For a long, long time most stores down South have closed at noon Wednesdays. Mexico has its siestas and we have Wednesday afternoons. Closed at noon Wednesday. It’s a custom praised by insightful folks as a more civilized way to live, a way to give everyone a half-day off.
All my life I’ve known that Wednesday afternoons were sacred in towns of all sizes. Round about noon places close and the infamous old slow Southern life style crawls to a stop. In an age when hustling for a buck knows no bounds and shameless mercenaries throw respect for themselves and others out the window I agree with whoever said it’s a more civilized way to live. Long live Wednesday afternoons off.
But! How did this custom begin? I’ve checked around and nothing clearly explains how the tradition started but here’s what I’ve learned. Farmers would come to town Saturdays to buy supplies and transact business. Stores opened half a day Saturdays to accommodate the farmers. It was the week’s biggest payday. So down deep our need to eat was one reason.
Wednesday was a night for church and prayer meetings too, and years ago a big dinner around 5:30 preceded the evening service. Now this comes as news to me but I hear it’s the gospel. Folks needed time to cook and get ready for church. Good people wanted to go to a place called Heaven and be seen by their friends and neighbors as God fearing.
Another reason is the fact that stockyards had their big auctions Wednesday afternoons and anyone with market-ready cattle headed to the stockyard. That strikes home. I remember Granddad Poland would get the hands to help him herd up cows and truck them to Washington come Wednesdays. Put all three together and you have good reason to take the afternoon off.
Still, after reading these reasons I still wasn’t sure why Wednesday ended up being “the day.” I put a question to people I knew and they pretty much backed up the farming-church reasons for hanging up a closed sign. Here’s what they had to say. You’ll see names familiar and unfamiliar.
McCormick’s Bob Edmonds: “In farm-based towns in the early times merchants were open 12 to 14 hours on Saturday. The Wednesday afternoon closing gave them a break.” Nancy Bethea, a friend since the 1980s said, “I was told that stores closed early that day so folks could attend Wednesday church service.”
Lincolnton’s Daryl Bentley, said, “I was always told by Dad that small town communities enjoyed Saturday as the main business day when country folk came to town for their shopping. Taking a half of a day Wednesday prevented businesses from having to work six full days a week.”
Cindy Patterson, a friend in Columbia, said, “Starting in 1948, my grandparents ran the only store for miles in the North Carolina mountains (Newland). It had groceries on one side, dry goods on the other, and feed in the back. It always closed on Wednesday because Saturday was the big day.”
Brenda Holloway Sanders said, “I always thought things closed on Wednesday because of the cattle sales in Washington and something about bankers having to be there to approve money for the purchases.”
Carol Nabers grew up in Newberry. “When I was younger, Newberry closed at noon on Wednesday afternoons.” Author and Rome, Georgia, native Batt Humphreys grew up in Shelby, North Carolina. He offers an explanation I’ve heard more than a few times. “It was all a construct of the doctors and bankers to get tee times and play golf mid-week, at least, in my small town.” Mac Childers grew up in Thomasville, North Carolina. He agreed with Batt. “It seems all the dentist in my hometown were closed a half a day on Wednesday’s when I was growing up.” Patricia Lee Johnson of Apex, North Carolina, said, “Most of the stores in Apex closed. I think the gas stations stayed open.”
A friend and a relative of a relative, Robin Davidson Ranallo and Judith Lance mentioned the Shop Acts of 1904 and 1912 and labor laws and I looked into them. The text is so convoluted I gave up trying to decipher it. Lawmakers just can’t write laws in plain English can they.
So Saturdays were the big business day and closing early on Wednesdays evened out the workweek. Well that means it really didn’t result in a half-day off. Let’s just say it transferred Saturday afternoon to the middle of the week. Having an afternoon off had to make the week pass easier for workers. That’s for sure. As for shoppers, it was something that was, well, just accepted. Growing up I don’t recall hearing anyone complain about stores closing Wednesday afternoons. Not so today. I overheard a person of northern persuasion griping about life in a rural outpost.
