Back porch of Mast General Store, Valle Crucis, NC
“The past is never dead, it is not even past.”
William Faulkner, 1897-1962
1949 Nobel Prize for Literature
When my parents visited last week, we stopped at the original Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, NC. There are several Mast stores throughout Appalachia and each one is an experience, but none as unique as the original. Creaking floorboards, an old wood stove that still heats the interior, shelves full of staple food items (and a few souvenirs), an old cooler with glass-bottled cokes, and a covered porch with rocking chairs. It’s the classic old General Store of days gone by. And as we left, I could tell my Dad was deep in thought, lost in a flood of childhood memories of when his grandparents and parents ran Fierbaugh’s General Store in Greens Run, Ohio, a small crossroads in Athens County (part of Appalachia — read here).
When I asked him about his memories, almost in a daze he recounted the smell of the old wood floor, how it was cleaned every day with a sawdust powder, the old wood stove, the butcher’s corner in the back with the strap and knives, and even the pack of cigarettes he and a friend stole and smoked out back when he was about 10. Many lessons learned, he explained. We had a good laugh.
Fierbaugh’s General Store (pictured here with my great grandparents) was constructed sometime between 1890 and 1905 by a man by the name of Green, after whom the community and two creeks were named. My great-grandparents bought the store in 1908, and two years later my Granddad, Herman Virgil Fierbaugh, was born in the store’s living quarters. These are his memories of Fierbaugh’s General Store, as recounted in his memoirs, penned in 1993 a few years before his death:
“World War I ceased in 1918, when I was eight years old. The service men returned home, employment in the coal mines was high. The county and township improved the roads. The store business prospered. Dad purchased a Delco Electricity Generator with storage batteries, then added a water system in 1920, and for the first time we had electric lights and running water in our home and store.
By the time I was 10, I was making store deliveries using first a pony and cart and by 1920 the family’s 1916 Ford Model T touring car. As cars became more prominent, the store began to stock gasoline. Standard Oil Co. had a bulk distribution station in Glouster, five miles from the store. They delivered a fifty-gallon drum of gasoline strapped to their lamp oil tank wagon, drawn by a mule team. They insisted that gasoline was too dangerous to place close to the store, so the drum was placed in a shed on the back of the lot as far away from the store, barn, tool shed, corn crib and feed room as possible. When a customer asked for gas, the car would be driven up to the shed — if the lot was not full of wagons and was not ‘running-board deep’ with mud. Otherwise, we carried the gas to the car in a lamp oil can.
I attended Ohio University in 1928 for one year — studying radio and mechanical drawing — before dropping out to work at the family store. I received ten dollars a week, room and board, and the family Overland to drive. The hours were long, six days a week, and on Sundays Dad and I took care of the horses while the drivers spent the day at their homes. I did not dislike store work, but the future did not look good. It was at the beginning of the Depression and Dad insisted on extending credit, not for future good will or profit, but just to help people. Mother was generous, too. People’s furniture, appliances, and cars were often repossessed but groceries, never. A large number of customers took advantage of the Fierbaughs’ generosity. The bank in Glouster failed to open one Monday morning. Many times my Mother said the only thing that saved the store at Green’s Run was the fact that my Dad ‘cashed in’ his life insurance stock to cover the debts other people had incurred to them.”
Times got tough and the store wasn’t enough to support everyone, so my Granddad ran various local feed stores and eventually became a successful salesman for General Mills. My Dad was eight-years-old when General Mills moved the family to Bristol, Tennessee. Fierbaugh’s General Store continued for another decade or so, run by my great aunt and uncle, and Dad’s memories continued to be made there during summer visits. I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of some of those memories on our trip through Valle Crucis.