Rutherford County Historical Society Publication 2, 1978
(Selection from Jack R. Mankin’s “Autobiography” written for his children in which he describes his brother’s store and offers some nostalgic impressions of life as he remembers it in the surrounding communities of Mankinville and Dilton.)
When I was a child–some eight or nine years old—Papa bought a country store for my older brother Hendrick to run, Hendrick being at that time about nineteen or twenty years old. The store was located on the Manchester Pike at the corner of the little country road that wound and meandered through the farms, across the branch, on to cross Lytle Creek and finally to end in the Bradyville Pike at Dilton. On its winding way it passed the “Walker place,” where I was born, and by Cousin Oscar’s, although his house set far back from it and was approached by a long driveway. At the road end of his driveway was one of the most fascinating inventions my young mind had ever seen, namely, a “patent gate.” It had long arms sticking out on each side of two tall posts and dangling from the arms were ropes that could
be reached from the buggy seat. When one of these ropes was pulled, wonder of wonders, the gate opened! Aladdin’s magic lamp was no more improbable or exciting! After driving through and stopping, the other rope was pulled and the magic gate closed itself. If children in this day are thrilled and awed by rockets and computers, I was just as thrilled and awed by this wonderful gate. The road passed by Frank Overall’s place and the church
where I grew up before losing its identity in the Bradyville Pike.
But back to the store. It was a long, narrow, and high wooden building sitting up on cut stone piers. It had a porch,
or unloading dock, all the way across the front. The front door was in the center of the platform porch, and a large, heavily shuttered window was on each side of the door. I think the width of the store was twelve feet and the length was fifty feet. It was divided into one large room at the front, which was the store proper, and a smaller room on the rear for storage. Somewhat more than halfway back in the store proper was a large, potbellied, coal-burning stove. This was the social center of the farming community during the winter, that is, for the older male members. The women were too busy with their interminable work to have any time for socializing. That would have to wait until
Sundays, the summer ‘protracted meeting,’ and possibly hoq-killing time.
The store, facing the west, was about one-fourth mile north of where we lived – an easy walk, but a dark, cold one on a winter night. Of course there were no street lights – there was no electricity nearer than ‘town,’ which was about four and one-half miles away.
As one entered, he viewed the store from a central aisle. There were shelves up to the ceiling on both the north and south walls, running about two-thirds of the way back. In front of the shelves were two heavy wooden counters on each side of the center aisle with a narrow passageway between them and between them and the shelves. The counters were hollow where heavier items, such as buckets of candy, were stored under them. Part of the tops of
the counters were taken up with glass show cases displaying the most enticing articles and those that were particularly attractive which might stimulate sticky hands and lead to shoplifting. By and large, however, the people were honest and did not need to be deterred from stealing by glass cases. Inside the cases were cookies placed there maybe with some intent of keeping flies off of them, but more likely to keep samplers’ hands off, for sampling and eating on the spot was not stealing. Most of the residents of the community did not bother much about flies at this time. The
cases displayed pocket knives, fishhooks and lines, spools of thread, chewing gum (not Long Tom, it was out of date by this time), papers of pins, needles and thimbles, rickrack, bias tape, boss balls, and other small items. Of course, that excited my child’s mind was the candy, the chewing gum, and cookies.
No description of this country store would be complete if it omitted the ‘punch board,’ a gambling device that was quasi-legal at that time though later banned by law. It consisted of a board about twelve by sixteen inches with holes about one-half inch apart each direction, making a total of about 660 holes. Each
hole had a roll of paper in it with a number on it. Both sides of the board were then covered over with a colored paper. On the front side, as I remember, there were three colors across the board. One was for 25 cent punches, the next and larger for 10 cent punches, and the third and largest for 5 cent punches. Below it in a show case were the enticing prizes which could be won. The top prize was a handsome watch perhaps worth $25 at retail price. It was of course among the numbers in the 25 cent punches. I can’t remember all the prizes, but they were attractive and desirable and calculated to whet the greed of the prospective customer. The merchant had a chart, which he kept out of sight, of all the winning numbers. Of course, like all gambling devices, they were rigged to pay a profit to the ‘house.’
