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Posted by: Matt Boster
Date: Apr 11 2018 6:30 PM
Back in the roaring 20’s, 30’s, and early 40’s, the big town of Samson, Alabama had not just one but two rolling stores. I was not real familiar with Zolley Parker’s rolling store since he kept it behind his store which was two blocks up from my daddy’s stores, even on the other side of the post office. I was quite familiar with ‘Babe' Smith’s rolling store though because she kept it parked on the side of the street across Main from my daddy’s #1 store in front of the Tip Top Cafe. So, I’ll describe ‘Babe' Smith’s although I’m sure Zolley’s was similar.
Maybe I should back up a few lines and qualify referring to Samson as big. Well, it was. You have to take into consideration the fact that there were many farmers five, ten, even fifteen miles away from downtown that generally would only get to town every Saturday - if then. When they needed something in between trips to town, they either did without, borrowed from a neighbor, or were fortunate enough to be on a rolling store route.
Not many farmers had cars back then. They were mostly for the city slickers and other town folks. Farmers usually just hooked up the mules to a wagon, got the family settled in, and rode over the sandy roads to downtown Samson, let the mules get a drink of water from the trough in the center of town, then took them and the wagons behind the stores and tied the mules while they shopped or went to the movie or played checkers on the sidewalk or just talked with old friends.
Stores did a big business on Saturdays and generally stayed open until 9 or 10 O’clock at night. On Saturdays my daddy sold as much as he did the other days of the week put together. Had extra clerks just for Saturdays.
Rolling stores were sorely needed by the farmers. The routes they would take would be such as to get as close to as many farmers as possible. And, ‘Babe’ would have different routes for each day of the week in order to cover as much territory as possible. With a schedule, farmers who were not on a particular route would know what neighbor it would be going to and could go there and wait for it.
I’ll try to describe ‘Babe’ Smith’s rolling store. First off, it was a Model A (I think but could have been a Model T) Ford Truck but with what looked like a wooden school bus on a frame with just the hood sticking out in front. It had a large front window for the driver to see out over the hood. To get in, it was similar to current school buses or city buses. You’d step up one or two steps and be in the aisle that went down the middle all the way to the back. And, there was also a back door.
The windows were generally open, but there were wooden flaps that could be dropped to cover the windows in case of hard rains or real cold weather. They were generally open and had no screens.
Near the back inside a screened enclosure was the meat section. The screen was to keep the flies off the meat. Of course there was no air conditioning so essentially all of the meat was salted to preserve it. In the meat container the primary products were fat back - also called side meat, bacon (to be cut off roughly the size you wanted and you sliced it yourself). Sometimes there would be other parts like ribs, shoulder, even pigs ears. Usually there would be some salt fish also (you had to soak them overnight to get the salt out before they could be cooked).
Quite often eggs were carried in the meat compartment also because they had to be somewhere and there was no other good place to put them. ‘Babe' generally didn’t have many eggs because all the farmers had their own chickens. She did sometimes carry and sell biddies (small chicks) but these required a lot of care and were not taken often. The hams were hung from the ceiling by wires and hooks and would swing as the old store moved over the rough roads that Jack Jones had not gotten to with his road scrape in a while.
On occasion, especially after heavy rains, some parts of the old roads would be nothing but red clay and very easy to get stuck in. You could generally see the bad places because there would be a lot of cut limbs and brush in the clay where people had been stuck before and used the limbs for some traction.
Let’s get to some of the other parts of the rolling store. What a fine thing to behold!
First, the medicines which were second in importance to the tobacco section. ‘Babe’ had the old standbys castor oil, tins of aspirin, Epson salts, Stanback and BC headache powders, Carter’s Little Liver pills, iodine, rubbing alcohol, and even some bandages and tape. And, Mercurochrome, Vicks VaporRub, beef tallow, mustard (for plasters), plus an assortment of other vitals.
The biggest sellers were the tobaccos - most people use one or the other of the several choices and somethings more than one. There was Rooster snuff, Prince Albert smoking tobacco, Camel, Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, and Kool cigarettes, cigarette papers for roll-you-ons to save money since the cigarettes were all of 10 cents a pack! Then there were several types of chawing tobacci with Bull ‘Dern’ Durham a primary item. By the way, a lot of farmers smoked pipes and again the Prince Albert worked well. The pipes could be made of corn cobs with either small bones or small tubes stuck in the piece of cob to put in your mouth.
In the grocery section were cooking oils of two or three varieties, favoring (some had high alcohol content and during Prohibition were big sellers), meal, flour, salt, soda, baking powder, sugar, Pet milk among others.
And, let’s not forget the clothing section with overalls, some work shoes, socks, cloth shoes for picking cotton (they were literally made out of thick cloth), underwear, Ladies things, diapers, childrens’ clothes, work pants, and two or three types of hats both for dress and for working.
One section in the middle had various rolls of cloth with a measuring tape on the shelf to allow cutting the right length, sizers, needles, and thread.
There was one area with items like turpentine, kerosene, kerosene lamps, candles, and matches.
Another had shotgun shells and cartridges and you could order pistols or shotguns if you needed one. There were fish hooks, lines, and sometimes strapped to the top of the bus, cane poles for the farmers that didn’t want to cut a limber limb to fish with or just use set hooks.
Since there were some cars and trucks on farms, inner tubes, patches with the glue, and air pumps and car jacks were available. Grease for axels was carried and mule and horse harnesses and rope. Even a few milking cans could be found among pots and pans that rattled and clanged as the old rolling store went down the road.
It was impossible for ‘Babe’ to carry everything people might want so she carried old Sears and other catalogs so people could look to see what might be ordered and delivered at some time in the future. (I suspect the older Sears found other uses.)
Those might be the hard times of the past, but they were among the best times of my life.
Samson was a great place to grow up - just ask anyone who ever lived there.