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.
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.
The little country store also stocked certain items needed by local farmers and ranchers. You could buy work gloves in yellow cotton or cowhide. Rubber irrigating boots, shovels and long-handled hoes. Screwdrivers and pliers and bags of seed corn. The store sold boxes of shotgun shells during pheasant season, and fishhooks and lures in the summer.
At the start of each summer, my dad would take me to the store to pick out a new straw hat to wear while I was outside weeding crops or stacking hay. While we were there, we’d each select a cold bottle of RC Cola or Orange Nehi from the old chest-style cooler just inside the front door.
Stopover for strangers
If I was lucky, I might have an opportunity to overhear tidbits of adult conversation because the store served as a gathering place for local farmers and ranchers looking to take a break from irrigating their crops or feeding cows.
They’d lounge around the pop cooler in the summer or the coffee pot in the winter, and complain about poor crop and beef prices, county commissioners and brand inspectors, bugs in their fields and sand in their stock wells. And if you listened carefully, sometimes you’d overhear juicy gossip about who’d been arrested for speeding, or who was about to lose their farm for not keeping up the bank payments.
The Stegall Store was the only place around for miles where a farm kid like me might see a stranger pull in for a tank of gas, a pack of smokes or directions to someone’s ranch. In the spring and summer, migrant workers from Texas would stop at the store to pick up supplies. In the fall, it might be pheasant hunters driving cars with Colorado license plates. Once, a professional rattlesnake hunter stopped for a tank of gas and showed off a gunnysack full of angry rattlers. And one time a hunter who’d been hired by a local rancher to shoot a wildcat brought out two half-grown kittens he’d found in the den.
When the day came for me to start high school in town, the Stegall Store was the closest place I could catch the school bus. My mother drove me to catch the bus during my first two years of high school. But as soon as I turned 16, I was allowed to drive my granddad’s old ’40 Ford coupe to and from the store.
If I had a nickel in my pocket, sometimes I’d buy a Cherry Mash candy bar. But when the store owners began selling used paperback novels for a dime apiece, I soon discovered that books were infinitely more interesting than a bag of rattlesnakes.
The Stegall Store remained in business for a few years after I moved away to college. But as folks in the area began doing more and more of their shopping at the bigger supermarkets and discount stores in town, the little store finally closed its doors forever.
You can still find country stores in rural areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia. There may still be some in states like Montana, South Dakota and Nevada. The Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores lists 43 member stores.
But the only remaining trace of that little country store in western Nebraska is the two-lane blacktop that runs south from Highway 46 through the Wildcat Hills. It’s still known as the Stegall Road.
Jerry Schleicher is a country writer and cowboy poet in Parkville, Missouri, who still enjoys an occasional Cherry Mash candy bar.