When anyone came in the store, particularly males, this attractive display of wanted items and the punch board on top of the show case fairly shouted, “Stop. Try your luck. You might win a watch or a ten dollar bill.” This subtle salesmanship along with an inherent desire to get something for almost nothing broke down the resistance of many and they would lay down their money, the merchant would give them the punch for punching out the numbered paper, and then the agonizing decision as to which one (within the chosen and paid for color) to punch had to be made. After due deliberation, the punch was made, the paper unrolled and the number checked against the merchant’s list. If it was a winner, the prize was taken out of the showcase and delivered at once. If it was a loser, as most of them were, he had a lesson in economics to the effect that wealth comes from productive work and not from chance. At the same time the merchant had reinforced his knowledge that, as Barnum said, “A sucker is born every
Eventually all the punches were gone, all the prizes given out, and the merchant pocketed a neat profit from a minimum of effort and risk.
Most of the merchants in these country stores had a trace of New England skepticism about them and this led them to “ring” the coins they received in payment. At this time all the coins above the nickel were made of silver and if dropped on a hard surface would give out a clear, bell-like tone. The proprietor on receiving a silver coin, particularly a dollar or half dollar, would flip the coin in the air and let it fall on the hard counter top. If it “rang true,” which most of them did, he accepted it and put it in the cash drawer; if it didn’t “ring true,” he refused to accept it. This was a routine thing and no local customer took it as a challenge of his honesty. Of course, this test, while it is probably more needed now than then, would be worthless at the present. Our modern, “two faced” coins have about as much music about them as a frog landing in thick mud. The ring they make is a dull “plunk”—still another instance in which beauty and romance have fallen victim to “progress.” Alas, how much we sacrifice on the altar of practicality.
Under the counter on the north was the cash drawer. Cash registers were not yet in vogue, at least, not in the boondocks. Under the drawer were several keys like typewriter keys. If one pressed the right combination of these keys, the spring-loaded drawer would slide open and ring a bell. Presumably this was to warn the proprietor if an unauthorized person was “dusting” the till.
In the shelves on the north wall and behind the show case was the drug section, loosely defined. It held patent medicines such as Cardui, Beef Wine and Iron, Sloan’s Liniment, Sarsaparilla, Black Draught—what an awful dose it was. It was a finely ground black powder made of roots, barks and vegetable matter, and was used as a laxative. Also, there were Doan’s Kidney Pills, Calomel, Castor Oil, Iodine, and small bottles of turpentine—which was used as an antiseptic. Two other drugs that are now rigidly controlled were paregoric and laudanum, both of which contained opium, the latter in considerable amount; but then anyone who claimed to have a toothache and who had the money or the credit could get them. Presently drug use is would probably look on those as the good old days, although the merchant, as a
matter of principle and also because he personally knew all his customers, would probably have stopped short of selling any of them a dangerous amount. And by the same token none of them ever considered taking it by force. In those pre-World War I days, force was a little-used item. Both the merchant and the customer had a mutual respect for each other. That was one of the features of “the good old days” I would like to have back.
I failed to mention that on that drug shelf was vermifuge, which was one of, if not the vilest tasting concoctions ever devised by man. If we could just make every politician whose words and acts get us into wars take two doses of vermifuge before he threatened, I believe it would usher in the golden age of peace!
Its merits were alleged to be that it would rid children of pinworms. I guess it would, but there must surely be some easier way. Aunt Louella gathered Philip and me up one day and gave us a dose of it. The memory still puts a bad taste in my mouth.
