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Slayton: Social Hub

12/28/11 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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Reading General Store
"There's nothing like the little country store where you know everybody.  You've known ‘em since they were born.  When they die you probably go their funeral."

(HOST)  VPR partnered last summer with the Billings Farm and Museum in a project designed to encourage the exploration of Vermont's working landscape and rural culture through our historic General Stores.  Today, we revisit commentator Tom Slayton's consideration of how they're a key part of Vermont's social history.

(SLAYTON) For more than a century, the general store was the nerve center and supply line for many Vermont communities. They brought in basic commodities like flour, sugar, and molasses, hardware, and feed grains, as well as formerly exotic items like tea and coffee, spices, citrus fruit, felt hats for the men and calicos for the women.

To understand the vital role of the village store, it's helpful to think a bit about Vermont villages themselves a hundred years ago. In today's world of interstate highways, airports, television, and the Internet, it's hard for us to realize how isolated small hill towns in the Green Mountains were - and how independent they had to be.

In the 1800s, the mountains that dominate Vermont's geography were powerful barriers to trade, transport, and communication. Add to the inconvenient mountains, impossible roads. For most of the year, the dirt roads that connected all rural villages in the state were rough and unpleasant. For six weeks in early spring they became impassable mudholes.

And so, Vermonters had to be self-sufficient in many ways. They became famous for their ingenuity and frugality, and Vermonters, like rural people everywhere, learned how to tell their own stories and make their own music to entertain themselves.

Nevertheless, by the 1850s, railroads could bring goods to most parts of the state, and general stores became the place to get what you needed but couldn't make or grow yourself.  

Pearce's General Store, Shrewsbury

By the 1870s and 1880s, they had become not only the commercial center but in many cases, the social hub of the town as well. 

People would go to the store, not only to "do their trading," but also, in many instances, to pick up their mail or wait for the appearance of the daily train and meet some friends.  Many general stores doubled as the local Post Office. Some still do. 

And although most Vermont Post Offices have now found their own locations, and the daily train is no longer an important community occurrence, many general stores are still more than just a place to buy things. Teago General Store in South Pomfret offers Justice of the Peace and Notary Public services, and you can still buy a fishing license (and a fish pole!) at F.H. Gillingham's in Woodstock.

In those earlier days, the storekeeper was an important person in town, known to just about everyone.  He or she was often consulted on local business matters, and many a political career began in discussions around the store's wood stove. Justin Smith Morrill, who was storekeeper in the Village of Strafford in the 1850s, used the insights he gained there to become U.S. representative in 1854 and later an important and influential U.S. Senator. His home in Strafford is now a Vermont Historic Site, open for visitors through the summer months. It's a fascinating place to spend an afternoon, a time-machine to take you back to the 19th century, when the general store was the center of life in Vermont.


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