Hopkins County Folk Lore
Happenings at the Old Olney General StoreBy Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
For this story I interviewed my aunt, Ruby DAVIS CARNER. She was born and raised in the tiny community of Olney near Dawson Springs, KY and still lives near there to this day. Nancy and I would like to thank Mrs. Iva Neize for permission to photograph the store and their home for use in this story.
Now I must tell you a little bit about Ruby for she is one of the most interesting people I know. Ruby was born in 1924 in Olney to William Edward Davis and Alma Howton. Ruby traces her ancestors on her fathers side from Virginia and Antrim, Ireland in the seventeen hundreds. Her ancestors first settled in Olney on the Caldwell County side of the Trade Water River that separates Hopkins and Caldwell Counties. Later they moved across the river to the Hopkins County side.
Ruby married my mother's brother, O.C. Carner in April of 1945. Ruby's family and my father's people were already distantly related on the Davis side. Upon this interview we found that we are much more related than originally thought as my line directly intersects with hers and I too can trace my line right up to the 1700's along with hers.
Let me tell you how they grow the people in Olney. If my Aunt Ruby is any example, they are soft spoken, intelligent, smart, with a great sense of humor. Ruby has been a businesswoman all of her adult life thanks to the training she received when her father bought the Olney General Store back in 1934. Ruby worked there for many years and learned the store trade inside out. She and my uncle later owned a grocery store in Dawson Springs, KY for many years called C's Star Market. She has been a savvy businesswoman in other endeavors as well.
She is the first one called when one of us is sick or in trouble. Ruby is always there going above and beyond the call of duty for all of us. That's the way they grew them in Olney and we're sure glad they did.
The Olney General store is located off Highway 109, heading north from Dawson Springs. Immediately after crossing the overpass right outside of Dawson, you may turn onto Olney Road. If you like country scenery, you're in for a treat. Lovely houses on spacious acreage cover the first several miles. You'll pass the little country church known locally as Union Grove on your right. It's a fairly old church but the tiny congregation has maintained the church in wonderful repair and services are still held there weekly. The road then leads you through high hills and wooded valleys and the homes become more distanced from each other. It's a mostly shaded drive with the curves of the road meandering beneath overhanging trees. In the spring, wild flowers garnish the fields and sides of the country lane. Several more miles you'll come to the end of Olney Road. You'll be faced with a three-way fork with a few houses in front and more to your left. Turn left and the store is about an eighth of a mile on your left.
The old General Store in Olney is still standing. Needing many repairs, the store refuses to give up and die. It has continued to mock the elements with open defiance for well over a hundred years now. Everything inside the store is still intact including the post office in the rear of it. Sorry folks, but it is not open to the public. The present owner uses it for storage. In 1934 it was already over a hundred years old when Ruby's father bought it from Gar McGregor. Even Mr. McGregor was connected in a round about way to our family. Mr. McGregor was an uncle to Connie Neize who later married my mother's other brother, Truman Carner.
A gristmill was operated by Mr. McGregor although it had been there long before he acquired the property. Just like it's counterpart in Dawson, this gristmill too was called the Old Mill Dam, although it's official name was McGregor's Mill at that time. The mill was located a few yards up the Trade Water River from where the store still sits in silent vigil upon the riverbank. My mother has tales of going there with my grandfather, Will Carner. He and many others brought corn to be ground into cornmeal at the mill. The meal had to be sifted for husks and hard kernels the grinding had left behind. There are people that say cornmeal from McGregor's mill had no equal, then or today. A pan of cornbread from that meal, mixed with buttermilk and eaten with a spoon was thoroughly satisfying to adults. Little babies, fed the same mixture only with cow's milk instead, smiling wide and toothless, reached for more.
Ruby's father died in 1944. The store was closed for about a year at that time. In 1945, Archie Davis, Ruby's brother, returned from the war and reopened the family business. In 1946 Archie sold the store to Art Williams from Kansas. In a short time he sold it to Gabrielle Neize. Then again the store and the adjoining house and property was put up for sale. Mr. Carroll Neize bought it and still owns it today although the store has never been operated by him.