Next to the medicine section was the tobacco. There was a great variety of smoking, chewing tobacco, and snuff. Among the chewing varieties I remember Brown’s Mule, Spark Plug, and Picnic Twist. The first two were plug tobaccos, that is, tobacco leaves treated with molasses and pressed into sheets. And near them stood the inevitable tobacco cutter to cut as much off a plug as the customer wanted. As I remember about a fourth of a plug of Brown’s Mule sold for a nickel. I guess the plugs were scored to indicate where to cut. Picnic Twist, though, was a different breed of cats. It was pure tobacco twisted into a twist that looked like an overgrown periwinkle. It was dry and strong. Some advanced tobacco users crumbled it up and smoked it in their corncob pipes. When one got to the place that he could use Picnic Twist, he had arrived, because his system must be almost saturated with nicotine before he could stand it! While it may not have been as strong as I described, it nonetheless had a tendency to separate the men from the boys! If my memory serves me right. Papa chewed Brown’s Mule very sparingly. Then there were the snuffs in nickel and dime cans. There were two brands, Bruton’s and Garrett’s Scotch Snuff. They were probably both made by the American Snuff Company in Memphis. Snuff was used, if at all, by the women who before this time had given up smoking pipes and had not yet got to cigarettes. My Grandmother Hendrick dipped snuff; Mother did not. Most of the men smoked or chewed, or both. But cigarettes were in high disfavor with the older men; they called them coffin tacks, and subsequent research indicates they were just about right. As for cigarettes, those shelves did not hold any ready rolled. They were beginning to catch on in town, but the country people who smoked cigarettes at all rolled their own, partly, I guess, because they were cheaper. There was a rather strange notion among the cigarette smokers that it was the paper, specifically cigarette paper, that was harmful, not the tobacco. To get around that, they rolled them in pieces of brown or white paper sacks, which added three or four times as much paper as the very thin cigarette papers. Some few of the more audacious owned a book of L.L.F. cigarette papers. Whether it was because
they were not socially approved or because they were illegal, I do not know, but they were kept pretty well concealed. I think Hendrick generally used L.L.F. ‘s. The initials were locally reputed to mean “last leaf first.” Actually, I think they were the initials of the French firm that made them. Among the cigarette tobaccos that were on the shelves were Bull Durham (way out the most popular), R.J.R., and Prince Albert. The first two came in little flattened cloth bags; the third in a red tin, as I presume it still does. Of the pipe tobaccos I can only recall Our Pride, which came in a round cloth bag with a red and white label, and Tuxedo, and Prince Albert, which were packaged in tins. Really experienced cigarette rollers could roll one in one hand after the tobacco was poured in the paper, including striking the kitchen match (Diamond brand, no less). I learned how to roll a very presentable cigarette, but I never advanced to become a one hander!
Among the other tobacco supplies were some cheap cigars. The one that fastens itself on my memory was Virginia Cheroots or “threefors,” meaning three for a nickel. The box had a picture of a big sow rooting and under it cheroots. Even in those days of cheap products and cheap labor, I can’t imagine that three for a nickel cigars could have had much quality. They could probably just as well have been named “El-Ropo.” It is likely that Fleur-de-Melba and King Edward also graced the shelves and touted their virtues at five cents each, which were treats for the more affluent only.
Pipe smoking and cigar smoking were not considered to be harmful; they had not yet been associated with lip, throat,
and tongue cancer. Today they are still regarded as less harmful than cigarettes, but not helpful to the health.
But back to the drug shelves. There were bottles of Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic guaranteed to cure malaria. And it probably would, too, if one could stand the taste for sufficient time to take enough doses. Little cans of Gray’s ointment were there. The ointment was supposed to be a specific for boils. It was as black as axle grease and had a peculiar odor. It was almost as adhesive as glue. Aspirin had not come into vogue and there was little or nothing to console one with a headache, but, fortunately there were not many headaches either. I suppose the more leisurely pace removed the tensions that now cause us so many pains, or rather, the tensions never built up to the point of
Immediately behind the drug and tobacco shelves the groceries began. There wasn’t much rhyme nor reason about the arrangement; soap and spaghetti might be side by side. But there was sure to be found somewhere in the shelves cans of sardines (cheap American variety which sold for five cents). Club Salmon in tall cans, pork and beans, bottles of pepper sauce, a meager selection of spices including black and cayenne pepper, maybe whole cloves, allspice, stick cinnamon, and whole nutmegs.