“Apparently it’s a Southern thing to close stores, banks, and utility companies Wednesday afternoon. Let me tell you it’s mighty inconvenient if you’re not used to it.” In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy, writing about a small town said, “Home may be where the heart is but it’s no place to spend Wednesday afternoon.” Percy was born in Alabama and lived in Louisiana but his words better suit transplants. I heard too a woman in North Carolina talk about how they “roll up the sidewalks in her hometown come Wednesdays.
It wasn’t a bother unless you didn’t plan ahead. Back in the 50s and 60s we all knew the stores would lock doors come high noon. Not so today. In many small towns you can shop Wednesdays. Closing at noon Wednesdays isn’t as common as it once was. Blame the chain stores. Blame malls and blame the Internet’s online shopping. Blame a bad economy. I can tell you though that we need Wednesday afternoons off.
Studies, authors, and experts have determined that the average American works a month more a year now compared to the 1970s. As developed countries go Americans are the world’s most overworked people. We work 137 more hours per year than the Japanese, 260 more hours a year than the Brits, and 499 more hours per year than the French. (They’re drinking wine, figuring out which wars they want to avoid, and studying to be mimes.) Being guaranteed a mid-week afternoon off sounds better now doesn’t it.
I say keep Wednesday afternoons sacred. Enjoy some down time. Consider it a gift. So, what can you do with a free afternoon every Wednesday? Plenty. Take care of things around the homestead. Visit family. Devote time to a secret longing: paint, write, study photography, learn to play the harmonica, do something, anything, constructive. Or … do nothing. Rest.
Robert Clark and I were on the road again last week. This time we traveled to a traditional barbecue place, a place where hogs cook on a wire over a pit of coals, a legendary South Carolina BBQ joint—Jackie Hite’s in Leesville. On the way back smelling like hickory smoke and BBQ sauce we were discussing old ways and old days and closing Wednesdays at noon came up. Robert remembered his dad’s bank in Mooresville, North Carolina, would close Wednesday afternoons. And me? I remember the empty feeling I had one Wednesday when I ran out of BBs for my air rifle and had nowhere to buy some.
We swapped Wednesday memories and decided to continue the tradition. Starting mid-August we each will close shop at noon and strike out together on expeditions into Georgia and South Carolina looking for good stories. We’ll do what we do best. Discover the vintage South, photograph it, write about it, and preserve many things leaving us for good.
We will share our adventures with you. We’re creating a website, “Wednesday Afternoons” where we’ll post photographs, features, and narratives on the places, people, and things we find interesting. We’ll head out Wednesdays at noon, come back with photos, notes, and more and post a finished piece the next Wednesday around noon. More details soon on our efforts to preserve “Closed Wednesdays.” Why?
Because someday I fear small towns—those strongholds of “Closed Wednesdays”—will see this fine tradition fade as stores chase the almighty dollar and yet another part of the Southland slips away. I hope we keep the tradition alive. Imagine the confusion an outsider will experience driving into a small Southern town on a Wednesday afternoon finding nowhere to buy “pop.” I expect it will seem like an episode from Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.”
For now though, let’s go back to a more civilized time, to a scene long repeated in places like Apex, North Carolina, Beaufort, South Carolina, Newberry, South Carolina, Newland, North Carolina, Augusta, Georgia, and a town called Lincolnton. Could be Georgia, could be North Carolina, but who am I kidding.
It’s a hazy afternoon. The Dog Days of August are in full swing. Storm clouds crowd the horizon. As cicadas sing their summer song the old courthouse clock starts to strike. Store lights go off and locks click shut. “Open” signs are turned around to “Closed.” The workday is done.
The streets and sidewalks empty. As the twelfth stroke rings out, a few cars head out of town. One has old-fashioned cane fishing poles sticking out the window. No storm will stop this fisherman. No sir. It’s Wednesday afternoon, a bit of Saturday come early, a bit of mid-week freedom that’s priceless. And over Soap Creek way, they say, the crappie are biting.