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Ray Wyche: a rainy day hangout

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 10/10/2004. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

See also: Country stores

In Hallsboro, in Columbus County, Ray Wyche gave me a tour of one of the state's oldest country stores, Pierce & Company. A retired postmaster and journalist, Wyche worked at the store as a boy, when his father ran it. He remembers when stores like Pierce & Company were cornerstones of the Southern agricultural economy. They furnished farmers with fertilizer, seed and groceries on credit for most of the year, then the farmers paid the stores back when they sold their crops in the fall.

Though under new ownership this last decade, the store has not changed in many ways. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Pierce & Company was crowded with customers buying everything from roofing nails to homemade country sausage. Up front, a group of men sitting in rocking chairs passed the time of day, the way people have been doing for more than a century.

Ray Wyche. Photo by Chris Seward, 2004.In Ray Wyche's words:
Pierce & Company started in 1898. There was a national farmer's organization called the Farmers Alliance, mainly a cooperative for buying fertilizer and selling produce. The Mount Hebron chapter organized here in 1893, at a place now called Red Bug, about 2 miles south of Hallsboro, and my grandfather, Henry Wyche, was the business manager.

When the Farmers Alliance played out, the people came to my grandfather and said, why don't you start a store? He said, I'd love to, but I don't have any money. Two men named Pierce and a man named Thompson said, we'll furnish some of the money if you'll put up some.

The first account book I have shows that they did an inventory in June of 1899 and the net value of the company was $246.74. You can see where they entered every item that people bought because it was all credit. It would say, 1 lb. sugar, 5 cents; candy, 10 cents; a shirt, $1.

You could just about live, we said, out of Pierce & Company. We had an icebox with several kinds of soft drinks for a nickel. We had nickel Nabs and penny cakes. We had no refrigeration, so the meat was limited to what we call fatback -- salted pork belly. You could buy sardines and salmon in cans, and tripe, which is cow belly. Talk about some of the most disagreeable stuff in the world!

We sold hoop cheese. We had coffee and tea in a box or can. We had a candy counter. We sold cigarettes, cigars --the most expensive, Tampa Nuggets, were a nickel -- and we sold a lot of chewing tobacco and snuff. We sold a lot of sugar and molasses. The molasses came in 55-gallon drums. Those drums were popular with people who liked to make whiskey and wine.

These farmers would come in with a list of groceries, and every one of them began with flour. Most women made biscuits every day. I heard an old woman say once, "You can't say you're a real mother until you can hold a baby in one arm and make biscuits with one hand."

Women did a lot of baking back then. We sold a lot of powdered sugar, baking soda, baking powder. We also sold an awful lot of sickeningly sweet, cheap Merita National Bread Company cakes, just sugar and lard. As far as healthy food goes, that didn't enter into it. Cost and taste were the only things we were interested in.

We sold an awful lot of patent medicines, most of it based on alcohol, and it would make you feel good. We sold paregoric, which you can't buy now without a prescription. Paregoric is an opium derivative and very, very addictive and a right powerful narcotic. In fact, we had two or three people here, including one very refined old lady, who practically lived off the stuff. She was always kind of flittering around and I don't think that was personality.

Feedbags used to come with dress prints on them. Lord, those women would want to look at every bag of chicken feed you had. I'd have to throw around 100-pound bags so she could see exactly what that print looked like. But it was good cotton cloth, and they would go home and take that bag and make them a dress.

Saturday was the big day at Pierce & Company, and it was mostly men who did the shopping. We sold an awful lot of plow points and plows, plow bolts, and we sold things like shovels, rakes and hoes. Sold an awful lot of hoes because nobody used any weed control chemicals at all.

The two main insecticides we sold were Paris Green and arsenate of lead, both of which are outlawed for being too dangerous. Farmers would pour it in a bucket with water and take their hand and stir it up. How they all didn't die before they were 40, I don't know. A lot of them did.

We sold a lot of fertilizer, a lot of roofing tin, a lot of tarpaper and, of course, an awful lot of nails.

And clothes -- I can't begin to tell you the clothes. You could buy everything you needed. Sold an awful lot of overalls, because the sawmill workers all wore overalls, and blue chambray shirts. That was the only thing you wore if you were a working man, and brogans, high-topped shoes. They'd be wore out and the sole would try to separate, and poor folks would get some wire and wire the uppers to the sole.

When the mill closed for lunch, all those mill hands would come running into the store. They'd get a can of Vienna sausage or a piece of cheese and a drink and sit around on the old warehouse floor out there and eat it. Some of them would bring lunch from home. They'd have it in an old lard bucket. They'd have a bunch of wires hanging next to the broiler, and they'd hang their lunch buckets there. When they got ready to eat lunch, they had a hot meal waiting for them.

In the early days, Pierce & Company would also buy and re-sell a few things -- eggs, crossties, shingles. See, summer, the farmer was busy making his crop. But in the winter, he would head to the woods with his ax and a cross-cut saw and cut gum trees into railroad crossties. Or he would cut him down a good straight cypress tree. He would get his froe and his mallet, and he would start ripping out shingles, cypress roofing shingles. He would bring those out to Pierce & Company, and we would pay the man usually in merchandise.

Pierce & Company was a meeting place, too, and there was a lot of joking and politicking going on. Really, we didn't encourage people to come in there and loaf and talk, but they did it. If it was too rainy to work on the farm, the farmers would all come and sit around and talk all day. As one fellow said, it ain't nothing but a rainy day hangout.
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