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Country Stores Recalled

Footnotes to Long Island History

Country Stores Recalled

by

Thomas R. Bayles


 

By Thomas R. Bayles

 

            The old country store that occupied such as important place in the life of the small country villages a century ago has disappeared with the march of time, with the exception of those that have been restored in the Suffolk museums at Stony Brook, the Suffolk County Historical Society's museum at Riverhead, and the very complete one in Emil's Middle Island museum.

            A typical example of the county store of the days gone by was Pfeiffer's in Middle Island.  This store was operated by Edward Pfeiffer for 50 years, from 1893 until his retirement in 1943.  For 100 years before that it was a country store operated by Horace Randall and later by his son, Joseph Randall.  Even earlier it was conducted as a tavern and overnight stopping place for the travelers who came through in the early years on horse back and later in the stage coaches that ran through the middle of the Island from the city to the east end villages.

            Mention of it is made in the account of Dr. Hamilton's trip through Long Island in 1744.  We quote:

            “Wednesday, July 11, 1744; We arrived at one Brewster's, (Pfeiffer's store) at 8 o'clock at night where we put up for all night and in this house could get nothing to eat or drink, and so were obliged to go to bed fasting and supperless.  I was conducted to a large room upstairs.  The people in this house seemed to be quite savage and rude.”

            The oldest part of this building was built before 1739 by one of the Brewster family, a grandson of Nathaniel Brewster, the first minister of the old town church at Setauket in 1665.

            The Middle Island post office has been located in this store for more than 50 years, since 1901, with the exception of one year, first with Edward Pfeiffer as postmaster and then his son, Everett, who now conducts the store and post office. 

            The country store and post office was the center of community life in the days before the coming of the automobiles, and supplied nearly all the wants of the people for miles around.

            The farmers from all directions came nearly every day to get their mail and supplies and swap the new with their neighbors.  On stormy days in winter there was always a crowd of men and boys around the old potbellied stove, with their horses and wagons tied to the old hitching rail in front of the store.

            Here the news of the day was discussed and the fate of the nation argued.  Politics was a favorite topic, and many of the issues of the day were settled behind the stove.  The store was kept open evenings until nine, and those who couldn't make it during the day usually showed up in the evening.  Checkers was a favorite with the men and a game was nearly always in progress.

            This social center or the town was a picturesque scene  in those years with the hanging oil lamps, and the benches and chairs around the old stove in the rear of the store.

            In the back end of the room were men's and women's shoes, felt and rubber boots, arctics and rubbers.  Around the sides were the cracker and sugar barrels, and boxes of tea, coffee, oatmeal, prunes, raisins, etc. as most of the groceries in those days were sold in bulk and had to be weighed out.          

            In the back room hung hams and bacon, and there were barrels of salt pork in brine, with a long handled hook with which to fish for a piece of pork.  The kerosene barrel, vinegar barrel and molasses barrel also were located there.  “New Orleans” molasses was an important item and was sold for 50 to 60 cents a gallon.  This was real molasses, not the kind we now buy in a quart can.

            On the west side of the store were boxes of men's and women's underclothes, dresses, mens shirts and pants and sundries of all kinds.  The old red boxes on the top shelf contained heavy fleece lined union suits for men, which were favorite in years gone by.

            Hardware of all kinds was sold, as well as harness, horse collars, whips blankets, paint, fertilizer seeds and farm supplies of all kinds and practically everything needed by those living in the country.  The farmers brought in their butter and eggs and swapped them for groceries and supplies.  Sometimes someone would slip over some eggs that had been found in a nest in the hay mow now in the barn, and perhaps weren't too fresh, and some of the butter was strong enough to grease a wagon with.

            An old hand bill dated October 9, 1899, stated that Mr. Pfeiffer had just purchased a carload of flour and would sell it for 10 days at the low price of $4.69 a barrel.  Many people of today have never seen a barrel of flour.  A hand bill for Christmas, 1896, advertised “the most complete line of holiday goods ever exhibited in this part of town with toys to please the children, ornaments to please the lads and lassies, paperteries, games, clocks, watches, fancy glassware, chinaware, lamps, vases, Christmas cards, picture frames, albums, dolls, nuts, candies, oranges, etc.”

            A sale in 1898 advertised calico at 3 cents a yard, suiting at 5 cents, dress goods, 10 cents a year, seersuckers at 7 cents a yard, ginghams 5 cents a yard, “tabby cats”.  Pickannies and Tatters at 5 cents each pants cloth 15 cents a yard, men's hats and caps 25 cents, ladies' hose 10 cents pair, men's underwear 25 cents, ladies' shoes $1, boys shoes 50 cents, men's and boys pants, suits and overcoats 25 cents to $5, horse blankets at half price.

            The scene has changed and we no longer see the men and boys stopping at the store for a social hour.  The old hanging oil lamps and the cracker barrels have gone, and all that is left is the old potbellied stove, still in daily use.  The old checker board lies hidden away on a shelf, dreaming of the days when it was in daily use.  The good old custom of neighbors stopping in to be sociable for a while has gone with the rush of our modern world, but who will say the change is for the better. 

 

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