Corner Gorcer

Remembering the Corner Grocery

© by: Martha Garner Albers


  When I was growing up in  Poplar Bluff in the '30's and '40's, the town's landscape was dotted with small neighborhood markets.  Wherever you happened to live, that's where you shopped.  We were lucky to be a quarter of a block from the Charlton-Duncan store which sat on the corner of Ninth and Maud across from Ferguson Grove and the Sunset Inn, which was a tiny frame barbecue place run by old Mr. Cross.  

    If we had lived a few blocks farther south, we would have gone to Jim Hogg's store at Ninth and Pine, or a few blocks to the east, we would have shopped at Mengel's Market on Sixth Street or Saracini's little store at Sixth and Main.  But as I said, we were lucky to live near a kind of 1930's Wal-Mart.  It was an amazing place!  

    The Charlton-Duncan store had two distinct parts, and the side most used was the grocery section.  Two large plate glass windows framed the recessed front door.   

   Through those windows you could see displays of good to eat stuff and the "specials."  Inside the door immediately to the left was a huge candy case.  It was of glass and oak, the glass front sloping back so you could see all the tempting chocolate bars, licorice, hard candy, and mints.  Glass doors slip back and forth on the back I supposed to keep flies and kids out.  Just beyond the candy case was a well-worn, all wood checkout counter.  There was Reginald White, whose wife Norma, ran a beauty shop in the upstairs of their house on Pine Street across from where Doctor's Regional Hospital is now.  I remember Mrs. Charlton, a tiny, efficient little white-haired woman with lively dark brown eyes, and gentle,  quiet Mrs. Forest who had an enormous goiter on he left side or her neck, which absolutely fascinated every youngster in the neighborhood.  Mrs. Charlton's son ruled the meat department, and that was it--no stockers, sackers, or carryout boys- just the customer and the folks who owned and ran the store.    

  Just inside the front door was one of my favorite places- a big square furnace grate smack dab in the middle of the floor.  On cold days you could stand on that grate and let the warm air blow up your pants legs or dress and feel as warm and snug as if you were on a tropical island.  All of this side of the store was filled with groceries.  There were canned goods, staples (translated sugar, flour, salt, meal, grains, etc.- for the modern generations), eggs, milk, bread, and whatever fresh fruits and vegetables were in season.  At the very back was the meat counter.  It ran across the entire back of the store except for a gap on the right end allowing access to the counter and to a storage area in the rear of the building off limits to the average customer.  This intriguing section was the repository not only of live chickens and mountainous stacks of grain and feed sacks, but also at least three litters of kittens every spring.  The cats were supposed to deter an active and aggressive mouse population, and were an irresistible temptation to all the children living around there.  Every spring Mr. Charlton, whose reign over this area was unquestioned, would let me go into that musty, sweet smelling labyrinth of crates, sacks, and checks to look for a baby kitten.  If I could coax one out and manage to get hold of it, it was mine and I could take it home with me.   

   There were no carts or baskets.  We would carry stuff up to the counter an armful at a time until we got what we needed.  We didn't load up like we do today for two main reasons.  Refrigerators then were a far cry from refrigerators now.  They were small and most had a freezer compartment that would make a modern mom weep.  Not only was the freezer tiny, it iced up unbelievably.  Unless you defrosted frequently with fans oscillating and pans of hot water steaming to hasten the process, you faced a miniature iceberg, impenetrable up there in the corner of your fridge.  So aside from a couple of ice trays, not much of importance was trusted to the freezer.  Another reason we limited the amount we bought was that food was not available in the neatly packaged and dated containers we see today.  if you wanted fried chicken for supper, you bought a chicken, a live one, and carried it home where some luckless soul got stuck with either wringing its neck or chopping its head off, which I thought wasn't much worse than the awful job of plucking its feathers.  So most people didn't wag more than one chicken home at a time for obvious reasons.  Incidentally, the cash and carry aspect worked this way.  The hapless chicken's legs were tied together with a piece of brown twine, and the squawking, flapping bird was handed to you to carry home.  Fortunately, we did not have to drag a cow home if we wanted beef for dinner.  Mr. Charlton would take whatever meat you selected out of the refrigerated glass case, cut off the amount you needed, wrap it up with white string, mark the price, and send you on your way.  Thus, our almost daily treks to the story, but not just for groceries.   

   The most fascinating part of this market, except for the kitten mill in the back, lay on the other side.  This half of the store had everything!  It was a combination Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and Ace Hardware.  You could roam aisles stacked with  "dry goods," i.e. fabrics, counters with every size nail, bolt, nut, screw imaginable, plus hammers, saws, shovels, axes, awls, scythes, horse collars and shoes, brooms, buckets, cane fishing poles, thread and needles, dress patterns, and toys--for starts.  There was an endless vista of things to look at, handle, play with, and wish for.  

    Last of all, which was really first of all also, was the smell of that store.  How could an aroma so familiar and constant be so hard to describe?  It was a fragrant combination of all that was there--pungent but not overpowering or offensive.  It was a musty sweetness produced by the old oiled wood floors, the sacks of potatoes and grain stacked around, and the bins of fruits and vegetables.  It was the smell of another era, one we seldom if ever experience now, but if I should ever get a chance to walk into an old time market again, I bet I would recognize that wonderfully familiar fragrance of the past.   

   According to Paul Hogg, Raymond Hogg's brother, the Charlton-Duncan Store became "Piggie Hogg's Market" in the early '40's.  Raymond Hogg owned and operated the store until about 1965.  The building still stands at the corner of Ninth and Maud.

submitted to Butler County site by co-host Mary Collins - -
March 28, 1999

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