Friday, November 7, 2003
Carlisle's country stores: "First-class general stores"
The ancient shelves at the E.N. Jenckes General Store are crammed with merchandise, from canned peas (empty tins, actually) to babies' shoes. Hand-pumped carpet sweepers and a wooden washing "machine" stand on the wide floorboards near a kerosene pump once connected to a barrel in the basement.
"Ooh, my mother had one of those," exclaims a Carlislean, pointing to a curling iron. She explains when she was a child, it was heated in a gas flame, and her mother would curl her hair (and sometimes singe it). Other visitors swing open the metal doors of a tiny, tired toaster. A white-haired man draws knowing smiles from the group when he remembers, "You always knew the toast was done when it started smoking!" We are awash in nostalgia.
On a brilliant late-October morning, members and friends of the Carlisle Historical Society carpooled out to Douglas, Massachusetts, south of Worcester, to tour an old-time general store, now a museum. The old country store carries with it the nostalgia of simpler but, in many ways, more challenging times.
The Jenckes Store, which began operation in 1835 on Douglas's Main Street, is contemporaneous with Carlisle's early stores. Whereas the Jenckes Store was owned for most of its lifetime by the Jenckes family, Carlisle's stores have had a variety of owners, names and locations over their long lifetimes.The first recorded store in Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins's book, Carlisle: Its History and Heritage, was owned by Daniel Wheat and Nathan Green in 1789. It was located next to the Wheat Tavern at the corner of Bedford Road and Lowell Street. Later, Artemas Parker owned a store and tavern at the present Daisy's location. In 1834 the town's first post office opened in that store and storekeeper Parker was also Carlisle's postmaster.
The Bull Brothers' store
The store/post office in the center changed hands and locations several times in the 19
In 1879 the Bulls' store and all the adjoining buildings burned to the ground (the town had no fire department). Undaunted, six months later the Bull brothers built a new and larger store, with two big barns and a storehouse, on the same site.
Some years later Warren B. Chamberlin came to town from New Hampshire and was hired as a clerk in the store. He soon became a partner in the store, whose letterhead read:
Bull & Chamberlin
DRY GOODS, GROCERIES, HARDWARE,
STANDARD MEDICINES, PERFUMERY
Ready-made Clothing, Hats, Caps, Boots and Shoes,
Brushes, Combs, Pocket-books, Pens, Ink, and
Everything usually kept in a first-class General Store
Chamberlin's brother Daniel Lang Chamberlin
and his wife Mary moved to Carlisle in 1885, and in September 1892,
Sidney Bull sold his interest in the store to the Chamberlin brothers.
years later Daniel Chamberlin (known as Lang) bought the buildings
and barn at 9-11 Lowell Street, where Barrett's real estate office
Then Warren B. Chamberlin sold his interest in the store to Lars
Anderson, one of the employees, and the store became known as Chamberlin
Anderson soon left to start a business in Concord, which became the
precursor of Anderson's Catering, and the Chamberlin brothers continued
the store in the center. In 1908 Lang, who had left the store to
farm in Carlisle for four years, returned when his brother fell ill.
Carlisle's storekeeper and postmaster for 32 years, until his death
in 1940 at age 81.
Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins was the daughter of Daniel Lang Chamberlin. She was born and raised in Carlisle in "the building between the Wheat Tavern and the Central Burying Ground," and was a meticulous chronicler of Carlisle life. She not only published Carlisle: Its History and Heritage late in her life, but also kept prodigious notes about Carlisle in a small black loose-leaf notebook that was recently donated to the Historical Society by former selectman Al Peckham. In neat handwriting, she describes her father's store in 1910:
"There was a counter down the center of the room on which various goods were found, and near its end was a cooky case where were displayed cookies in square cans with glass tops, each can containing a few pounds of cookies. At the end of the center counter was the large wooden refrigerator, with several doors to the different compartments, the largest one being the one for the ice. Here were kept the lard, butter, huge cheeses, and in the summer Moxie and bottled root beer, birch beer and orangeade. The cheeses were on a sturdy shelf which swung out for convenience in cutting. This was done with a tremendous knife, the like of which I have never seen since."
Mrs. Wilkins goes on to describe two other counters on the east and west sides of the building, that held such necessities as candy, coffee, patent medicines, veterinary medicines, liniments and tobacco ("some packaged, some in small cans, and plug tobacco too"). Covered bins beneath the shelves held dried beans, peas and rice. Sugar was stored in a barrel and was sold in paper bags by the pound.
The post office was at the end of the right-hand counter. It had "glass-fronted boxes for the mail. In the center of the battery of boxes was a small window with perpendicular brass bars and a space underneath with a small shelf where patrons could receive their mail and stamps."
Mrs. Wilkins's depiction of the dry goods area could have described the Jenckes Store as well. "In glass cases on the counter could be found ribbons, fancy goods, buttons, needles, hairpins, combs, pens and pencils, and a wide variety of small articles. The spools-of-thread case was also here. [There] were yard goods which included a variety of material from mosquito netting and flannel to material for dresses and aprons. In drawers underneath the shelves were white and colored tissue paper, stockings, underwear and towels and handkerchiefs." Our Jenckes Store guide told us that E.N. Jenckes's two daughters worked in the store to help the women customers, who would never consider dealing with a male clerk. On Saturdays, when farmers came into Douglas with their wives, the Jenckes sisters often worked at the dry goods counters from 7 am to nightfall.
