Like a desert oasis in rural America, country stores are a haven of refreshment — and tchotchkes — for weary travelers.
Also known as general stores, these outposts of Americana once served as trading posts for people who lived far from the city.
Stephen Holden, proprietor of the Old Country Store and Museum in the village of Moultonborough, N.H., knows that well. His 235-year-old store opened the same year his great-great grandfather fought in the Battle of Bennington. Holden will tell you of the ox-driven carts that used to haul necessities to the store from Rochester, more than 400 miles away.
“Though hardware was mostly made locally in blacksmith shops, other materials were held in stores like this," he said. “Plates were imported in from other countries. And everybody made their own clothing, so there were all kinds of cloth available."
Back then, Holden said, beverages mostly came in barrels. Today, many country stores carry ice-cold Coca-Cola in glass bottles.
Such stores are often adorned with vintage Coca-Cola signs, lending an antique aura to stores that often sell more novelties than necessities.
“The country stores that are around today, by their very nature, are hearkening back to the way things used to be," says Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan.
The flashiest signs, he says, were once rewarded to proprietors who gave Coca-Cola merchandise premium placement. Today, they remind customers of a simpler time, when general stores were more prevalent than superstores.
“When you stop at one of those country stores and get boiled peanuts and Coca-Cola, you take a trip down memory lane," Ryan says.
Here are five of the nation's most charming country stores:
Mary Chesley Calef mortgaged her farm and opened this country store in her Barrington, N.H. home shortly after the Civil War. Calef's Country Store has been in continuous operation in the same location ever since.
The store nods to tradition with its branded bird feeders, New Hampshire maple syrup, jams and pickles galore. Proprietor Greg Bolton said the store is known for its “Snappy Old Cheddar," aged cheddar cheese in traditional sharp or more contemporary flavors like Steakhouse Onion or Buffalo Wing.
While there's no replicating the feel of Calef's brick-and-mortar location, with its wood stove and creaky original floorboards, ex-New Hampshirites nostalgic for New England molasses or Calef's house-roasted coffee can order it through the store's website, which accounts for a healthy portion of the more than 100,000 transactions Calef's enjoyed last year.
This white, clapboard country store on Arkansas Highway 5, covered in vintage Coca-Cola signs, appears to have stood the test of time. But the store was built only about 30 years ago, according to employee Betty Hughes.
Hughes will proudly tell you Mellon's is listed among one of the top five things to do in Mountain View, a 7-square-mile city with a rich folk-music tradition.
That's because the store's attractions extend beyond its boiled peanuts, antiques, pies, locally made wood products and glass bottles of Coca-Cola people sip on the porch.
There's also the adjacent Hole in the Wall Theater, a 50-seat venue showing live bluegrass and comedy shows on the weekends. “We pop popcorn and just have a good time," Hughes says.
The Old Country Store has certainly earned its name.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it's been in continuous operation since 1781, making it one of the oldest surviving businesses in the U.S. It remains a gathering place in Moultonborough, which boasts 93 miles of waterfront, the chief reason the town's population swells from 5,000 to 30,000 in the summer.
It takes a lot of inventory to keep all of those seasonal customers satisfied. “We do business with about 500 companies, and a great majority of the individual things you can purchase here you can't buy anywhere else," Holden says proudly.
The Old Country Store is one of the largest sellers of Cabot Creamery cheese by the wheel, which Holden buys extra sharp and ages in the cellar. It also sells regional maple syrup, penny candy, cast-iron cookware and toys. There's also Coca-Cola memorabilia aplenty, including old-fashioned metal signs, napkin holders, bottle openers and placemats.
This shop, located in the tiny but gorgeous mountain town of Saluda, N.C., was founded in 1890, making it the oldest grocery store in the state. It feels every bit the part, with its creaky wooden floorboards and shelves lined with a plethora of pickles and sauces under framed snapshots of local history.
While it used to service the eight passenger trains that chugged up the steep Saluda grade into town daily, Thompson's now enjoys tourist traffic brought in by events like Coon Dog Day, the Saluda Arts Festival and a cool Blue Ridge climate.
Stop in and grab some produce, barbecue sauce or locally made crackers. Don't forget the Charlie Ward Sausage, a store specialty house-ground with plenty of sage. Next door, Ward's Grill, opened in the 1950s, will fry up that very same sausage for you and serve it with cornbread salad or slaw.
This Deerfield, Mass. store, located in a sprawling old New England home, oozes Americana. Among its inventory, you'll find old-fashioned hook rugs, blue-and-white Polish pottery and Coca-Cola memorabilia, including sugar and napkin dispensers, baskets, salt-and-pepper shakers and bottle openers.
But this store's main claim to fame is an extensive selection of kitchen tools, including such needful things as squash scoopers and peanut butter mixers.
Bakers, take note. The store also has more than 250 cookie cutter, from alligators to Christmas trees and everything in between.
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