When the Davis' lived in the wooden two story house, it consisted of three rooms downstairs and two upstairs and was also well over a hundred years old. It was heated by grates or fireplaces as we know them today and a wood burning cookstove was used to prepare the family's meals. Now this house was unique in Olney and most of Hopkins County. It was the first house anywhere around that had a refrigerator and lights without electricity. Mr. Davis had installed a rather clever contraption under ground in the front yard. It was known as a carbide generator. The tank in the ground was loaded with a water and carbide mixture. It operated under the same principle as a miner's carbide headlamp, only on a much larger scale. Piping had been run underground to the house and the store. The two buildings were lit with carbide lamps and the refrigerator also ran off the carbide fumes. People came from miles around to view this unusual and most interesting method of lighting, which was a rare thing in rural Hopkins County in the 1930's. As far as Ruby knows the tank is still buried in the front yard of that home. Mr. Carroll Neize has added onto the house, updated and modernized it. He and his wife still live in the house after raising a family there.
The store sold everything a family needed to maintain body, home and farm. Shoes, cloth material, clothing, farming equipment and hardware products were sold right along with groceries, health remedies and much more. The check out counter was located in the front of the store and is still there in it's original spot. The office where books were kept and orders made and received was also in the front corner of the store.
Ruby states that the depression that flattened so many businesses when her father owned the store didn't touch them at all. They did a booming business all the way through the devastation that was so prominent all around them. The store offered a line of credit for those who needed time to pay their bills. Some always paid and some never did. The times were so hard that many men resorted to making illegal moonshine whiskey to supplement the family income. Others just made it 'cause they wanted too. All these men were called "Bootleggers."
Back in those days and even way before the 1930's, Olney was known as the Moonshine Capital of Hopkins County. There were moonshine stills hidden deep in the woods and hollers and along secluded banks of the river where trees and brush hid them from view. Ruby relates that the biggest selling items in the store were glass gallon size jugs and sugar. The store didn't make moonshine or sell it but they did carry the makin's for it in stock.
Bootleggers spent a good many hours at their hideaway stills and numerous hours running from the Revenue Men. If they were not caught themselves, many returned to their stills in the dead of the night to find the equipment smashed to bits. Sometimes the still wasn't destroyed and Revenue Men were hidden around the area, just waiting to see who would come to check on this illegal stash of booze.
The road that leads to the Olney Community is narrow and can barely be called a two-lane road in a few places. There were/are steep hills and numerous hairpin curves to navigate all along the route. While the Davis family slept peacefully, an eighteen wheeler (yep, even in those days, we had 'em) cautiously wound its way towards the store. Hopefully, the midnight blackness of the night would conceal the truck and it's cargo of glass jugs until it reached it's destination.
You see those Revenuers were everywhere and considered a load of jugs as highly suspicious. They had the authority to check any and all vehicles thought to be carrying illegal contraband or contributing to the making or selling of moonshine.
Every family member was called upon to leave comfortable beds and deep sleep to help unload the truck in the nighttime darkness. There was a shed built onto the side of the store and this is where the jugs were placed. Ruby was just a child but the truck drivers called her the best they had ever seen at "rickin' the jugs." Rickin' was the Trucker's term for the fast and efficient stacking and placement of merchandise. The jugs were placed in the shed in rows and stacked on top of each other beginning at the back of the shed.
The revenue men in search of "moonshiners" or information about them were always visiting the store. Once a Caldwell County man who made illegal whiskey hid himself in the field behind the house and store. While the revenue men searched the Davis home, with Mr. Davis' permission for he had not harbored the man in his home, the Bootlegger was no doubt huddled nervously under low-lying shrubbery and bushes anxiously awaiting their departure.
Not only was the Olney Store a place to buy and sell merchandise, it was also a post office. In the time that Mr. McGregor owned the store, Joy Martin was postmaster there. The post office was located at the back of the store and partitioned off from the main room. There was a cabinet of sorts with slots for storing the mail for the community. While the mail wasn't carried on routes at that time, people came in every day to pick up mail and packages and post letters for mailing. The post office remains as it was according to a statement made to Ruby by Mr. Carroll Neize.
What would a general store be without a pot-bellied stove and just like you would suspect, the Olney Store had one. While there picking up mail or shopping for some needed item, people would take the time to sit by the old pot-bellied stove and visit awhile with neighbors and kin. And yes, there were spittoons where tobacco chewing farmers shot their stream of juice with near perfect accuracy.
Families that lived in the community went by the names of Creekmur, White, Wyatt, Hankins, Martin, Stallins, Howton, Neize and many more. Many of their children, grandchildren and even great, great grandchildren have remained there. The men mainly supported their families with farming or working in the coalmines as a general rule.
Their children attended the old Howton School located a couple of miles from the community itself. My aunt Ruby tells of the times, when at a very young age, she walked several miles to school alone. Sometimes she would be joined by other children quite a distance from her house and finish the walk to school together.
Many of the people who lived in Olney attended Lafayette Baptist Church. Their descendants still do. Many generations of our kindred are buried in the adjoining graveyard. The old headstones reveal the same surnames of those families still residing in the Olney area today.
The store was a beehive of activity on any given Saturday night. People began arriving at the store in wagons, a few cars and on horses. There was a horse hitch standing in front of the store and many horses, standing hip to hip, endured long nights of boredom while their masters joined in the festivities.
Men brought fiddles, guitars, and juice harps for the regular dances held there and Archie Davis played the mandolin. The place was alive with music, laughter and revelry. Inspired by the animated music, people danced the Jitterbug and Charleston in the parking lot of the store. Old Fashioned Square Dancing was popular too and the crowd made merry long into the night.
When still a kid Ruby found numerous partners in the circle of friends and family that gathered there. Among them were Weldon Wyatt, Floyd Creekmur and Clint Dunbar who was to become my stepfather after my father passed away. Evidently the dancing spirit never left Clint even as he grew older, for he was the one who taught me how to square dance when I too was a child. Scraping our feet on the concrete street at the annual Dawson Springs Bar B Q, I wore out many a pair of sandals as my stepfather dosie doe'd me through one dance after another. I still love the old fashioned square dancing to this day.
Often groups would form and serenade the crowd with fine singing. Accompanied by the musicians, altos and sopranos blended voices with tenors and deep base singers, sending sweet harmonies across the river to Caldwell County.
Ruby's father owned the first battery operated radio in the community. On Saturday nights the radio was turned on in the house and the older folks set up tables inside for challenging card games and other activities. Some of the ladies brought food for nibbling while the players, with deadly concentration, strove to outsmart their opponents.
Ruby laughs when she says that she has "seen it all" at the Olney Store galas. While whiskey was never served or sold at these functions, invariably a few of the men and some women came to the dance already loaded for bear. Although it only happened occasionally, a couple of the men would oppose one another in heated arguments. Sometimes, fists began to fly. It was always great excitement when this happened and the crowd hurriedly gathered 'round the two contestants. Whispered conversations flew left and right with everyone needing to know the cause of the altercation. Eventually someone stepped in to break up the fight before any serious damage was done. Long after the fight was over and for the rest of the week, people relived the scene and talked about it with much gusto.
Ruby witnessed several catfights at the Saturday night shindigs. "Loose Women" also came and at times they were with husbands, though not their own. How strange that these men were not referred to as Loose Men as well. Once a woman of questionable reputation arrived with her married lover not knowing the wife was already in attendance at the dance. The wife made a mad dash for the car the two were sitting in. With screams and yells, much hair pulling and scratching, the wife pulled her competition from the car. In short order, but with much pleasure I would imagine, the enraged wife commenced to beat the stuffings out of her hated rival.