The Carlisle country store also had a public phone booth, "large, solid and substantial, of wood with a sturdy glass-paneled door. Also nearby was a large stove." Both the Jenckes Store and the County Store had "back stores," a huge room in back of the main store for keeping all sorts of things. Mrs. Wilkins writes, "Here too were a pump and sink and a freight elevator, hand-operated of course, which was used to convey heavy articles to the cellar; and platform scales for weighing burlap bags of grain and other heavy things." In other parts of the room were kept kegs of nails, rolls of wallpaper, dishes, tinware, pails, rope, barrels of molasses, garden tools, lamp chimneys, whips, brooms, two enormous grain bins, and "much, much more." The Jenckes Store even stocked inexpensive furniture — chairs, tables, and beds — to sell to immigrants who arrived in Douglas in the 1800s to work in area mills.
Walking barefoot in the grain
"My father was generally a fairly easy-going person," recalls Mrs. Wilkins, "but I remember I was in trouble when he discovered a couple of my playmates and me walking barefoot in the grain. It was a wonderful feeling, but in the first place we weren't supposed to play on the store premises, and moreover, having barefoot children plowing through the grain would hardly be thought desirable by the customers."
The cellar of the store revealed a further treasure trove. "The unforgettable aroma of a bona fide old country store with its unbottled and unpackaged fragrances is something which probably can't be imagined," writes Mrs. Wilkins. "In the cellar, reached by an elevator or stairs through a door in the main store, were kept kerosene oil, barrels of salt pork, glass (fairly good-sized sheets which would be cut to specific dimensions), smoked fish, and barrels of pickles." Just imagine these aromas compared with the artificial air at Stop and Shop where, if you're lucky, you just might inhale a pleasant whiff of coffee near the coffee grinder.
The Carlisle of 1910, population 500, as experienced by a child was a time "when an automobile rarely appeared and if one, or even a horse-drawn vehicle came in sight, there was plenty of time to get out of the street. The roads were then fairly hard-packed dirt, often dusty and not oiled, of course, and children often played games in the street, even in the center of town."
Mrs. Wilkins reaches back over the years to recapture a child's perspective on the benefits of being the store-keeper's daughter: "The little boys who were my contemporaries played baseball in the street," she recalls, "in front of my house and permitted me to play with them. They probably tolerated my no-doubt indifferent pitching and batting less for my skills than because of my indulgent father's store. It was right there at hand and was a convenient emergency source of balls, bats and gloves when we needed replacements."
The Red & White and beyond
After 1915 the Carlisle store moved around. Mr. Chamberlin left the country store for economic reasons and opened a small store at the corner of School Street and Bedford Road. Many local residents had begun to do their shopping in Lowell and Bedford, reducing their dependence on the country store, thanks to the advent of the automobile and improved roads. Mrs. Wilkins writes that her father tried to adapt to the changing times. "Among other innovations, he bought, about 1913, an International Harvester truck — brown, with high, carriage-size wheels, a top, and side curtains for use when needed." In 1926, he moved the store across the street to his own remodeled barn on Lowell Street and operated a grocery store there as part of the Red and White franchise. The post office came along.
In a 1996 interview for the Carlisle Oral History Project, Helen Wilkie (who died two years later), remembered with pleasure her work as a clerk in the 1920s at the Red and White Store. "In the back room we had kerosene and molasses in big vats," she said. "The cookies were sold in boxes which had glass fronts. When I think of it now, we used to just put our hands in there and weigh the cookies for the person. Butter came in vats and had to be sliced. Mr. Chamberlin had a metal contraption and he'd slice the whole round and then we would cut them in pie shape for sale. Cheese came the same way."
While Daniel Lang Chamberlin was operating his Red and White Store, James Houlton owned a store across the street in the old country store building. In 1925 in a bizarre example of deja vu, that store too burned to the ground, as had its predecessor, the Bulls' store, in 1879. The blaze was so intense that it almost engulfed the entire center. The Chamberlins' home across the street had just been repainted. It was blackened and blistered, windows broken, and its roof was badly burned, in addition to suffering extensive water damage. James Houlton did not rebuild the store and, in fact, left town.
When Daniel Lang Chamberlin died in 1940, the Red and White Store was bought by Roy V. Conn, who continued to run it until it closed.
After the disastrous fire, the country store site remained vacant for three years until Charles W. Dunton of Bedford built the structure now occupied by Daisy's. He and his wife lived on the second floor and ran a lunch room and ice cream parlor on the lower floor. In 1930, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Daisy came to Carlisle and bought the Dunton property. "For a time they operated the lunchroom, where they also sold ice cream and candy and featured homemade pies and desserts," reports Mrs. Wilkins. Mr. Daisy
also operated the gas station and was appointed postmaster. Since then about seven different owners operated a store at the Daisy site, under the name of the Carlisle Superette. Bob Lockhart was the last Superette owner before the store was bought by the Daisy family in 1992.
The old country stores like E.N. Jenckes and the Chamberlins' stores in Carlisle were the forerunners of today's Wal-Marts and Stop and Shops. While we might enjoy today's latest innovations, like do-it-yourself check-outs and more organic produce, nostalgia for the old-time general stores stays with many of us. They reflect our rural past, so vividly brought back to life through the words of Mrs. Wilkins and the soul of the Jenckes Store in Douglas.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito