Southern Life

People are excited over this way. They’ve finally found a place to shop that not only is fun but a step back into the past. Just walking through this place is a joy. The general store is not extinct. It is alive and well and its barrels of hard candies, taffy, and licorice please the eye and the palate.

The original Mast General Store location in Valle Crucis. (Photo by Ken Thomas/Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve never heard of the Mast General Store, you need to find one. Even if you don’t spend one red dime, you’ll have a grand time. Recently A Mast General Store opened over here, across the Savannah, on Main Street in downtown Columbia, and while adjoining stores get very little business, Mast General crawls with folks for a simple reason. It has atmosphere and a little something for everyone.

Now this store isn’t some modern-day attempt to cash in on nostalgia or an effort to create a trend in what is an all-too-predictable retail market. No, it’s the real deal and it has been around in one form or another for 128 years. Its pickled hardwood floors creak as folks laden with treasure trod from aisle to aisle.

Mast General started in a place by the name of Valle Crucis. This Latin name gives you the idea this place is in Italy. Not so. It’s in Watauga County, North Carolina. “Valle Crucis” means “Vale of the Cross,” refers to a valley up that way where three streams converge to form a shape resembling an archbishop’s cross. You’ve heard of Boone, North Carolina. Well, that’s the county seat of Watagua County.

It was there in Watauga County that Henry Taylor built the first Mast General Store. Taylor sold half interest in his store to W.W. Mast in 1897, who finally purchased the other half in 1913.

I’ve been to the store two Saturdays in a row to buy supplies for a writing assignment in the South Carolina mountains this summer. Things like a sturdy hat, rugged pants, lightweight, cool shirts, and a pocketknife handmade by Colonel Littleton of Lynville, Tennessee.

This handsome Yukon No. 5 knife, with its stagbone handle, should come in handy covering whitewater rafting on the Chattooga, rock climbing along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, and mountain biking in the hills along the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway.

The knife, a work of art, comes with a parchment-like pamphlet telling the good Colonel’s knife story, how his granddad gave him his knife when he was just nine years old. The Colonel is a character and his little story is complemented on the back panel by some country wisdom. “Three of the most pleasing things in life,” writes the Colonel, “are a good woman, a good dog, and a sharp knife. Three of the most trifling things in life,” he writes, “are a mean woman, a biting dog, and a dull knife.” Hard to beat that country wisdom, sexist or not. It cuts to the core of things.

You’ll also find leather goods made by the Colonel at Mast General. You can buy a leather flyswatter that’s as handsome as it is useful. You’ll find a variety of items made by other outfitters that make your wallet float up into your hands. All manner of kitchen utensils can be found ranging from cast iron cornstick pans to a Lodge Chuckwagon dinner bell with striker. Conjure up the cook on “Rawhide” calling up Rowdy Yates and his fellow drovers to take a lunch break from a cattle drive.

Those of you who like to camp, hike, and hunt will find plenty there to like. While sounding like an ad copywriter for Mast General Store, just let me say that if a full contingent of family members goes there, everyone from grandpa to tykes will have a grand time in this general store. Offhand I can’t think of a similar outpost except for one I saw up into the Minnesota North Country where the Basswood River separates Canada and the United States. There, outfitters sell startling ranges of goods for up there is where true wilderness exists and you can’t dart into the city when you need something.

The Mast General Store offers a welcome relief from the retail specialty stores where you’re sure to find a narrow range of overpriced goods. On my trip today I bought two slingshots for grandkids to mess with, some stone-ground whole wheat flour for pancakes and real-deal Maple syrup from Vermont (not cheap), blueberry syrup, honey, a suede hat evoking images of Crocodile Dundee, a rugged field watch, and that beautiful knife.

Also catching my eye were jars of pickled asparagus, jalapeno-stuffed olives, and ciders, relishes, and sauces. I noticed, too, several flavorings made by Watkins, a purveyor of baker’s goods for a long, long time.

Several things strike me about this survivor. First, it is overrun by people from all walks of life. I see business types, families, granola crunchers (hippies turned environmentalists), birdwatchers, rugged individualists, hikers, and students. All the shoppers had a big smile on their face. These people were more than happy to be spending their money and they were polite and friendly. This place puts joy back into shopping.

Next, it has Main Street Columbia looking a bit like Main Streets used to look: a place where people come into town to get things they need. The range of goods is staggering. Here you can find candy, kitchen utensils, cookbooks, outdoor guides, and curiosities, all of which to appear to be of impeccable quality along with sharp clothing, footwear, and headwear.

What impressed me most, though, was how people bought staggering amounts of goods in this economy, which is as anemic as a stray, albino dog with hookworms. People carried baskets filled to the brim, and the counters were piled high with purchases. The clerks were slammed.

I like the fact that there is at least one chain of stores, if Mast General can be called a chain, that keeps the old general store alive and well. Authentic general stores used to carry most anything from cradle to casket. Praise be to the Mast General store. It offers young ones a glimpse of the past they’re sure to love. And it beats hands down the mall and strip mall, those purveyors of junk, obscene fashions, and trash that the tattooed, metal-pierced, saggy-drawers-look-at-my-butt-crack crowd loves.

I’ve long maintained that if a city, any city, wants to restore its beauty and charm, it should outlaw strip malls. See one and you’ve seen them all. Oh sure they start out strong with classy shops, but in no time they degrade into ill-maintained places filled with shadowy characters and shady enterprises such as cash for car title loan shops, credit repairmen, and adult video shops.

Mast General is family friendly. People love this modern-day general store. The aisles are crowded. Toys, hand-held GPS devices, walking sticks, backpacks, and compasses: it’s all there. About the only thing missing is a pot-bellied stove where old timers play checkers and a clerk reminiscent of the Beverly Hillbillies’ Miss Hathaway who marks down your purchases as you buy things “on time.”

I like my knife. I like Colonel Littleton, and I like Mast General Store, as have others since 1883. Once again we learn that folks back in the day who thought they were poor were, in some ways, far richer than they realized.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]