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January 01. 2014 7:11PM

Food, gossip and more

Show pays tribute to NH country stores

MAY I HELP YOU?: The proprietor of the Tuftonboro General Store stands behind the counter in this 1902 image, which appears courtesy of Greg and Teri Heppe in the new book “Old Country Stores of New Hampshire” by Bruce D. Heald. 

You can't miss The Cracker Barrel in Hopkinton; it's THE store in town, and it's served as a popular meeting spot and place to shop, talk and eat since 1793.

When you walk in the door, the sweet aroma of maple syrup provides a warm and enticing welcome as long tables showcase locally grown produce and home baked pies. The weathered and uneven wood floor creaks as visitors walk the aisles, browsing shelves that house a diverse range of items from mayonnaise and condensed milk to batteries and dog bones, even a "Wines of the World" fridge that features a selection from around the globe. Rough-cut beams in the ceiling recalls days past, and in the back of the store, a sign proclaiming "Cracker Barrel Meats" hangs above an enticing deli case.

Building a Tradition

Mark McGuire, whose parents bought the store in 2004 and have maintained much of its original character, is behind the counter, taking an order from two heavily bearded outdoorsmen, who both ask for the store's signature tri-tip sandwich on a bulky roll.

But elsewhere in the Granite State, country stores — the original convenience shops, which served as drug stores, hardware stores, clothing stores and candy stores all in one — are disappearing from the landscape.

Author and historian Bruce Heald has a special fondness for the state's traditions and has written books on everything from lakes and ponds to railways.

In his latest ode to the Granite State, "Old Country Stores of New Hampshire," the Plymouth State University professor chronicles the history of the country store and its indelible impact on small towns over the years.

Having gone on a statewide country store tour as part of his research, Heald also includes compelling profiles of 22 of the state's oldest country stores.

"I wanted to preserve a legacy that we have here in the state," Heald said. "These are iconic country stores, and there are so few — there are only 22 and I've profiled each in the book. They are a piece of history, of nostalgia. But, the big supermarkets are putting them out of business, so what we have is a treasure that we don't want to lose."

Back in the 1800s, the country store was the epicenter of activity for the town. It was where folks could buy just about anything. A large pot bellied stove provided much more than heat; it was the water cooler of the day, where men sat around chewing or smoking tobacco, played checkers and caught up on gossip with the proprietor before stocking up on provisions ranging from coffee, which was often roasted on the premises, to flour, tobacco and soap.

In the back of the store, the ladies convened to look at clothing displays that included a full selection of fabrics, trimmings and sewing notions, along with bonnets and gloves.

Naturally, youngsters frequented the penny candy counter lining a wall.

In most cases, the store also served as stagecoach stop and post office, and when the telephone was introduced, proprietors would let customers make calls at no charge.

"The country store was the only stop in town," Heald said. "It was the center of social occasion where you could get your food and necessities, where you would go to reminisce and gossip. It was the center of the community."

Researching Traditions

In researching sites, Heald said a business had to do more than stock and sell food to qualify as a quintessential "old country store."

"The name on the outside of the store is large, the inside is cluttered, there are wooden floors and everything and anything the store sells is put on display," Heard said of the criteria he used. "A functional potbellied stove is still a center point in many of the stores.

"Then there's the old carved wooden Cigar Indian figure stationed outside. This was originally intended to let people know a store sold tobacco. These are rare and a highly collectable piece of Americana folk art, but there are still some around, like the one at the Tuftonboro General Store and another outside my favorite store, The Old Country Store located in Moultonborough."

Preserving the Past

According to Heald, the future of the country store is unclear, noting that these old-fashioned retail gems are struggling and many fading away.

However, he holds out some hope, noting that some local historical preservation groups are purchasing and preserving these iconic treasures.

One example is The Harrisville General Store. A town fixture since 1838, the store had seen its shares of highs and lows before Historic Harrisville, a non-profit organization, got involved. In 2000, with funding from an anonymous donor, they were able to buy the store and return it to its original glory.

"Our line of work is the historic preservation of buildings in Harrisville," says Linda Willett, executive director for Historic Harrisville. "One of the reasons we bought the building was because the owner at the time was going to change the original store front — the columns, the windows, the door — and we really couldn't bear the thought of this."

The store is home to the town post office and its cafe, and still the place to meet, greet and be seen.

"The country store is vital; it provides a place to informally run into your neighbors and people in town," Willett said.

Thanks to Heald's book, the old country store is getting some deserved recognition not only as place to pick up groceries but as a place where conversing with a stranger is encouraged, nostalgic conversations are welcome and where everyone gets to step back in time for a moment.

The book is sold at local bookstores and online at Amazon and HistoryPress.net

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