I hope you occasionally enjoy stepping back in time, as I do. This trip to my Grandfather’s country store proved quite nostalgic as I remembered a time and place that no longer exists, literally.
Gone! Long gone, and sadly so! It is difficult to grasp that such an integral part of my childhood no longer exists. But Papa’s store, Lone Oak Grocery, disappeared into the shadows of my memory years ago. The land on which it stood, however, is a different story; family property that remains discolored and barren of grass is a constant reminder of what once was.
My paternal grandfather, Walter Ernest Williams, was born in 1877, known as Ernest, but called Papa by his family. He was quite the entrepreneur, it seems, always pursuing diverse interests to support his large family, eleven surviving children from two marriages. He, along with brothers B. J. and Van, owned and operated the Williams Brothers Sawmill. Ernest was also an accomplished farmer, while my grandmother, his second wife Allie Idell Miller, raised chickens, sold eggs, and processed her own milk, cream, and butter. But of his various ventures, it is the store, Lone Oak Grocery, which evokes the most vivid memories for me.
Papa and his son-in-law, Asa Joseph Stewart, built the store in the late 1940s on family acreage, located on Highway 21, south of Bogalusa in the community of Lee’s Creek. A blue-collar, agricultural area, the community functioned back then around a large paper mill, farming, high school football, and church… as it still does today. The section of Highway 21 we called home was about five miles outside the Bogalusa city limits and was a straight stretch of seemingly solitary country road, speckled only by the occasional house and multicolored fields – crops varying from corn and beans to gladiolus bulbs to Tung oil trees. Solitary scenery – yes; but lonely – no! The store sat snugly between Mama and Papa’s family homestead and, later, that of my parents. While the two houses sat well off the road, the store sat prominently just off the highway, easily accessible by a gravel driveway, shaded by a single oak tree with sprawling, low branches. The area is known for its evergreen pines and delicate white dogwoods; but this oak was something to behold. Initially a one-room white frame structure, the store was the only grocery south of the Bogalusa city limits for years. Later, efficiency style living quarters were shot-gunned down one side of the store so Mama and Papa could live on the property. At some point in their senior years, however, they moved back into their home place next door to live out their days with the family of their daughter, Rachael Howard Williams Stewart.
A young couple with one small child, their identities long since forgotten, apparently leased the apartment from Papa but, for unknown reasons, the arrangement was short-lived. By early summer of 1958, Papa, then 81 years old, was looking for someone to run the store. He asked his young grandson, Don G. Williams, and his new wife, Sue Sandifer, to spell him for a while. Don and Sue moved into the small apartment for three months, June through August 1958, while they ran the business. When they moved on, the family took the reins again. Then, around 1963, the store and the apartment were leased to a local family, Claude and Mildred Hodge, just three short years before Papa’s death. They continued to operate the grocery for years until the doors were closed and locked for the last time ever.
As I close my eyes to try to conjure up a likeness of the store, I first envision the sign, painted in black cursive lettering on a white background, nailed to the graceful oak tree out front, identified the Lone Oak Grocery. Next, my mind’s eye goes to one old gas pump and a green kerosene pump just outside the slanted tin roof that haphazardly covered the entryway. Nailed to the exterior front wall, just above a wooden breadbox used for early morning deliveries, was an advertisement for Coca Cola, what now would be described as a vintage tin sign.
Two doors gave access to the store, the main entrance up front, the other on the far right rear wall, opening toward the family residence just across the way. Inside, immediately to the left, was a long counter with a sloping glass front, where many of the store’s most important items were displayed, at least in the eyes of a child. There one might find large apothecary jars filled with jawbreakers and various candies, Dubble Bubble gum, beef jerky, and other specialties, dispensed on request by the clerk working the cash drawer.
The unique cash drawer itself bears comment; built into the countertop, it required a predetermined combination of fingertips pressed into hidden openings under the drawer to release it. Always close at hand, an old adding machine was used for tallying each customer’s bill. A single light bulb dangled on a length of wire from the ceiling to illuminate the cash drawer and counter.
Wooden shelves lined the walls, while a freestanding rack filled with various bread products by Holsum and Merita sat more toward the center of the room. There was usually a wide variety of items – tuna, canned soup, canned vegetables, flour, sugar, tea, and other staples. However, there was never an over-abundance of goods, maybe 6 to 8 pieces of each item, but always fresh milk, bread, and eggs.
Papa used an old food slicer to cut lunch meats to order and I have been told that the meat scales in the back were also used to weigh family babies, on occasion. An upright Coca Cola machine stood prominently to the right of the front door. I still remember dropping six cents into the coin slot and sliding out a frosty bottle of soda. What a treat, especially when seasoned by an entire package of salted peanuts. And the chest-like freezer next to the Coke machine always held refreshment beyond compare, like an Eskimo Pie, a Dreamsicle, or a small cup of vanilla ice cream, from the local Red Bird ice cream plant, enriched by the flavored sugar of a Pixy Stix. I also remember a cooler for dairy products and an upright freezer along the back wall. In the extreme far right rear of the store was an elevated opening, dock-like, for unloading heavy bags of feed from large delivery trucks. As I recall, the building had one small window up front, extremely poor lighting, and cold concrete floors, creating a dingy dungeon-like atmosphere, but, oh, the delights that little store held!
Just thinking about the physical appearance of the store calls up extraneous memories of events forever linked in my mind to Lone Oak Grocery merely because of where they happened. These memories have stayed with me through the years and are oft repeated to my children and grandchildren, stories possibly retold with tainted recall, but truth, nonetheless.
