Let’s step back into the days of farm life and simpler times, the days when neighbors helped neighbors. The times when some folks had a milk cow or two and a lot of people made their own clothes. Just about everyone had a garden, and a lot of folks canned their own vegetables. A lot of folks today would say they were poor. I say they were rich: they just didn’t know it.
Granted those days were harder but they loom large in memory for a simple reason. Families were connected to the earth. They actually got their hands in dirt. Folks grew much of what they needed and so a fixture of those days was the indispensable feed and seed store. Alas, like the old country store, these fine institutions are fading from contemporary life, replaced by modern monoliths with names like country clubs.
Entering such stores was a sensory experience filled with fertile smells and colorful sacks of all types. It’s been a while since I poked around in a venerable old feed & seed store, (yet another experience today’s younger set will miss). I’d love to visit one once again. Surely some classic stores still dispense agrarian commodities in rural outposts where men and women till the soil and raise cattle, hogs, and chickens.
Back in the late 1980s, I wrote about an old feed and seed store that Columbia’s urban sprawl was swallowing whole. It had boot-worn wooden floors, pine heart columns, and a patina of peeling green and white paint. Time was the place sat in the middle of nowhere, that is if you think of farms, gardens, fields, and pastures as nowhere.
Urbanization encroached as families sold farms and housing developments sprung up, followed by businesses. There was a time you could leave the old store and all you’d see were fertile fields, gardens, tangled undergrowth, and fallow land. No more I’m afraid.
The old store was there, though, there for a long time. Walking into it meant entering air heavy with a medley of scents. If you grew up in the country but had been away too long, a hodgepodge of aromas would resurrect memories long asleep … the peppery aroma of cured leather, the pungent smell of insecticide, sweet bouquets of livestock feed, the dry-but-fertile whiff of cracked corn, mellow smells of dog food, and the incense of fresh hay. Inhale this wonderful medley and you just knew farms, fields, and fish ponds couldn’t be that far away, but, alas, they were.
For a long time, true farmers continued to negotiate their way to the old store past office parks, past auto malls, past old warehouses, ultimately finding their familiar place farther than ever from their sun-drenched fields where tractors toiled, mirage-like, through heat devils shimmering above a sweltering land.
I loved going into this throwback store, a throwback to times my parents and grandparents knew far better than I ever could. I’d wander around looking at the implements and supplies that belonged to an older South. Push plows on wheels, mule collars, mineral licks (we called them salt blocks), old fish mill cakes, white cucumber seeds, purple martin feeders, Ten Commandment lily bulbs, and even harnesses for cows. Hanging from a longleaf pine column were screen fly swatters for a mere $125.
On a wooden counter scratched deep with memories of past purchases sat a dignified, brass National Cash Register. Remember the sounds they made? That familiar metallic clang of money exchanging hands? Nearby were automatic deer feeders, climbing tree stands, and 50-pound sacks of whole corn. An old poster of hunting dogs, pointers, overlooked sacks of dog food.
I always found plenty of reminders of simper times here. No prepackaged seeds. Drawers of seeds instead attended by scoops and scales, old-fashioned ways of measuring amounts. They never failed to work. The scales, dented and tarnished, gauged tons of seeds over the decades. Those scales, like a veteran farmer, looked their age but remained accurate as a Department of Agriculture accuracy certificate attested.
The flower seeds were headed for a classic destination: honest-to-goodness clay pots, not ersatz plastic versions. Along a wall near the front door sat cardboard boxes and wooden crates of bare root bunches of collards and cabbages ready for planting. Standing in the heart of a capital city, I could smell dark brown fertile soil somewhere ready to receive green riches.
Cases upon case of canned dog food were stacked here and there in the aisles. Walking in a straight line was not possible but that was okay. It forced me to look around a bit. And what did I see? Cedar bird feeders, sacks of birdseed, and a most curious device: a squirrel tormentor, sporting three blade-like props, each holding an ear of corn.
What amusement! Along comes Mr. Squirrel eyeing tempting ears of gleaming corn. Climbing aboard, he anticipates a nice meal only to find himself spinning so much he’s flung into space. Undaunted, here he comes again and again. What great fun, PETA be damned. (I’m sure PETA wouldn’t have liked the boxes of pig ears and cow hooves either. For $1.25, you could buy your dog a good chew. For a mere 85 cents a cow hoof provided a more durable chew.)
For the farmer and gardener who tired of animals and rodents raiding their crop, the old store sold inflatable owls and snakes. The owls, in particular, were best sellers. And another bestseller was empty croaker sacks. For 95 cents you could buy an empty burlap sack and find endless uses for it. These croaker sacks held most anything, including frogs from a night of frog gigging, hence “croaker sack.” Perhaps you’ve heard that fine Southern expression, “I’d rather be buried in a croaker sack.” I suspect some catty woman whispered that in church upon spying a rival gussied up all gaudy and glitzy.
The old feed and seed store also sold baby chicks. Many a preacher’s Sunday meal originated from its dark redwood hatchery. That changed as more and more supermarkets sold processed fryers. And then one day, the hatchery incubated nothing but dust.
Now what’s an old feed and seed store without old timers running things. Answers to customer’s questions drawled out at a leisurely pace from wizened old men, their tempo matching the slow manner of transacting business. Patrons could glean some wise advice from these sage veterans. A salt-and-pepper-haired clerk might dispense some wisdom to those seeming to need it. “Don’t mess with somethin’ that ain’t bothering you.” “If you think you got a lot of influence, try orderin’ another man’s dog around.”
Folks back then would make their purchase and sit a spell. I believe it used to be called chewing the fat. Yes, it used to be not just okay to take your time, it was actually a way of life. Well, that way of life is gone with the wind.
One more thing about this vintage store that had high ceilings. Strategically placed near the counter stood an old fan welded to a pipe that, in turn, was welded to the center of a truck rim. It rattled along to a rhythm that jarred the nerves but soothed the fevered brow come July and August.
Here in Columbia, Hinson’s Feed & Seed is no more. Where handwritten ads once hawked billy goats for $25 next came an Oriental rug place. Then it vanished.
Today an art gallery resides in part of the huge shell that housed the feed and seed store. Let enough time pass, and I imagine a bar will open there. Step right up and order a cold beer in the exact spot where hog ears and corn once found their way into paper sacks. Dance over there where mule collars hung, destination the farming life, destination yesteryear.
There they go. Authentic feed and seed stores drop like flies, smitten by a screen swatter called progress. Today, superstores with names like Poplar Creek Supplies serve up some of the old stores’ fare, but they’re bland. No personality at all. See one and you’ve seen them all.
We keep losing the beauty, flavor, and character that make the South the South bit-by-bit. Well it happens everywhere you say. Well I can assure you: we have more to lose. Out of sight, out of mind creates a receptive vacuum eager to suck the color right out of our Southern life and homeland.