A Country Landmark

Country stores stocked all the necessities, and few not-so-necessary essentials.

| November/December 2008

  • Country store
    Country stores, such as the one above, stock everything you might need.
    Lori Dunn
  • Candy aisle
    Women are especially drawn to the candle department.
    Lori Dunn
  • Old refurbished refrigerator
    A refurbished refrigerator makes the perfect country-store accessory.
    Lori Dunn

  • Country store
  • Candy aisle
  • Old refurbished refrigerator
Like me, you probably shop at one of the 146,000 convenience stores that seem to occupy every major intersection in the nation. According to published reports, we Americans now buy 80 percent of our gasoline at convenience stores, along with billions of dollars of snacks, milk, bottled beverages, candy, over-the-counter medications and lottery tickets.

This may come as a revelation to the X, Y and Z generations, but convenience stores aren’t an urban invention. They are the descendents of the old country “general stores” that once dotted rural America.

Old-time convenience

Some general stores were early versions of today’s discount stores, offering everything from cook stoves, horseshoes and hand tools to bolts of cloth, guns and groceries. Others more closely resembled today’s convenience store. Maybe they didn’t stock 45,000 items like today’s quick-stop stores do, but when a rural family needed a bag of flour or a pound of salt, it was quicker and easier to buy it down the road at the country store than drive 20 or 30 miles to town.

When times were tough, rural families sometimes bartered with the storekeeper for needed supplies (just try that at your local 7-Eleven). My grandmother, whose family owned and operated a country store in southern Illinois in the early 1900s, recalled that her parents took in chickens, eggs and hogs on trade, but never seemed to have much cash. In 1912, her folks swapped the store for a 160-acre homestead in western Nebraska and turned to farming instead.

Back in the 1950s, the directions to our family farm were simply “two miles west and two-and-a-half miles south of the Stegall Store.”

Icon on the prairie

Built in the early 1920s, the Stegall Store occupied an old red-and-white wood-frame building surrounded by fields of dry beans and alfalfa along Highway 26, about 20 miles west of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. My mother, who was born in 1922, remembers that her parents rented space in the store’s meat locker in the days before many farms had refrigerators.

The store was simple in design. A single gas pump stood out front in the graveled parking lot, and a wooden bench sat beside the front door. Inside, a glass-topped counter contained candy bars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco, boxes of aspirin and other sundry items. Two low aisles offered bags of flour and sugar, canned goods, cleaning supplies and household products.

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