When I was nine years old, I told Mother if I were old enough for weekly chores and an allowance, I would need a billfold to safeguard my earnings. As if yesterday, I still remember the afternoon she surprised me with my first “grown-up” wallet. I immediately collected my vast fortune from various caches throughout the house and carefully transferred every cent into the new wallet. I then went straightaway to the store where I asked for a candy bar, plopped my billfold onto the counter, and proudly asked, “How much do I owe you?” Strangely enough, I remember quite well how mature I felt, having my own money in my own wallet, but I have no real memory of what that wallet looked like.
Another remnant of faded memory reminds me of the morning I trudged out our long, gravel drive toward the storefront to catch the school bus, only to find the driveway blocked by the carcass of a dead horse. Growing up in the country was generally wonderful but occasionally had its pitfalls – among them, loose livestock. A neighbor’s horse had escaped its confines during the dark of night, only to meet an untimely death when struck by a passing vehicle at the entrance to the store. The unfortunate vehicle was nowhere to be found and the driver never reported the incident. But the carcass was definitely the chief subject of conversation at the Lone Oak Grocery that morning. Unadulterated curiosity brought numerous passing motorists into the store simply to get the “scoop.”
Because the store was located on the main stretch of road between Covington and Bogalusa, traffic was usually heavy and often moved much too fast. I will not repeat in this venue the expletives Daddy used to describe the frequent speeders and the thoughtless litterbugs; suffice it to say, both were constant thorns in his side. Speeders, feeling free to ignore the constraints of the posted speed limit, seemingly lost their ability to drive safely once outside the city limits.
One such incident immediately comes to mind. Two young men, returning to college after a short break, attempted to pass a milk truck turning left into the store to make a delivery. Carrie, our housekeeper, was gazing out the kitchen window when she saw the little red convertible hit the truck at a high rate of speed, throwing the car and both its occupants into the air. By the time I deciphered her hysterical screams and ran out the lane to the street, the survivor was receiving medical aid from various store customers, while the body of his friend lay to the side, respectfully covered by one of my Grandmother’s bedsheets. That tragic accident is one of several I remember all too well.
On the other hand, those who carelessly littered almost cost my grandparents their means of livelihood and my parents, my aunt and uncle their homes. Passersby thoughtlessly discarded lit cigarettes, causing grass fires behind the store and between the two houses. I have extremely vivid memories, on more than one occasion, of Daddy sending me tiptoeing through the outer edges of the flames to rally relatives to help us fight a fire. Relentlessly swatting the flames with wet towels, or wet feed sacks, until all danger passed, we would then survey the burned expanse, nonetheless thankful the damage had been confined to the grass.
I also remember asking, if not begging, Papa for a treat; but he, ever business-minded, would always suggest some chore by which I could “earn” a treat. I now understand that his 11 surviving children spawned far too many grandchildren (31 to be exact) to “treat” us all on a regular basis. Thus, I recall sweeping the outside entryway for a 1¢ piece of Dubble Bubble or sweeping inside and out for a 6¢ soda…hard work for little hands, but a valuable lesson for me.
A sign of simpler times, Papa kept running accounts for family members and regular customers. Even some of the grandchildren had their own charge accounts. The convenience of running out to the store to charge a loaf of bread, a quart of milk, or a dozen eggs gathered fresh from Mama’s henhouse has long since been forgotten; as has the sudden realization that I may have grabbed one too many snack on those trips to the store. Having to face my parents for a reckoning of sorts after they settled their monthly bill was never pleasant, but definitely another lesson learned.
When the State of Louisiana widened Highway 21, they advised us that our tree was too close to the roadway. We lost the stately oak tree that had forever graced the property; but Papa’s store continued to operate, unscathed. However, sometime after Papa’s death in 1966 and Mama’s death in 1976, and when the old structure had fallen into ill repair and had been abandoned, the family was forced to make the heart-wrenching decision to demolish Lone Oak Grocery. It is hard to explain watching part of one’s family history disappear, plank by plank, even now after all these years have passed. But that is how it happened, plain and simple, in the end.
Although I have tried to find a photograph of Lone Oak Grocery, sadly, I have failed. How can that be? How could we have lived our lives around a constant fixture such as Papa’s store without taking a single photograph of it? A place so much more than lumber and tin, so central to the community, has inexplicably disappeared, leaving behind nothing more than a brown patch in the grass haunted by vibrant memories. This store, more than just a quick stop for milk or bread, was a meeting place for the locals; a source of gossip, if not news; a school bus stop; a symbol of hard work, trust, and honest relationships; and much, much more. Without so much as a photo, it now exists only in the memories of those who treasure that evermore-distant past. So, some years ago, when I happened upon a random wooden jewelry box bearing a hologram of an old country store, I was immediately drawn to it. Although the solitary tree was in the wrong location and the building was not exactly the same, it was a close enough likeness to evoke memories of our own country grocery. On a whim, I bought the box for Daddy, a simple memento of his family’s past, hoping he would feel a connection, as I had. He did! He proudly displayed the box on his dressing table, using it to safeguard the coins he so loved to collect and a few treasured pieces of jewelry. It now sits on my dresser, alongside Allan’s box, filled with precious mementos of my beloved parents.
Because I have finally put pen to paper in an attempt to express my remembrances of Papa’s store does not mean my search for a photograph has ended. Far from it. I will not stop looking. I believe that including a snapshot of Lone Oak Grocery with these written words will somehow help to keep not only my cherished family memories alive, but those of others, as well. Each of us should eagerly share the ever-changing chronicle of our lives with anyone willing to listen. Who are we, after all, if not the combined recollections of our past?