The evolution of general stores in Three Village, United States

The evolution of general stores in Three Village, United States

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A Smithsonian postcard shows the interior of the Headsville, West Virginia, country store and post office installed in the National Museum of History and Technology, Washington, D.C., which includes many of the items found in the old Jonas Hawkins Store and Ordinary.

By Beverly C. Tyler

Part two of two.

Following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, 31-year-old Major Jonas Hawkins, Stony Brook general store owner and former courier for the Culper Spy Ring, continued operating Jonas Hawkins Store and Ordinary from his home in Stony Brook.

Students check out a general store display in the Setauket Elementary School auditorium during a 2012 Founders Day program. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By the beginning of the 19th century, the general store came into its own as an institution. It was an outgrowth of independence, and an example of Yankee know-how and frontier enterprise at its best.

The seemingly inexhaustible supply of American lumber and timbers plus a few manufactured items such as barrels went from U.S. ports to the West Indies where they were traded for rum, molasses and sugar. This island produce was, before the Revolutionary War, shipped in turn to England to be traded for manufactured goods — clothing, glass, china and tea — to name just a few. After the Revolutionary War, the trade continued, but the so-called triangle trade was extended to other European countries and to China as American ships began to bring their own tea, spices and other commodities back to the United States from all corners of the world.

In large part, no money changed hands between the country general store owner and the importer or between the merchant and the local seller of eggs and bacon. Bills of credit were commonly given by the importers and continued to be the general practice until late in the 19th century. The country merchant’s major asset was the produce that he collected by barter. The general store owner was in contact with the large general stores in New York City which sold both wholesale and retail as well as with the coastwise schooner captains, freight shippers, money brokers and various jobbing houses.

The country general store was a natural gathering place for residents of the community, especially in the cold winter months when many farmers, farmhands and seamen had nothing better to do. There was often a bench in the store, placed outside in the warmer months, called the liars bench. In the colder weather, the men who came to the store would find places close by the stove which often sat in the open near the middle of the room. It was here that stories were told, tall tales were spun, and the latest information on the state of the nation and the world was discussed. It was often the store owner who had the latest newspaper from New York City, or there was a ship captain who had just arrived with fresh news from one of the major ports.

Benjamin Franklin Thompson — his father called him Franklin — was just 16 years old in 1801. He was a hard, if not willing, worker on his father’s farm in Setauket, and he was often sent to Jonas Hawkins Store and Ordinary for a variety of items.

“November 18, 1800 — Tuesday … Franklin rides to Major Hawkins to carry 36 yards of cloth, gets half a pound paper of tobacco at 0/9 (0 shillings, 9 pence) carries 2 bushels of wheat to mill [Stony Brook Grist Mill] and fetches it home.”

About half the entries in Samuel Thompson’s diary which detailed trips to the general stores in Setauket and Stony Brook indicate that Samuel went himself.

“July 23, 1800 — Wednesday … Ride to Major Hawkins yesterday fetch 2 gall Rum pay 17/. Buye six yards of callonnick for my wife a pettecoat pay 24/ for it.”

It was usual for Thompson to visit the home and store of Hawkins since he was one of the few doctors in the community, and the general store was a vital source of news about local residents as well as being the source of many of Thompson’s medicines.

The inside of a wooden cigarillos box with a typical general store scene. Image from Beverly C. Tyler

“October 9, 1800 — Thursday … I ride to see Betsey Kelly then to Major Hawkins in the afternoon pay 10/ for a gallon of rum get 10 oz common Peruvian Bark pay 3/11.”

Thompson also listed senna and white vitriol as medicines that he purchased during the year 1800 from Hawkins’ store.

Thompson recorded in his diary an average of one trip a month to the general store of Hawkins. His purchases for 10 months included 12 gallons of rum. Thompson had a 200-acre farm and at least five farmhands. His purchases also included small quantities of sherry, gin and brandy. He also records the purchase of earthen cups, pipes, a pitcher and pins.

The country general-store owners were usually a fairly easygoing lot, and they put up with a great deal of tomfoolery from the bench warmers. They were also a no-nonsense breed who recognized a good product or a good worker.

As the 19th century began, the country general store began to change and grow. In 1805, Artemas Kennedy of Arlington, Massachusetts, near Boston, started the Kennedy Biscuit Company. The first “sea biscuits” were supplied to clipper ships as a staple for sailors on the long voyages around Cape Horn to California. The sea biscuit or cracker soon became popular on land as well as at sea, and the cracker barrel soon became a standard item in the country stores.

For those would like to experience an authentic country store, there is the St. James General Store located at 516 Moriches Roads. This “old-fashioned” general store is run for the benefit of residents and visitors through the Suffolk County Parks Department, Division of Historic Services. There are two floors of 19th- and 20th-century goods, and lots of homemade goodies. They have an extensive collection of old-style candies, with many brands that date back to the 19th century. On the second floor are books on Long Island covering many local communities, as well as lots of wonderful children’s books. The back room has an extensive collection of ornaments, some of which are reproductions of antique decorations. Back on the first floor there is a large selection of toys, dolls and games for children that also harken back to the 19th century.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit