The Bellair Store

By Vanessa Faurie

On May 20, 1844, John Ryan bought Lot 20 for $25 and built a log store. It was destroyed by fire in 1850. The community helped him build a big, new frame building. Thirty-seven years and eight owners later, Amos Fouty bought the store on July 15, 1887.
Son-in-law Frank Harris tore down the old structure, erected the two-story building in the alley and had it rolled into where it stands today. A dozen men have owned or operated it since.

—from "The Story of One Town,"
a history of Bellair, Illinois
by Lucille Randolph

Now only four of those owners or their wives are around to remember what it was like to run the old store. Back then 25 or more people were there some nights.

But not anymore. The Bellair store is almost 100 years old, and the mice and the cobwebs use it. [The store was torn down in the late 1990s.] There aren't any more cool summer nights when the men around town go to the back of the store to talk or play 42, using nail kegs with boxes over them or hardbacked benches for chairs.

The women don't sit on the long, wooden benches to talk and crochet while others wait at the counters as clerks gather their orders. Kids don't run and play outside on the porch, either. And no one relaxes on the benches that sat on each side of the front door.

People only did those things at a time when they had to depend more on their neighbors to have a good time instead of on a car or TV. People depended upon each other in Bellair, as they did in many other places during that time.

"O' course, back in those days, we didn't have television, too many radios an' those things," Oletha Matheny said as she remembered when she and her husband, Harold, owned the Bellair general store from 1941-55. "It was more jus' friendliness an' gettin' together an' seein' your neighbors when you went to town."

Matheny sold the store in 1955 when her husband died.

"He'd always told me, 'If anything happens to me, don't run this store,' she said. 'That was because it'd be too big a job for me."

But now Matheny sat in a rocking chair on her front porch in Robinson, talking about the importance of general stores to the community.

"Like sometimes now, I go get my groceries an' I don't see a soul I know," she said. "But in the smaller towns, if there was somebody you knowed, then usually you didn't have to be in a awful big hurry that you didn't stop an' visit with people a lot. You see, that was part of it."

Howard Knicely was part of it in the early thirties. He went to work for owner Ray Purcell at the Bellair store evenings and before school when he was in high school in 1929, just after Purcell bought the store.

"I started out makin' egg crates for a cent a piece," Howard said. "You know, nailin' 'em. They bought a lot of eggs then. I could make 30 or 40 cases a night."

After nailing crates, Knicely started weighing and buying chickens, handling eggs and testing cream.

"I was testin' for butterfat one time," he said. "You have to stir it to get a good sample. Well, I stirred up a five-gallon can an' got a rat."

Eventually, though, Knicely became a clerk and waited on customers, as well as worked at the post office that was in the store. He also pumped gas from the two glass-topped gas pumps out in front of the store. He worked seven days a week at $6.50 a week. In addition to the gas pumps, a grease rack and a croquet diamond were set up outside. And movies were shown on a screen that was hung on the west side of the store. There were plays and musicals over the weekends on the second floor of the building. A stage stood at the north end, and rows of chairs filled the rest of the floor.

Knicely liked his years at the Bellair store. He got to know everyone, as well as make some money.

"I wouldn't know just how to describe it," Howard said, looking back on his job. "It was a good experience, an' I'm glad I did it."

Knicely quit his job in 1935 to go to school. Purcell wasn't left empty-handed, though. He had other help, including his twin sister, Fay, who started working in September of 1933 as a clerk. She didn't leave until 1952 after working for three different owners.

Now living in Mattoon, Fay remembered working from 8 a.m. to noon, then from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., six days a week. Working at the Bellair store, according to her, meant doing "anything that needed to be done" — from candling eggs to pumping gas.

"An' in the beginning, the gas pump wasn't electric," Purcell said. "The hand pump was on the side of the tank." She remembered waiting on customers while they all talked. But she didn't get too many chances to visit.

"It was just a little country store," she said. "But we had quite a lot of loafers. It was the folks that was there that did most of the talkin'. And there was always a loaf o' bread or a box o' crackers open, an' they'd buy lunch meat and make their own sandwiches or somethin' like that. But I'd be up and down waitin' on customers."

During the time she worked in Bellair, Purcell collected newspaper clippings and other things for a scrapbook she started around the time of World War I.

"I just saved anything that was unusual" she said. "Anything an' everything."

One of the things she saved was an old playbill from 1942, announcing an upcoming show at the store. It read: "ALL STAR WEDDING Bellair, ILL. Friday, April 3. Sponsored by the Red Cross. Curtain 8:00. Each character a man — each man a lady. Children 15 cents, Adults 25 cents tax included."

There was also a list of the cast and their characters. People like Art Farley, now mayor of Oblong, played Sally Rand. Harold Matheny, owner of the store at the time, played President Roosevelt and Riley Chapman was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Some other characters included Shirley Temple, Gene Autry and Carmen Miranda, played by Earl Adkisson, Roy Mikeworth and J.R. McCollough, respectively.

"They had some really good plays," Fay said, laughing. "The times and the people who are still around have really changed since then."

