Remembering the rolling stores of days gone by
Dec 24, 2013 | 1892 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
By Herman McDaniel

“The rolling store’s coming!” The first person to see that approaching store-on-wheels typically yelled to alert family and neighbors to get to the road if they wanted to conduct business with the store-on-wheels that day.

The first rolling store serving Murray County was operated by a company in a small Gordon County town called Ranger, south of Chatsworth on Highway 411.

John Wesley Evans saw a disturbing decrease in sales at the Ranger store he co-owned with his father in the late 1920s. Evans knew that times were tough and money was scarce. Families raised most of what they ate and made much of what they wore. Lacking money with which to buy things, many farm families only went to town two or three times a year.

Since his traditional store business was off, Evans came up with the idea of building a store-on-wheels and taking his best selling, basic items on the road to various communities in nearby counties. He reasoned that this approach would enable people to buy his goods without ever visiting the actual store in Ranger.

Evans created a large wooden box style building on a truck chassis, and equipped its interior with appropriate shelving as well as a counter, and storage space to operate a small dry goods store on wheels. This unusual store was better stocked than most of the rural, family run stores that then dotted Murray County–many were only open limited days/hours or when someone rang a loud bell near the store’s entrance to summon a family member to stop whatever he or she doing and come open the store for a customer.

It quickly became apparent that Evans’ bright red, store-on-wheels had become very popular with the mainly country folks he served. He said that he chose red because customers could see the store approaching from a great distance and they knew that something that big and so red had to be the rolling store.

Evans eventually owned seven rolling stores that he sent to communities in Gordon, Murray, Pickens, and Bartow counties every week. On his traditional store building in Ranger he erected a sign proclaiming it to be “The Home of the Red Wagon.”

Other merchants quickly saw that taking the store to various communities was a successful business idea and several decided to do the same. It wasn’t long before Evans had competition from the Hamrick Store, located very near Evans’ Store in Ranger. Hamrick built his rolling stores roughly the same size and shape as the Evans’ stores. He painted the Hamrick rolling stores dark green. Both Ranger companies soon had rolling stores serving several counties; both sent stores into various parts of Murray.

Seeing the popularity and success of the Ranger-based rolling stores operating in Murray County, Quarles and Westfield of Chatsworth built and provisioned two rolling stores that also traversed Murray County. Jess Wilbanks drove one of these and Claude Ballew drove the other.

William Leonard remembers that these rolling stores operated in the 1930s, 40s, and possibly into the 1950s. He said that both of the company’s stores-on-wheels served regular routes across Murray County either 5 or 6 days each week.

Leonard said that Quarles and Westfield had people who worked later than the store’s traditional open hours, so they could handle whatever items the drivers had taken in each day, clean the stores, and restock them, making them ready to roll the following day.

William Leonard also remembers that a man named Mont Roberts operated a store where Benny Huggins’ Tax Office now is located on 3rd Avenue. He said that Roberts also ran a rolling store but he does not recall when this company started their rolling store operation nor how long it lasted. He remembers that Robert’s son drove the rolling store. Very little information has been found regarding this operation.

Of course all of the companies would have had to have similar operations. Someone would do bookkeeping and accounting details when each rolling store finished the day. Someone had to handle special orders to make certain that items that had been promised to be delivered the following week would be available in the correct size, color, style, etc., promised by the driver. By today’s sizing standards some of the specifications for special orders seem very strange. For example, someone ordering shoes might give the driver a pencil drawing/tracing of the outline of a person’s foot because they did not know what size to ask for. It also was common to just bring in a piece of wood or a small tree limb that was the same length as the person’s foot.

All of the rolling stores that accepted payment for goods in the form of butter, eggs, live fowl, freshly killed (dressed) rabbits, etc., had someone at the home store who accounted for these transactions and disposed of the bartered goods in a manner that was as profitable as possible for the company. For example, Paul Burgess, son-in-law of J. W. Evans, said that Evans’ rolling stores took in so many squirrels and rabbits that they had a contract to deliver them to a buyer in the Atlanta area by pick-up truck. He said that they had various buyers for the butter, eggs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc., accepted as payment for merchandise each day. Burgess remembers that the Evans slogan was “We Buy Anything. We Sell Everything.”

The McDaniel family lived on highway 52/76, the Chatsworth to Dalton Highway, about a mile and a half west of Spring Place. Carlton clearly remembers the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the rolling store served families living on or near this highway. Nearly all of the houses fronting on the paved road had electricity, but some on unpaved roads just off of the highway did not. They still relied on “coal oil” burning lamps to light their homes at night. They regularly met the rolling store, carrying cans or jugs, to buy a week’s supply of kerosene.

Everyone living along Chatsworth to Dalton highway knew approximately when Hamrick’s huge, dark green truck would appear. One of the children usually would be appointed to watch for the arrival of the rolling store and yell to everyone nearby when they first saw it approaching. Those wanting to buy something would wave for the driver to stop. He pulled the vehicle to the right shoulder of the highway, parked, then walked to the rear and opened the door to the store. Customers then climbed the steps to enter the store on wheels. If more than 5 or 6 people wanted to enter, they had to wait their turn as the store space was very cramped and could not accommodate many people.

