During my childhood in the hills of East Tennessee, the most popular, though somewhat less dependable method of social interaction, came in the form of an old truck known by all as the “rolling store.” As kids, we looked forward to the weekly visit nearly as much as Santa Claus. Many childhood memory centers around this wonder of modern technology, and I remember the truck like it was just yesterday.
It was an old Chevy truck covered in a rich patina of faded blue paint and rust, complete with areas worn to rusted metal by years of winter salt and summer mud. I believe every window was cracked, yellowed, or frosted white around the edges by age and the glaring sun.
The front of the truck was dominated by a large white(ish) grill, which from a distance blessed the ol’ truck with a goofy sort of smile. That grill bore the scars of countless chips, dents, and dings from countless miles of gravel and dusty country roads. The grill hung tenaciously to the rusting metal by various odd nuts and bolts, along with bits of twisted wire and bailing twine.
Countless insects: frozen in the midst of their death throws hung suspended behind the metal teeth. All manner of moths and butterflies hung there, frozen in time and appearance. A Lepidopterist could hardly have done a finer job.
Every now and then we would find a small unlucky bird tangled in the grill, dried by the summer air rushing through the radiator. Of course, in the minds of two young boys, this was irresistible, providing countless specimens to play with at a later date. But this could be tricky, the hot air dried the little bodies out in the extreme, and great care had to be taken so as not to crumble the body of a lunar moth, cicada, or small finch.
Behind the worn cab was an extremely large white box, the corners were smashed from low-hanging branches. A heavy roll-up door was at the rear of the box and below the door was a large deck. The deck served as both a porch for the proprietor and counter space or a leaning post for the patrons. The floor was built of long strips of red Oak. The ancient wood was periodically coated with used motor oil and kerosene as a preservative as well as polish. Well-worn pathways were a lighter color and stained from countless spills.
Coat upon coat of white paint covered the wooden shelves that lined the walls. These shelves were well stocked with any number of goods that a rural family might require. Next to the roll-up door sat an antique brass cash register, whenever the drawer would open a bell would ring a crisp clean “ding” that echoed in the old box.
Every other Friday we would hear it rattling down the road. Calling women of the household to gather at the end of their drives or, should they live on a dirt road, down to where the chip and tar began. There they would wait patiently with any number of kids in tow, just like an adult version of waiting on the school bus.
Most held any manner of handmade wares or different sorts of homemade foods tightly within rough hands or secured within homemade baskets. All are neatly wrapped in brown paper or scraps of cloth and carefully tied with sisal twine. These items were considered more valuable than paper currency and were bartered for needed staples such as flour, sugar, lard, and coffee.
Bartering was an important and expected method of exchanging goods’; the value of these staples was dependent on the quality and the reputation of their creator. Of course, this meant the makers of truly exceptional commodities soon became well-known and respected along the route. One such lady was known to everyone as “Granny Smith.”
“Granny” lived next to us in a large run-down farmhouse. The backyard was full of chickens and outbuildings, all of them in various states of disrepair. The collection included the usual lot a person might expect to find on such a homestead.
Chicken coop, root cellar, spring house, the list goes on. Climbing Roses, Clematis, Wisteria, and other climbing flowers covered the sides of these structures so thick that some appear to be the only thing saving the buildings from certain collapse. Thousands of colorful insects filled the air around her house, buzzing and fluttering from flower to flower, blessing the entire yard with an almost surreal and fairytale appearance.
I would escape and pay her a visit any time I had a chance. The rather portly old woman could usually be found in the same apron and bonnet. The fabric with its pretty Lilac print was no doubt sewn by her own hand. You see…dry-goods suppliers soon discovered that many mountain folks were creating clothing from flour and corn-meal sacks. In response, they began making the sacks with pretty flours and colors, a small effort on their part maybe, but such a caring nature is seldom found today. But there she sat, on her front porch in her flour sack apron, and in her favorite rocking chair, humming to herself softly as she broke beans or shelled peas.
If I was lucky, she would be sitting there singing to herself quietly as she churned butter. She pumped the handle in perfect cadence while singing the same old song. “Poor little possum in a pawpaw patch, pickin’ up pawpaws puttin’ ’em in his pocket”, over and over. She didn’t have a single tooth in her head, nary a one, and this gave the words a warm and comforting dialect.
