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Gentry’s store sits forlorn and rejected at the intersection of Octoc Road and Robinson Road, only a short distance from Starkville, Mississippi. The metal roof is rusty and the Chevron gas tanks are empty, but the counters remain inside the building, along with the shelves on the walls.
This little store building is a survivor, bearing witness to another era, a different culture. Most of these country stores are long gone, but here is a history book standing among us.
Hilman Gentry opened the store in 1932. It took a brave man with a lot of courage to take this bold step three years into the Great Depression, when businesses were failing everywhere.
But Hilman was an entrepreneur. He had already established a grist mill which once stood next to the store. This was not a water-powered grist mill as described in my book, Depression Baby. Mr. Gentry’s Mill was powered by a tractor which had a belt to transfer the power to the grinding equipment.
Farmers would bring their bags of shelled corn to the mill and take home cornmeal. Hilman charged a toll, which was a portion of the shelled corn, in payment for grinding the cornmeal. This barter system was common in those days. Mr. Gentry took the corn tolls to feed his pigs and turkeys, which were driven to market at Crawford once they were properly fattened.
Women across our Southland used cornmeal to cook real cornbread (no sugar needed, thank you). Fried catfish and hush puppies became a famous Southern delicacy only with the assistance of cornmeal, and let us not forget the little wheels of fried okra which has been rolled in cornmeal before frying.
With the store being next door to the grist mill, people waiting for their corn to be ground could do a bit of shopping. There was a cooler filled with crushed ice and really cold drinks that would practically freeze your eyeballs.
You could get a dope and a moon pie. Yep, some people called cokes this unlikely name because early on Coca-Cola company added a bit of cocaine to give their soft drinks a hard punch.
There was a hoop of cheese on the counter and, according to Buddy Gentry (son of Hilman and Junie Gentry), people would drive all the way from Starkville to get a generous hunk of this cheese. And, of course, there was a big jar of pickled pigs feet for those who wanted to add a bit of zest to their lives.
There was K.C. Baking Powder and Octagon Soap on the shelves, which were stocked by Albert Gillispie, a black gentleman who worked at Gentry’s Store for over 50 years. Albert could fill your car with gasoline while you shopped. Gentry’s customers purchased kerosene for their lamps before electricity came to light up the lives of the country folks. Kerosene was also put on cuts and bee stings.
Oh yes, Gentry’s store had Prince Albert tobacco in the can for those who rolled their own. They only rolled their own tobacco back in those days — no hard stuff! For those who wanted to go on the cheap, there were little bags of tobacco available, and the bags were handy for boys to carry their marbles in. There were drawstrings on the bags to tightly close them.
In the early days, most customers of Gentry’s Store came by horse and wagon or on horseback but some had to walk to the store. A lot of folks ran a tab, or charged their purchases. They would pay off their tabs when their crops were sold. There are interesting entries recorded in a little book once owned by Kinard’s Country Store on Bluff Lake Road in Winston County.
- Dope — five cents
- 4 lb. Lard — 1.10
- 3 lb. Sausage — 1.00
- Gas — 29.5 cents (gallon)
- Cigs — 30 cents a pack
This store was near Johnny Wayne Bradford’s home. Johnny, my brother-in-law, showed me this little book, which listed items that were charged, or put on tab.
When winter came and all of the crops were in, the farmers found time to drop by Gentry’s Store to sit around the pot belly wood stove. A vessel of water was always on the hot stove and the steam replaced the moisture lost by this type of heating. After the weather and politics were thoroughly discussed and a few yarns thrown in, the checkerboard was set and then the fun began to determine the champion for the day.
Gentry’s was more than a store. It was a place to meet friends and socialize.
Hillman Gentry knew that his friends and neighbors, who were his customers needed more than just a place that furnished their basic needs such as salt, sugar and coffee. There was another basic need – entertainment. He put up a tent in the parking lot and on Saturdays he showed cowboy movies. He charged five cents for children and fifteen cents for adults.
These little stores that were spread all over the countrysides in the South and were as American as apple pie and Chevrolet. They have been a strong part of the very fiber of our country.
Junie Gentry, working alongside of her husband, Hilman, made it all work. They made the phrase “Mom and Pop” stores meaningful — working as a team. Their children helped out also.
Hilman let each child have their own cash box, and at the end of the day, they were paid five cents for every dollar of personal sales that they made. What a fantastic way to teach his entrepreneurial spirit to his offspring!
Hilman also opened a store at Crawford, MS, but an ironic twist of fate caused him to lose his 2nd store. World War II came up and Hilman was called up by the draft, even though he had four children at that time.
He sold his store at Crawford knowing that Junie could not run both stores. He left home to serve his country, but in the meanwhile, the draft laws changed. Men with four or more children could no longer be drafted, so he came home to take care of his wife, his children, his farm and Gentry’s Store. But his Crawford Store was gone.
Also, soon to be gone were most all of these little stores which had served the surrounding communities so well. The rough gravel roads were replaced with paved roads and highways, and cars and pickup trucks replaced the horse drawn wagons. People could now more easily travel to nearby towns to do their shopping where more variety was available. The era of Mom and Pop stores had come and gone.
Hilman’s daughter Christi took over management of Gentry’s Store as Hilman aged, and the doors were finally closed for good by Hilman and Junie Kinard Gentry in 1999.
Click HERE to order Ray’s book Depression Baby: True Stories from Growing Up During the Great Depression in Appalachia — and Other Things…
December 3, 2018 at 10:17 pm
I had many fond memories of Gentry’s Store in the 70s and early 80s as an Oktoc kid. I thought a lot of Mr. Hillman
December 4, 2018 at 5:33 pm
Good to hear from you, Bryan! Yes, Gentry’s Store was an interesting place and representative of Country stores during the Great Depression…