ticket. The real winner was the owner of the punch board because the “Sorry, try agains” greatly outnumbered the “$5s.”
A lot of country store counters were cluttered with a lot of gastronomical delicacies other than the porcine pedes. (That’s Latin for pig feet. I’m not sure Julius Caesar knew how to pickle.) There might be a jar of pickled eggs or a big hoop of cheese. A barrel of white clay might occupy a space near the cash register. Yes, some people used to eat kaolin, and I’ve had friends who swore it kept their teeth and bones strong.
We can’t forget the drink box, can we? It was usually filled with ice and a plethora of cold drinks. Cokes, of course, and even a Pepsi or two — not to mention Nehi grape and orange sodas, Seven-Ups and RC Colas, which went really well with the Moon Pies, which were kept on the same rack as the peanuts and the peanut-butter crackers.
There was usually a group of old men sitting around the drink box and every now and then I’d hear one say to another, “I’ll pull you for a dope.” “Dope” was a term for Coca-Cola, because it once supposedly contained another kind of coke. The men would grab a bottle out of the ice and look on the bottom to see where it had been bottled. The person whose drink was bottled the furthest away paid the tab.
I also loved the penny candy. There were Mary Janes and Bit-O-Honeys and miniature Tootsie Rolls, not to mention peanut butter logs and red-hot jaw breakers. I know, I know. Most people came to the store for more substantive items, like Prince Albert tobacco or Dental Sweet Snuff and there were pins and needles and handkerchiefs and salves and turpentine and every staple you could imagine.
Speaking of staples, I remember the last long car trip I took with my daddy before he died. We went over to LaGrange and into eastern Alabama to visit some of the places he lived as a child. We stopped in an old country store for a snack and there was salt everywhere. There were round blue boxes of Morton Salt and red boxes of ice-cream salt and even great big salt blocks, like we used to put out for our cows to lick.
Daddy, who never met a stranger, struck up a conversation with the owner and, looking around at all the salt in every available space, said to the guy behind the counter, “Man, you must sell an awful lot of salt in here.”
The guy shook his head and said, “No sir. I don’t sell hardly any salt at all. A guy from Minnesota came through here last week that sure could sell salt, though.”
Maybe I’ll run into you at the store, soon. I’ll pull you for a dope.
Darrell Huckaby is a local author. Email him at darrellhuckaby.net. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.