Since country people canned their own fruits and vegetables, not many of these were sold. There were round cardboard boxes of Quaker’s or Mother’s Oats (not the quick-cook kinds, for they had not appeared yet), Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Post Toasties, sometimes Grape Nuts and Cream of Wheat. Grits came as hominy flakes in large burlap bags lined with a cotton bag. They sat against the counter in the center aisle along with one or two hundred pound
bags of coffee (whole beans), a hundred pound bag of sugar, from which the merchant dipped it with a scoop and weighed it for the customer in a small paper bag. On second thought, I believe the sugar was kept in a bin under the counter. Large bags of dried beans—pinto, navy, and maybe large butter beans—sat along the counter in the center aisle on the north side. The south side of the aisle was taken up largely with kegs of nails, staples, and horseshoes, some opened, some unopened. You might think that rats and mice would bother these bags that were sitting on the
floor. The fact is that they probably did, but no one worried a lot about it, unless it was the merchant who lost a little of his wares and who had to clean up the mess.
There wasn’t much of an assortment of soap; usually to be found was Octagon, Fels Naphtha, perhaps Ivory for the elite, and Grandpa’s Wonder Tar Soap that the women prized highly for washing their hair. It came in a yellow cardboard box. The bar was rounded and was almost as black as tar. It lathered freely, having a tantalizing odor of pine tar. Along with the soaps were Faultless Starch and cans of Merry War Lye, used variously for making your own “lye soap” and for putting in pig swill, presumably to rid them of intestinal worms; but, I suspect, given just because we had always done it this way! It certainly makes one have a high respect for a pig’s innards to think that it could stand a dose of lye! Along with these items too was Twenty Mule Team Welding Borax, used by the housewives as a water softener and by the nearby blacksmith as a flux in welding iron, which was to me then, and still is, an amazing process.
Conspicuously missing from this section, as compared to a modern grocery, was toilet paper. The law of supply and demand prevailed here, for there simply wasn’t any demand for it. The people used sheets of old Sears catalogs, newspapers, or even sometimes freshly shelled corn cobs. You might infer from this that people were tougher then than they are now. If you did, your inference would be totally correct. They were tougher both physically and morally.
On the back counter on the north side sat the cheese cutter. It was a circular platform some fourteen inches in diameter with a heavy knife hinged over it. The platform could be rotated a fixed distance at a time. This amount of arc represented the value of a nickel’s worth of cheese, which was a segment of the circle of the cheese. The cut of cheese was wedge shaped. If a dime’s worth was wanted it could be ratcheted twice, or multiples for another multiple nickel’s worth. The cheese itself was about fourteen inches in diameter and five inches thick and of little better quality than the kind we now describe as mousetrap cheese.
A cheese this size came in a wooden box of the same shape. The cheese itself weighed about fifty pounds. I didn’t bother about it at the time, but I suppose the ratchet was adjustable to take care of the varying price of cheese. When not in use the knife was left standing vertically and the hoop (the box the cheese came in) was placed over the cheese on the cutter platform. I suppose that the purpose was to keep the mice from getting their share. Flies probably got their share off the standing knife. As far as I remember, no one ever bothered to take the knife off and wash it, but I also never knew of any case of illness being traced to the cheese cutter.
On the center end of this same counter was the indispensable roll of wrapping paper in its stand with a guide to tear the paper off by. Most things were not prepackaged and had to be either wrapped and tied with string or put in a paper bag and tied with string. There were no staplers and no tape. Cellophane and polyethelene had not even been dreamed of at that time. The string was on a ball or spool in a container on the ceiling and the end of the string hung down so that it could be reached. Some of the string, I remember, had a red thread and white thread twisted together; other was all white.
In addition to the burlap bags of beans, coffee, and hominy flakes, in the middle aisle there might be a barrel of apples in season or even a box of oranges. If this seems awfully crowded to you, just remember that there was seldom, more than one or two people in the store at a time except for the “hangers-on,” who were either sitting around the stove in the winter or on the front porch in the summer. The porch, which jutted out almost to the road, was a good place to see who was passing and what they were hauling and to enjoy good-natured talk about them. There wasn’t any continual flow of traffic as there is now; there was an occasional buggy carrying one or two people, a few farm wagons,
and sometimes old man Ab Wharton walking along with his hands clasped behind his back and his wife following some five or six steps behind him. Many of the people who passed were Negroes who often heralded their approach by singing, particularly at night. We almost knew them by their voices, most of which were rich and melodious.
