Column – Museum honors a treasured institution: country stores

Published 6:52 pm Tuesday, September 6, 2022

I rarely visit the Isle of Wight Museum that I don’t walk through the Country Store exhibit. I generally hope to be alone as I do so, because it’s much easier to let my mind travel back in time if I’m not distracted while looking at the exhibits there — the canned goods, the chopping block, the woodstove and chairs and the post office window over in the corner.

The Country Store sets the Isle of Wight Museum apart from many local museum collections and is worth a visit if you haven’t seen it — or a return visit if you haven’t been recently.

The late Gurley A. Barlow Jr. was among the residents who championed creation of the museum in 1976, which, not coincidentally, was the nation’s 200th anniversary. He was an avid collector of rural Americana and contributed artifacts to the museum when it opened in the Gaming House, which is now Maggie Casey’s gift shop.

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When the county acquired the former Bank of Smithfield building and moved the museum there, Barlow contributed a significant portion of his country store collectibles as the foundation for the unique store exhibit. Original shelving, counters, wood stove and post office window help to create the feel of a 1950s and earlier country store.

The museum exhibit can’t completely duplicate the atmosphere of a real country store, and some visitors might well be offended if it did.

A real country store of my youth, for example, would not be climate-controlled. It would be controlled by the climate — hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

In fact, those descriptions don’t do justice to most real country stores. Their interiors weren’t as hot as the outdoors on an August day, but they were close. There was usually an electric fan of some description, either a ceiling fan or sometimes a window fan, exchanging hot air for hot air, but stirring it around a bit to make you think it was cooling things off.

(My father took us into Frank Latimer’s Store at Benn’s Church on just such a day in about 1950 and, on the way out of the store, bought ice cream cones. They started melting before we could get out of the building and climb into the back seat of the black Plymouth that was the family car. My fudgesicle was dripping faster than I could eat it, so I stuck it out the car window, thinking to cool it down. The brown streak it left on the quarter panel of the car did not amuse my father.)

The heat in a country store enhanced the complex odor of the place. Country hams, shoulders, bacon and dandoodle sausages, all hanging from hooks in the ceiling, combined with molding rat cheese to create an aroma that lingers in my memory to this day.

In winter months, most of the stores were heated by a single wood stove located near the center of the building, much like the one displayed at the museum. Wood smoke lent its sweet aroma to the atmosphere in those colder months, as did the cigarettes, cigars and pipes that were freely smoked inside the building back then.

To achieve the true country store atmosphere, you would also need several sticky fly trap tapes hanging from the ceiling — complete with dead flies, of course.

A country store usually had a slanting front porch under an awning. It provided relief for customers during rain or snowstorms, and wooden benches on either side of the front door provided a convenient place for customers to sit a spell and spin yarns. That was generally confined to men. Ladies would stop and speak but would never be found sitting and chatting with the men. It just wasn’t done.

The parking lot in front of a country store was generally not paved — at least, not in asphalt. It was often paved, however, in discarded bottle caps from thousands of soft drinks that had been purchased from water-cooled, top-loading dispensers inside the store. The metal caps were collected in the bottle openers found on the front of the chest coolers and, once the container was full, it was taken outside and tossed into the dirt lot. Over the years, parking lots became rather well paved in them.

The storekeepers who ran these community centers of commerce sometimes lived in attached living quarters, but usually in a house only a few yards away from the store. They were important fixtures in the community, so much so that the intersections where their stores were located were often named for the stores, which in turn were named for the owners. Cossie Delk, Tommy Delk, Marshall Myers, the Gilliams, Berryman’s Corner and numerous other names remain with us though their stores closed many years ago.

These were the convenience stores of our youth, and it’s good to have them enshrined so well in our local museum.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is