Along with the people who have changed since the time they were in the play, Purcell remembered some changes around town in the 19 years she worked there.

"Electricity was put through Bellair while I was there," she said. "That was one thing that was a change."

Before electricity, Delco lights from a battery plant in the back of the building lighted the store.

"I remember the Delco lights very well," she said. "I went back there one time. It wasn't stopped, an' I thought it was the gas main that didn't shut off. It splattered oil all over me."

And the only heat for the store in winter was the pot-bellied stove. For Purcell, working behind the counters was "like wadin' through ice water." She left her job at Matheny's Bellair store in March of 1952 to take care of her mother who had burned herself and needed help to get around.

Fay's brother ran the store until 1937. And Ray Purcell and Ada, his wife of 53 years, still remember the years they spent in Bellair. But because of Ray's hearing problem, Ada did most of the talking during a phone conversation from their Gaylord, Michigan, home. She also worked in the store.

"I didn't work all the time," she said. "Our daughter, Betty, was quite small then. Ray opened up at 6:30 durin' farm season six days a week, an' sometimes was there 'til 10 at night. He'd be open 'til noon on Sundays.

"Everybody'd just visit an' talk about the happenings o' the day. If someone had a problem like an illness or something, that would be mentioned. Or if you could help in any way if somebody needed it, most everybody in the community was willing to do what they could. " People also talked about the big subject of the times — the Depression.

"Oh, they talked about how serious the economy was, like they do today," Ada said and laughed. "Things don't look good today, even. But there's always one or two in a crowd that get too riled up, or someone thinks they know everything. I don't remember that too much, though."

Because of the hard times, people bought a lot of goods on credit. And while the Purcells lost some money, Ada said it wasn't any great amount. "Durin' the Depression, there was some that could hardly make it," she said. "There was some on WPA. An' the banks were closing."

The Bellair Bank closed in 1931. And it was robbed in 1929. But the Purcells had little problems with robberies or break-ins.

"'Cept one time in winter," Ada said, laughing a little. "Some boys broke in an' stole some rabbits. But that was about it."

There were other aggravations. Vacations weren't a big part of a storekeeper's life. And sometimes running the store could be frustrating with all the work and people.

"At times you'd get a little discouraged," Ada said. "But that's only natural. Like maybe you'd want to go some place or do something, an' you couldn't get away cause you had to go to the store. It wasn't such a bad thing after all, though. It was an enjoyable time cause you could visit with different people.

"Now in the summer, it got pretty hot in there," she said. "We didn't have any fans. An' in the winter, everybody'd see which one could get the closest to the pot-bellied stove. Course that's when we really had the good times cause people'd stay at the store longer, an' they wouldn't have to be in a hurry."

The Purcells kept a radio in the store, and everyone listened to the Cardinals' baseball games and music like fiddler's contests. "Fibber McGee and Molly" and Red Skelton were on a lot, too.

But then in 1937, Ray's health wasn't good and he sold the store.

"He did hate to sell out," Ada said. "But he jus' was no longer able to take care o' the responsibility of the store."

In April, Roy and Fannie Johnson, who now live in Oblong, took over the store. Roy has become virtually bedridden because of poor health, but Fannie spoke of the more than four years they ran the store.

"Yes, we bought it in '37," she said, holding her hand to the frame of her glasses as if it were helping her remember. "Oh, we sold feed. We sold dry goods, notions, ice cream, groceries, an' just about anything you could name."

Johnson sat back in a chair in her living room and talked about the role she thought the general store played in Bellair.

"Ya see, at the time, people didn't go like they do today," she said. "Some of 'em didn't even have cars. They depended on the country stores for their groceries, especially.

"An' then, o' course, the social time came in cause they didn't have any place else much to go like the kids do now an' take their cars an' jus' run here, there an' every place."

But it seemed to Fannie that there were always people coming in and out of the Bellair store during the long week when the store was open from six in the morning until about ten at night and eight until noon on Sundays.

"The store was generally full throughout the day," Johnson said. "We had them old schoolhouse, recitation benches that we would sit on. An' course we had chairs all around an' tables for their dominoes. There never was any time they wasn't comin' in. That's the reason I was near wore out. I wasn't used to stayin' up, an' I got so sleepy."

Sometimes the store was even open as late as 11 p.m. and midnight when there were 42 tournaments and plays. There were also some musical shows with banjos, mandolins and other string instruments.

A long, rectangular-shaped, two-storied building with 15' ceilings, the store stretched out a 100 feet from the street to the rear exit where it had built onto it a sprawling one-story shed.

"Oh, it was quite big," Johnson said. "I 'spect on the one side was the main counters we sold over. They was on the west side. Folk's come an' give us their order, an' we would write it down in a book. Then we'd gather the things up for 'em.

"But on the east side, we had counters with glass in em an' had our notions in em, like thread an' needles — little things' for 'em to see. Up in front, we had the pop case out in the middle o' the floor. And then they had what you called a pot-bellied stove that's always been there that we heated the store with. Course, that's where mostly all of our chairs an' benches were.

