Stores Were Commercial and Social Centers in Great Smokies
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 luxuries, 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 gristmill. 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.
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.
Last updated: August 23, 2022