Behind the northeast counter there was a barrel of salt pork. It was, I think, taken from the jowls of the hogs and was almost pure fat. This must have been the same kind that the army bugle call ditty referred to as “porky, porky, porky, without a bit of lean.” It was a staple among the poorer people who could not afford to raise their own hogs. I don’t remember what it sold for per pound, but I would guess not more than ten cents, perhaps even less. This salt pork, hominy, and corn bread, along with dried beans, were the main constituents of the diet of the very poor. There were no food stamps, no welfare programs, no subsidies. In those days, except for a little help from the somewhat better off
neighbors, you were on your own, and if worst came to awful worst, it was the poorhouse for you. There were several people in the community, both whites and blacks, who had a daily battle with the wolf at the door. It is almost superfluous to say that tuberculosis was rampant among them and that the death rate was inordinately high. They were caught in the poverty syndrome and there was very little hope of ever getting out. Let it be noted, however, that not many of them were ever suspected of stealing. By and large, they accepted “what can’t be cured must be endured,” and suffered with a dignity that puts to shame our modern complaining. And suffer I’m sure they did, sometimes being actually hungry. In the Dilton neighborhood, there were one or two cases of pellegra, which is
specifically a disease of dietary deficiency.
Sometimes in the winter months when hogs were being killed, the merchant might have “a few sets of bones” for sale at ten cents a set. A set consisted of a pair of ribs and a backbone. He might also have some fresh faces and jowls which, I think, sold for ten cents each. This fresh meat was a welcome addition to the diet of the very poor and furnished them some much needed protein and vitamins. A novelty, and maybe even a revolting kind of novelty,
in this and other country stores was the sight of rabbits hanging by a string from a hook in the ceiling. The merchant had bought them from local hunters for ten cents each and sold them, I guess, to the more affluent for about twenty to twenty-five cents each. They had been “drawn” (innards taken out), but the skin and head were still on them. H.K. Mankin and J.B. Preston used to be local nimrods who picked up a little spending money this way. No doubt they invested a substantial part of it in Bull Durham, while most of the rest went for jellybeans. The older, married hunters used their rabbits to supplement the families’ diet. It should be noted that a shotgun shell sold for about three cents.
But they didn’t always use a shotgun. Often they would kill them while sitting with a .22 rifle. The shells for it cost about one-half cent each. When there was a snow on the ground, they would track them to their burrows and kill them with a club.
Under the northeast counter was one or more stands (50 lb. metal cans) of hog lard which the merchant had bought from local farmers and which he sold retail to those who did not produce their own. There was also shortening manmade from cotton seed oil which the local people called compound lard. Generally speaking, only the poor would use it as it was considered of inferior quality and sold at a cheaper price. Some of us have lived to see that position reversed, since pure hog lard doesn’t find much of a market now. Then, as now, it had a tendency to get rancid as weather warmed.
Considerable of the business of the country store was carried on as barter. Women would bring in eggs and butter or chickens and trade them to the merchant for staples such as coffee, sugar and flour, thread, and calico. We children, too, engaged in barter with the local merchant as from time to time we could wangle an egg from our mothers. With almost drooling anticipation, we would rush to the store with our egg to trade it for some goody we wanted. But just what goody? There were so many enticing choices. There were chocolate drops, jellybeans, cookies, fishhooks, and boss balls, and we just had one egg to spend, worth roughly one cent. The merchant waited understandingly while we wrestled with this momentous choice. Finally we decided, the deal was completed and we went away as happy as if
we had made a shrewd deal on a new Rolls Royce. The merchant usually gave us more than value received. He was our neighbor and friend, not just a dealer and salesman.
Frequently, too, some adult would bring in a live hen and trade her for some staple such as sugar, coffee, or lard. Ready cash was scarce and barter took its place. The merchant had a coop outside the back of the store that he kept the chickens in until he took them from time to time to sell to the poultry wholesale dealer in town.
