Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Rolling Store

A Public Domain image of a Rolling Store.

A Public Domain image of a Rolling Store.

We’ve talked here before about transportation on the mountain – cars were much slower to make their way out here and really weren’t common until after World War 2.  Well families were accustomed to relying on the land as well as their own sweat and ingenuity to survive.  Still, there were exotic things, like coffee, that one easily became accustomed to and conveniences, like flour, that drew you to a store.  Well there’s a dilemma!  You want something from the store but the store is far away (Crossville or Monterey’s 20 mile trip was an excursion when traveled on roads paved primarily with mud) and you haven’t much way to get there.

Enter the Rolling Store.  What kind of entrepreneur must have come up with this idea!  Well mountain men can’t take credit for it I’m afraid for the tradition of a store coming to remote locations goes way back to the Old Testament – after all the Ishmaelites to whom Joseph’s brothers sold him would have been a sort of pack peddlers as they were headed to Egypt selling spices.

Well, on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau where roads were slow to grow larger than a good path and automobiles were far beyond the reach of the poor farmers a visit from a pack peddler and later from a rolling store was a much anticipated blessing.

The last pack peddler I know of came through about 1950 from Hartshaw Cove.  He broke his travel at the Stepp’s house in Martha Washington and for their kindness he left my Grandpa a pair of tin snips that he held onto the rest of his life.  (Of course we couldn’t lay our hands on them when I needed to take a picture!)

Clarence Elmore became his own sort of pack peddler selling Watkins Products.  These high quality flavorings were prized by the fine cooks on the mountain and Clarence regularly walked from his home in Roslin to make rounds visiting his customers.  Now, he was my Grandma’s second cousin so she was always glad to give him a bed for the night if he came along too late in the evening.  And of course he’d share supper – and he carried his own spoon so he really wasn’t any trouble a’tall!  Maybe Clarence is another story…

Of course pack peddlers were quickly replaced by rolling stores as soon as vehicles were available.   Well into the 1950’s Pa Evans and Harve Stephens made weekly visits supplying flour and coffee, sewing goods and candy. 

Mr. Evans had kept a store in the booming coal town of Wilder.  When the mines began to work out he moved the business out of that holler to Grimsley where he built a large 2-story store building.   His clientele must have changed a great deal when he moved out of Wilder’s village environment where the coal company had setup housing as close together as possible.  In Grimsley, homes sat on farms and were scattered far apart.  So he took his merchandise on the road to visit those homes with his rolling store.  He even had cages attached to the back of the truck to hold the chickens he would take in trade.  He would also buy eggs.

Harve Stephens store was in a bus and the noise of that engine was unique on the quiet roads.  You could hear him coming for miles allowing the excitement to grow.  Everyone remembers eagerly awaiting the rolling store’s visit.  My Great-grandma would save her eggs so her youngest daughter and oldest grandchild could go on the store and buy candy.   With no such thing as an ice cream truck, getting peppermint sticks off the rolling store was an unparalleled treat. 

Most farms still raised all their corn and had meal ground at a local gristmill.  However, the mountain didn’t support much wheat farming so flour was often requested from the visiting merchant.  And coffee – as I mentioned earlier that’s a luxury Americans quickly adopted and mountain folk were no different.  Sugar was another near-necessity that was delivered along with fresh fruit if you could afford it.  Really anything a home of the early 20th century needed which could not be grown on the mountain could be gotten from these weekly visits of The Rolling Store.

All of the scents of fruits and spices mingled in the confined space to create an aroma that the customers can still remember more than 60 years later.