A kerosene tank holding perhaps a hundred gallons was mounted beside the steps on the back of the truck. A series of wire cages for hauling live fowl had been mounted on the opposite side. Customers could buy the live chickens, ducks, guineas, etc., or trade in some of their own to pay for whatever they wanted from the store.

For farmer families of that era, this was sort of like “going to town” because they were able to buy basic needs without making the trip. Better yet, they could barter for their merchandise from the rolling store, whereas most retail stores required payment in cash–“real money” was a term often used by old-timers. The rolling store accepted live fowl–chickens, ducks, guineas, and turkeys, as well as eggs, butter, even dressed rabbits, in barter for anything they sold.

The inside of the store had lots of shelves and drawers, as well as a counter top used for cutting fabric from a roll, slicing baloney and cheese, stacking items being bought until they could be “toted.” The driver wrote the price of each item in a column on a brown, paper bag (then called a “poke”), then he totaled the customer’s purchases and accepted payment. Finally he placed the items in the bag he had used to compute the total owed and handed the bag to the customer, as he said thank you.

Because space was so limited, the store only carried as much of each can or box of goods as the owners thought might be sold in a single day. Each night the rolling store returned to its home base where it was restocked in preparation for the next day’s trip.

Of course, the rolling store sold basic school supplies, tablets, pencils, crayons, composition books, notebook paper, ink, glue, and fountain pens.

Basic sewing needs were also available–scissors, needles, thimbles, thread, buttons, rick-rack trim, clips, hooks, dress patterns, and even a few bolts of cloth from which customers could buy as many yards as needed to make a dress.

They sold chewing tobacco, snuff in glasses that were later used as drinking glasses, Prince Albert tobacco in cans, cigarette papers for rolling your own, even smoking pipes. To light cigarettes and pipes, as well as to light fires in heaters, fireplaces, and cookstoves, families bought boxes of wood matches that could be ignited by rubbing the end across any hard surface or by clicking it with a thumbnail.

Wash day goods were some of the best sellers–especially Clorox, and Octagon soap. Bluing, borax, and starch also were available. Many families still used home-made lye soap to wash clothes and scrub floors.

All of the rolling stores sold shaving mugs and brushes, razor blades, combs, tooth brushes, tooth powder, women’s lotion, shaving lotion, and hair tonic.

Medical items included aspirin, Ex-Lax, cough syrup and drops, Watkins and Rosebud salves, iodine, medical tape, and gauze.

Farm families tended to buy flour in 50 pound cloth sacks. The sacks were cotton fabric in attractive patterns that women used to make dresses. Since farm families were large, and baked biscuits were served every morning with breakfast, it didn’t take long to collect several flour sacks of the same pattern. They also bought lard, sugar, salt, corn meal, coffee, tea, cocoa, baking powder for biscuits and baking soda for corn bread.

Most people remember well the three sandwich staples available from most rolling stores–bologna, cheese, and bananas cut from a hanging stalk. They also bought mayonnaise or miracle whip, mustard, and peanut butter, as well as wax paper to wrap the sandwiches youngsters would take to school for lunch. Schools did not have lunchrooms until World War II ended and military barracks were declared surplus and made available to schools to use as lunchrooms. Classrooms often smelled of banana sandwiches.

Kids lucky enough to have a nickel were more interested in which of the 5 cent items they might buy. Would it be a Moonpie, a pack of peanuts or potato chips, a pack of crackers with peanut butter, a fried apple pie, or a Hershey bar, Payday, or Butterfinger? Each sold for a nickel but nickels were scarce and buying any of these was a rare occurrence for most youngsters. Soft drink options included Coca Cola, NuGrape, and others of similar size selling for a nickel, but the larger bottles of Pepsi and R.C. Cola sold for 6 cents.

At Christmas time the rolling store sold boxes of chocolate covered cherries, family-size boxes of hard, stick candies (best selling was peppermint stripes), orange colored, marshmallow peanuts, and gallon glass jars filled with chocolate drops. They also had pecans, English walnuts, and Brazil nuts, called at that time by everyone who bought them, “nigger-toes.” Most rolling stores also sold during December oranges, tangerines, and coconuts All of these were rarely available other than at Christmas.

The men who worked on the rolling store seemed to like youngsters. Most of the folks interviewed recall they always said “thank you” to the adults and then to the kids they would say “Bye, buddy,” or “Bye, Sweetheart,” making each child feel a bit special. They also agreed that, at that time, rolling stores were a very welcome and pleasant part of their lives.

Note: Herman McDaniel created, owns, and operates the online museum, HYPERLINK http://www.murraycountymuseum.comwww.murraycountymuseum.com in which he permanently posts historically important material about the county. He is seeking brief, written remembrances from Murray citizens who were customers of any of the rolling stores. Photographs of activities involving the stores are also needed for the museum. Email address: murraymuseum@aol.commurraymuseum@aol.com