Part of the business was done on a credit basis also. Things would be charged until the fall crop was gathered when
the customer and the merchant would have a settlement. If one’s credit was questionable, he would have to get some more acceptable person, usually a landowner, to “stand” for him, that is, guarantee payment. The poor then, as the poor have always been, were “on the short end of the stick,” and occasionally there was a grasping merchant who would gouge them. Hendrick was not that kind. He had more of a tendency to be softhearted and let them gouge him, for often his outgo was more than his income. Businesses do not prosper that way, nor did his, but I venture to say that he laid up a lot of shekels where “moth and rust doth not corrupt nor thieves break through and steal.” I doubt seriously that he ever knowingly cheated anybody, but I don’t doubt that he gave long weight to the poor.
To the east of the counter toward the back of the store, there was a barrel of vinegar lying in a cradle with a wooden
spigot in it. Vinegar was drawn out into the customer’s jug or jar.
Somewhat near the northeast corner of the store was a hanging platform to hold the cloth bags of flour and meal. The purpose, of course, was to keep the rats and mice off it, not necessarily for sanitation but to keep them from gnawing holes in the bags and wasting the contents. A customer might be more concerned about the bag’s being a half pound short than he was about any germs the rat or mouse might distribute; anyhow, cooking would kill the germs!
There was some variety of flour but small quantities of each. Flour came in twenty-four and forty-eight pound bags. I only remember the name of the one brand that Mother used. Dainty, I think it was, made by Ransom’s mill near Murfreesboro. I believe there were both plain and self-rising flours. Mother used plain flour and made her biscuits (which we had twice a day) with buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda. The meal—the brand escapes me—came in twenty-four and forty-eight pound cloth bags also. The bags were prized for making cup towels and underwear for us
children after the printing had washed out. Among her other duties, Mother made underwear and shirts for us. When I think of all the things she did, it makes me ashamed of what we call work now, nor is it any surprise to me that she
wore out and died in sixty-two years. There was no electricity nor much gasoline to lighten her load. She did have a gasoline iron that gave her a desperate headache nearly every time she used it, probably from carbon monoxide fumes. It was a cantankerous piece of equipment as temperamental as a movie actress. When it was good, “it was very, very good, and when it was bad it was horrid!” I doubt seriously that Underwriters’ Laboratories would put their seal of approval on one now, and probably didn’t then. But in the summertime, as bad as it was, I guess it was better than heating the wood-burning kitchen stove to heat the sadirons to do a big family ironing including shirts, sheets, and table cloths. Incidentally, she kept a green cedar bough to put the iron on occasionally to keep it from sticking to starched clothes so badly. I suppose the heat extracted oil or wax from the cedar needles. Country people were not botanists, but they knew many practical things about trees and herbs.
Across the back wall of the store, hanging on hooks or pegs, were work harnesses for horses and mules. Among them were trace chains, collars, hames, hame strings, clevises, backhands, curry combs, and maybe singletrees and doubletrees. Other farm items were kept in the back storage room.
In addition, the back room contained the coal oil (kerosene) barrel with a hand-cranked pump on it. Coal oil was one of the necessities of life in those days before electricity reached the rural areas. We had at our house a metal, one-gallon can with a small spout to get our supply of kerosene in. It could be poured from the can directly into the lamps without benefit of a funnel. Since the small spout didn’t have a cap, the merchant would usually stick a potato on it so that I would not slosh it out as I carried it home. Other people got theirs in a glass jug with a cork in it for a stopper. They also had a loop of heavy cord or small rope attached to the handle to carry it by. I suppose carrying a gallon of oil by one finger for a mile or two got rather tiresome.
The shelves on the south side toward the back were devoted to shoes, men’s and women’s and children’s. They were mostly work shoes. The men’s shoes were high top, lace-up, with hooks about halfway. As I remember the women’s shoes, they had eyelets all the way up and reached almost to mid-calf. No ankle was going to be exposed to public view! The clothes then not only protected the property; they also obstructed the view.
