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The General Store: A Hidden Treasure Of The Past
Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Lourdes Murillo
A pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a bag of nails and a coffin. What else can I get for you today, Mrs. Jones?” This shopping list might sound a bit strange, but general stores in the early 1900s carried a bit of everything and made living in farming communities easier.
Pot bellied stove that once heated the inside of Fort Hancock Mercantile, still in use today. Photo by Sandra Pierce
General stores began to appear in the 1850s in rural areas that experienced small, yet significant, increases in population. In most parts of the United States where settlement had occurred, general stores were boons for the rural farmer, who became the most important patron of the general store. He was able to barter his crop for the many things he needed and a few comforts that he ordinarily could not afford.
Before modern supermarkets, the general store was the primary means of trade and commerce among rural communities of the 1920s and 1930s.
General stores in appearance were similar to each other. Their exterior resembled a one or two level house with a door in the center and two windows on each side with steps leading up to a porch. The shopkeeper and his family usually lived on the second floor.
The store itself consisted of a large room with a wide open area where a wood-burning stove and chairs or stools bade welcome to customers and passerby alike.
Merchandise was displayed on shelves behind a great wooden counter where the shopkeeper could assist the customer and hand items. The counter sometimes displayed goods to help customers decide on what to purchase.
Stores offered an enormous variety of articles, including household items, hardware and farm equipment. Customers found household staples such as coffee, tea, spices, molasses, grains, dairy products and locally grown produce. Children delighted in the tempting jars of candy and long licorice whips kept by the front counter.
General stores also sold dry goods, which were so important to families of the area. Bolts of cloth, colored thread, lace, ribbon and other notions as well as shoes and other items of apparel filled clothing needs. Miscellaneous articles included blankets, furs, lumbers, tobacco, books, kerosene, washboards, rat traps, and, yes, in some cases, coffins.
In addition to providing needed merchandise, the general store also provided services not available elsewhere. These might include serving as a tavern, issuing marriage licenses, offering a telephone, and, with the shopkeeper as the local postmaster, serving as a post office. In Sagaponack, New York, the general store still houses Post Office #11962, the only post office in town.
One of the most important services the general store provided to its customers was a system of credit which began in the 19th century. The credit system was developed mainly because money was scarce in rural area. Because patrons of the store were farmers and their families, the shopkeeper had to hope that the year would yield a good crop so his customers could make payments.
In the 20th century the system of credit was extended to include customers other than farmers.
Severo Alcoset, a long time resident of Fabens, Texas, recalls a general store in town that extended a tab, or credit, to the local town folk. “The person working there would ask if the purchase was cash or charge, and they weren’t talking about cards!”
Alcoset also remembers that this same stored offered home delivery. “For fifty cents your purchases were delivered right to your door,” he said.
Alcoset recalls that the owners of the store “made you feel special because they knew and greeted all of the local people by name. The shopkeeper often called us ‘son’. During Christmas time he would give every customer a bag of apples, oranges and candy.”
The general store also was the place to go for news and gossip. The friendly atmosphere of the general store made people feel like part of one big family where everybody knew everybody else in town.
Fort Hancock, Texas, located 53 miles east of El Paso, is a community that still supports a local general store. The Fort Hancock general store, originally known as General Merchandise, was established in 1883.
In 1916, Mr. and Mrs. Quintan A. Hare bought the store and changed the name to Fort Hancock Mercantile. The store has been in the same family for more than 70 years.
Fort Hancock Mercantile is currently owned by the Hares’s granddaughter, Tootsie Farris, and her husband, Kevin. In 1967, the Texas Historical Association in Austin designated the store a historical landmark.
Fort Hancock Mercantile still contains the original shelving, counters and wooden floors. Memorabilia from the early years adds flavor. the first telephone used by the store sits on the shelf among other antiques, and the light bulb that first worked with the use of generator continues to hang from the ceiling.
In the middle of the store sits a pot belly stove still used in the winter. The store continues to do business and has the added attraction of giving modern-day customers a glimpse of the past.
In the early years, Forth Hancock Mercantile provided the town with a tavern which became a very popular place with the soldiers of the fort until 1920 when Prohibition took effect. “Mrs. Hare never wanted the tavern reopened, and despite the repeal of the law, her wish was granted,” Kevin Farris explains. The mercantile also provided telephone service, electricity and credit to farmers on the sole basis of trust.
Fort Hancock Mercantile sold clothing, medicine, household staples, local produce, dry goods, hardware items, wagons and farm equipment. Farris retells a story about the store and some farm equipment.
“In 1928, Mr. Hare passed away and left a purchase order for train carload of wagons and tractors. Mrs. Hare was able to return the wagons but not the farm equipment. The tractors remained on the front lawn for almost two years. the farmers didn't want to change their teams of mules for tractors. Then in 1930, after a family member assembled a tractor and showed the farmers how it worked, the tractors and equipment finally sold.”
The railroad delivered supplies to the store on Saturdays which was also the day when the port of entry in Fort Hancock was open. The customers of the store included Mexicans from across the border as well as the local population. Farris recalls, “Wagon after wagon of Mexican people would arrive on Saturdays to purchase items from the store, such as rice, beans and potatoes.”
This general store also supplied funeral caskets for the townspeople. The caskets were displayed on the second floor. “If the customer did not like what was available,” says Kevin Farris, “a special order was taken, and the casket was delivered from El Paso on the freight train.”
Some things at Fort Hancock Mercantile have changed over the years. The store no longer provides a telephone service for the town, the electricity comes from a company instead of a generator, and the store no longer provides caskets.
Though business is not as good as it once was, Fort Hancock Mercantile can count on the store’s best asset – being a tourist attraction, a reputation not advertised except by word of mouth.
Regardless of the general store’s remarkable array of merchandise and services and its welcoming ambience, its slow demise began in the 1930s as a result of increased urbanization and the proliferation of the supermarket.
The supermarket was established to handle large amounts of business with a low profit margin. Most supermarkets were part of chains. Costs were kept low by self-serving operations and a cash and carry procedure. In the 20th century, specialty chain stores and supermarkets ran most of the general stores in the United States are living testimony to this fact.