Sundays were times for gatherings as well. People began to filter in after attending church services and the day's activities got underway. A ball diamond had been cleared and built where enterprising men played baseball on long Sunday afternoons in the summertime. The ball diamond was located in the field beside the house. There is a pasture there now and probably no sign of the ball field exits anymore.
Holes were dug and spikes hammered in the ground for the horseshoe games that went on continuously in the parking lot. Card games again prevailed and much activity visited the store for the second day of the weekend.
The store sat right next to the old wooden bridge that crossed the river. It had rickety boards that turned when one walked on them. I remember walking across that bridge as a child which was still unchanged after all those years. I would stop in the middle of it and peep between the planks at the flowing river below. The top was made of iron; the ribs rusted and eroded by the years it had stood century over the river. The old bridge fell in quite a few years ago. For a long time the two counties fought over who should rebuild it, Caldwell County or Hopkins County. Since neither side would cede, the citizens who lived just over the bridge in Caldwell County had to make do without passage to the other side. Long trips of traveling to Princeton, KY through the back roads, then driving on into Dawson Springs to conduct business or visit relatives had to be endured. There is a new bridge now with low concrete sides. I don't remember which county finally gave in but I do know the ambiance of the old bridge is no longer present.
A few yards up the river from the bridge if looking to your right, was the "swimming hole." The bank had eroded there from the many floods, providing a flat space and easy access to the river. Sunday afternoons found the river full of swimmers and waders. The water on the left side of the bridge was much deeper and that's where the experienced swimmers congregated. The more shallow water flowed over the ankles of little children and diapered babies make believing floating sticks were boats and ships. Although Ruby didn't swim, she and her friends would propel themselves on inflated inner tubes of old tires to the deep side of the river.
People brought their cars to the swimming area pulling them onto the flat surface for washing. That practice has continued through the years and still goes on today. Tana Carner Aldridge, Ruby's daughter, remembers washing the family car there for many years while a youngster living in Olney. The river hasn't been utilized much for swimming in the last several years. The water isn't as clean as it used to be and there are easy jaunts to nearby lakes and pools with today's fast modes of transportation.
Ruby says that she loved growing up in Olney. There was never a dull moment and fun and games filled her life because something was forever and constantly going on at the Olney General Store. There was security and comfort to be had from relatives and friends and people stuck together in those days in times of trouble or hardship.
From everything I've learned about Olney in the years of the twenties and thirties, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall there on a hot July Saturday night. Better yet, I wish I could have been there in person watching the occasional brawls, joining in the square dancing, and swimming to the deep side of the river.
We cannot bring back those precious days but thanks to the recollections of people like my Aunt Ruby, we can relive those times through them. Like the store itself that refuses to die, so do the remembrances of those people who lived the good life in Olney.
We can imagine the walls of the store filled with merchandise and the feel of walking on those ancient wooden floors. One can wander among the dancing and singing crowds that filled the parking lot of the old General Store, sharing in the laughter and joy. Even inhaling the river smell, dank and fishy, as it lazily flows by, now becomes possible. The descriptions of our loved ones in their tender years and still living today, becomes a treasured insight. When vivid memories are shared of those long ago people, dead now for many generations but connected to us through generations of blood and marriage, they become alive again for those of us who never knew them.
I have built and stored away another memory to pass on to my children and grandchildren who still reside in the Dawson Springs area. Someday soon I'll load up my car with those precious souls of mine and we'll visit the old Olney General Store. There I'll tell them the memories that are still so dear to my Aunt Ruby and now to me.
Thank you Ruby for sharing your thoughts with me and for giving me the first insight into a side of my family that I'm just now beginning to know. I love you.
For more stories of Hopkins County Folk Lore please visit us at: http://www.rootsweb.com/~kyhopkin/lore
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Lafayette Baptist Church
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
All rights reserved
Nancy Trice, © 2000
All photos © 2000 except the Davis Family photo
All Rights Reserved.