Immediately to the west of the shoe shelves were the dry goods. The selection was not impressive. It consisted of
several different calico prints, maybe some ginghams, unbleached and bleached domestic, some Indian head, hickory stripes for shirts, overalls, work socks, garters, black ribbed cotton stockings in weights for women and boys in short pants, elastic banding, spools of thread, safety and straight pins, hairpins, huck toweling and various other kindred items. The wants of the community had not been whetted to such a keen edge by advertising as they have been now; therefore, the canny merchant stocked accordingly. Somewhere along this side of the store was sole leather and “sprigs,” which the industrious bought and used to half-sole their own work shoes. I often thought how unfortunate
it would be if a piece of this sole leather got mixed in with the Brown’s Mule – they looked somewhat alike. The half-soling jobs were crude, but they served the purpose and postponed the day of judgment on buying a new pair of shoes, a momentous decision to make.
It is nearly impossible for us to envision now the tranquility, the sense that tomorrow was going to be very much like
today, the slowness of the tempo of living, the simple pleasures, the almost all pervading calm that enveloped those days, especially before World War I. We who lived in those days and now have the long perspective needed to assess them can’t help but conclude that 1914 was a turning point in history. Life before that time and after it are almost as different as life on separate planets would be. As one example, violence was rare and was frowned upon by all but those who committed it, and the punishment meted out for it was both swift and harsh. Divorce, too, was looked upon almost as a scandal and divorcees were not glamorized. Shoplifting was practically nonexistent.
One of the simple pleasures I remember with nostalgia was the mournful, sweet sound of the steam locomotive whistles in the dead of night. When we lived at the Gamewell place there was a switch on to a sidetrack of the N.C. and St. L. Railroad about a mile and a half from our house, and in the still of night we could clearly hear the whistles. Remember, there wasn’t much background noise, for there were few automobiles and most of them went to bed at dark; there were no radios, no televisions, and for all practical purposes, no airplanes, so it was quiet when night fell except for an occasional passing wagon or buggy in the early hours or the lilting, half-happy, half-sad voice of a Negro
singing as he walked along the pike. So, late at night—I think about midnight – when the Dixie Flyer passed through, the freight that met this fast passenger train from Chicago to Jacksonville at that siding had to get off. We could hear it coming to a halt while the switchman threw the switch, then a short toot from the tenor pitched whistle, then the puff puff puff — puff — puff — puff – puff – puff of the steam exhaust as the locomotive labored to get the heavy train moving again, the low rumble of the moving train then when it got on the switch (siding), the clangor of car couplings bumping together as the brakes were applied, then silence while the freight lay there waiting for the Dixie Flyer to pass. It usually wasn’t a long wait until the Flyer came roaring and clacking and its deeper-throated baritone whistle
sounding out an “all’s well” to the waiting freight as it thundered by and was soon gone. Then the freight with two short toot- loots began its laborious chuff chuff chuff – chuff — chuff – chuff – chuff as it started, then a slowing of
the chuffing as it slowed for the switchman to throw the switch and run and catch the caboose then faster chuff-chuff-chuff chuff – chuff until the individual chuffs were lost to the growing roar as the train gained speed. It didn’t have far to go, though, until it came to the Rucker crossing and there the engineer really expressed himself on the whistle, almost playing a tenor solo with the W-H-O-O, W-H-O-O, WHOO, W H O with a diminuendo toward the end of the last WHOO trailing off into the still night as clear as the note of a violin and as plaintive as the wail of a banshee. It was a thrilling pleasure that younger generations have been deprived of. “Progress” drove the steam locomotive to the bone yard, the raucous diesel horn displaced the melodious whistle, and music gave way to noise. Perhaps Longfellow had the tenor-pitched steam whistle in mind when he wrote “and the night shall be filled with music” at least, he well
could have. I’m sure efficiency has been increased by the change from steam to diesel, but the soul went out of railroading with the demise of the steam whistle. Shall man live by efficiency alone or is there some nobler goal? Is it necessary to swap beauty for ugliness in the name of progress? The passing of the steam whistle is typical of the passing of many of those charms that set the pace of peace and calm which prevailed in the entire community.