She usually held a dip of snuff tight in her lip. I swear that woman could pick a gnat off a dog’s butt at ten yards when she spits. Come to think of it, most “granny” women of the day were pretty accurate, years of practice had made them expert marksmen. She let me try Snuff once, to this day I still remember the burn and the sick stomach.
I looked forward to taking my turn at the handle and never missed any opportunity to do so. There in the summer heat, we would sit, churning butter and singing about possums, and paw-paws. The resulting sweet butter was cool and savory on my tongue, I can taste it now as I think back and write these words.
The raw butter was pressed into antique wooden molds, then chilled in the spring house as they ripened. After curing, each pound of butter was wrapped in waxed paper and sat on a shelf in the same spring house to mature and cool, waiting for the rolling store to make its rounds.
Her goods were of particular value and fetched a relatively high price. Folks were certain to ask for them by name, as a result, these didn’t last long on the truck.
At each stop, the ladies would step up to the counter, proudly spread their goods for inspection and the bartering would begin. If cash exchanged hands; the bell on the old register would ring loud and clear.
Credit was routinely extended with a simple handshake and a promise; followed by a note stuck on the wall with a nail. Few even considered breaking their word for risk of a bad name. Times were different then.
If a holiday or special event was coming up, items such as buttons, thread, zippers, and fabric were in high demand.
If it had been a particularly good week… meaning my brother and I had found a few soda bottles, we were allowed to trade them in for a couple of “Peanut Butter Cups.” We seldom received any candy, so such an event was not to be taken lightly, we went so far as lick the wrapper. To this very day, I swear the peanut butter cups were twice the size and far tastier than these “so-called” modern versions. (But that’s a story for another time).
When the bartering finished and the bills paid or charged, usually the latter. It was time for the important stuff to begin, time to gossip, spread the news, or catch up. This waited until the very last of course; because everybody knows you don’t mix business with pleasure.
Gossip flew in the summer like fireflies; the news was passed down the line becoming more exaggerated with each telling. Open mouths, “Aww shucks,” “You don’t say,” and “Oh my Gods” were exclaimed in hushed tones. Finally, after all was said and done, the doors closed, hands were shaken and the truck slowly began rattling its way down the old road once again.
Time for the ladies with kids in tow to make their way back to their homes and restock their cupboards. A new list of needs was started, and the wait began anew for the next visit by this long-gone icon of my childhood.
While I wrote this story; I thought I would do a quick search. On the interweb, I typed in “rolling store.” (Go ahead, try it!) There I found several old rusting hulks, covered over with weeds and vines, their traveling days over. Letters that once proudly proclaimed the proprietor’s name was now faded and barely readable. It’s a sad reminder of our time and I wonder how long it will be until no one is left who remembers the “Rolling Store.” But now dear reader; I believe you will, at least for a while.
I would appreciate it if you would take the time to share these stories, maybe even go so far as to follow this page. Oh…and don’t forget to Google “Rolling Stores,” and get a look at these long-gone staples of rural life.
Very cool story. I have nothing in my experience to relate it to. Thanks for sharing this piece of history. When I was thinking about I was reminded of a secondary character who appears in several Louis L’Amour called The Tinker. He was a peddler that walked the hills of Tennessee and sold wares out of a large duffle-type bag he carried on his back. Anyway, thanks again for sharing this.
There is an old saying around here regarding “Tinkers”. They used to wonder about the Hills, living off the land looking for odd jobs. A Tinker could even repair a leaking pot, (he would actually just solder the hole up). Well,,, the pot held water, the lady of the house saved money by not buying a new pot and everyone was happy. Until she went and used the pot. The heat of the stove melted the solder, the pot began to leak just as badly as before, and dinner was ruined. That’s where the old saying comes from…”Not worth a Tinker’s damn.” (at least that’s how I heard it). And who don’t like Louis L’Amour….or Chris LeDoux.
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That’s interesting. I don’t know if I’d heard that before.
Love the story.
Thank you sir.
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