General Stores

The Gregg-Cable House in Cades Cove.
Leason Gregg built this house in Cades Cove in 1879 and operated a store on the first floor. In 1887, Rebecca Cable and her brother Dan bought the house and continued to operate the store for about eight more years.

Stores Were Commercial and Social Centers in Great Smokies
Prior to the creation of the national park in 1934, thousands of people lived in dozens of communities in the Smokies. Along with schools, churches, and gristmills, many communities supported general stores. Historically, the local general store served as a banking and credit center, source for supplies, a gathering place and recreation center. The prominence of the general store in communities cannot be overstated.

The typical store was a wooden structure with one main room and a stock room. The store's owner had to maximize creatitivity in displaying his wares, using every available space.

 
Men standing near the front porch of the Elkmont Post Office and store.
The Elkmont Post Office served as a social gathering place for the community.

NPS Photo Archives

Merchandise was displayed on shelves along the wall, stacked on the counter, stored in barrels and boxes on the floor, and even hung on hooks from the ceiling. The local store carried the necessary staples for daily life such as nails, cartridges, cooking utensils, cloth, choes and bulk foods like flour, coffee and salt. The stores also had luxeries, such as tobacco and candies.

Generally for farmers, travel to and from the nearest town took two to five days. Thus the local store made exchanging goods convenient and efficient for farmers.

The folk of the Cades Cove community in the western end of the Smokies were well served after 1873. Leason Gregg opened the community's first general store, located near a grist mill. He bought the local farmers' produce, traveled 40 miles to Knoxville every week to trade, and returned with merchandise to sell.

The proximity of the store to the mill allowed people to shop and catch up with the latest community news and gossip while they waited on their corn to be ground.

While money did change hands in the store, barter was a common practice. Will Messer's store in Little Cataloochee accepted eggs and honey in exchange for coffee, sugar, salt, and other supplies. In 1900, a dozen eggs (worth 16 cents) could be traded for a pound of coffee. Messer also extended credit in his store, often carrying a neighbor's account for up to twelve months. In the Sugarlands community, children earned cash by gathering nuts and berries and taking them to James Bohanon's store in nearby Fighting Creek.

But in the 1900s, the barter economy was waning. Farmers were rapidly becoming consumers, not just producers. With cash in their pockets from selling crops, people began to yearn for more of life's luxuries.

 
Man standing on the front porch of the Nellie Post Office in Cataloochee.
The Nellie Post Office was located near Palmer Chapel in Cataloochee. The letter N was mistakenly painted backwards on the sign, but the post mistress liked the look of it and kept it.

NPS Photo Archives

General stores often had post offices, which made sending away for items not available locally easier. By the 1890s, an amazing variety of merchandise could be ordered from the Montgomery-Ward or Sears & Roebuck catalogs. After the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in 1896, products could be sent directly to homes via the mail service.

Industrialization in the form of logging and mining also changed the general store. The numerous logging companies that found their way into the forests of the Smokies offered employment to the local men and women. The company store provided them with a place to spend their wages. The general store was either combined with, or replaced by the company store or commissary.

General stores were an important link between the rural life and industrial towns as social centers. Unfortunately, no general stores remain among the 80 or so historic buildings preserved in the national park.

 
Circa 1918 photo of the inside of a general store in Gatlinburg, TN. Store owner behind counter with articles for sale surrounding him on counters and walls.
Country store in Gatlinburg, TN. Store owners found creative ways to display their wares in cramped spaces. Photo taken in 1918.

NPS Photo Archives

Last updated: August 31, 2017

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