"We had shelving all along the east side, an' that held our dry goods an' hardware. An' then on the west side, why, we'd have all our groceries. In the back was a meat counter. An' then clear on back we had a little partition where we went back in to do the eggs. Then back just a little was a little place to test the cream."

The eggs that people brought in had to be checked to see that they weren't bad. A box with a hole in the top of it and a light inside was used to see the outline and color of what was inside the egg and to check for spots.

"I 'spect we even got some with chickens in 'em sometimes," Johnson said, laughing.

When people sold cream or eggs to the store, instead of being paid, they could be credited with an equal value of groceries and anything else they wanted to buy in the store. It was known as "doin' the tradin'."

The Johnsons also gave credit to customers, usually on a one-month basis.

"It's not like it is now," Fannie said. "We didn't investigate an' things like that. We knew just about everybody, an' I guess Ray Purcell advised us who to credit an' who not to. It wasn't so established to customers as it is now.

"Well, even when Ray wanted Roy an' me to buy the store, Roy says, 'Well, we don't have the money to buy it.' An' Ray said, 'Well, I think Grandad'll (John Payne) furnish it.'

"So we went up to John's, an' Roy signed a note at four or five percent interest. An' we got the store on just our note. We was real pleased with all our dealins in the store. We never lost a lot o' money, but we did lose some."

Like other general storekeepers of the time, the Johnsons kept their credit listings and other accounts in a type of desk made by the Macaskie Company. It was about three feet wide with a straight back. The front slanted down and files folded out to keep individual records.

To get the goods the Johnsons sold, they would place an order to the Hulman Company in Terre Haute every week and pick it up themselves.

"Now we did have our feed delivered," Johnson said. "An' that was from Oblong. From Monte Eagle Mills. But the rest of it was from Terre Haute."

Unlike the Purcells who never really had a break-in, the Johnsons did have burglars while they owned the store.

They broke in through the front window once," Fannie said. "It looked like a woman's footstep that stepped in the window. They got a li'l bit of our money, but somebody told us it was goin' to be broke into so we took our money home with us every night or hid it. Got some of the cemetery money, too.

"At the time, people gathered in money to take care o' the cemetery," Johnson said, explaining. "Now around here, we have a regular feller to take care of 'em. But they didn't before. They'd use this to hire somebody to mow an' things."

With all the time, the hard work, the break-in, the four years that the Johnsons owned the store were still happy ones.

"I always liked workin' in the store," Johnson said. "We ran another store down here in Oblong. The girls that helped us didn't like for me to be there cause I liked to keep it clean, you know, dustin' an' things. Roy didn't make 'em do that too much when I wasn't there.

"An' there was another thing. We had a radio in the store. An' jus' like these soap operas that you see from day to day now, they had them over the radio. Course when I was home, I kinda got use to hearin' 'em. That's one thing I had to give up cause they'd want to listen to the sports.

"That's when I started to get fleshier cause I ate chocolate candy," she said and laughed. "But it was just about as happy a time as any."

The Johnsons sold the store in December of 1941 to Harold and Oletha Matheny, who had previously owned a service station for 13 years in Yale. The store was rewired for electricity when the Mathenys took over.

They took over on December 1. Six days later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

"Everybody in town was pretty upset when war was declared," Matheny said. "I remember they had a farewell party for us in Yale. Everybody thought about the ones that'd have to go to war. It was a lot of the conversation at the time. I can't remember when we got word when some of 'em got killed, but I remember them happening."

In addition to the plays and musical shows, the second floor of the store was also used during the war for dinners for the soldiers before they left or when they were home on leave.

"An' durin' the war, the only time we had the store closed was on Friday afternoons," Matheny said. "We had to haul in most everything we sold from Terre Haute. But things were scarce. People'd expect Harold to be home. An' by the time he opened later in the evenin', they'd be there grabbin' everything.

"We might get a stalk o' bananas or two stalks. That'd probably be the most we'd get because that'd be all they'd allow us to have. They'd be gone jus' like that."

The banana stalks hung in the back of the store by the meat counter. Occasionally, they'd last a few days. But because things were hard to get, that wasn't often.

Matheny remembered selling things like sugar that was kept in a drawer behind the counter. They would scoop whatever was ordered into sacks. They also sold flour in sacks that women made dresses and other things from.

"Actually, it was quite pretty material," Matheny said, holding a pillow slip with pink flowers as an example. "This is the only one I have left."

The flour and sugar were stored on the west side of the store. Up in front near the window on the same side was a six-door ice cream case. Next to it were two candy cases, one with a curved-glass top sitting on top of a long, rectangular glass case. Both bowl and bar candy were sold.

Across the small aisle in the middle of the store stood the Coca-Cola cooler. The six-ounce Cokes and seven-ounce 7-Ups stood up to their necks in cold water on the left side; the Pepsis and RCs were on the right with the flavors in the middle.

Behind the pop case, there were bread and cookie racks. The store was a familiar sight to many. Mable Elliott, who still lives in Bellair, remembered what the store was like from a customer's point of view. "They had square boxes of cookies in the racks," she said, remembering the general store ways of selling different items. "They bought 'em that way. There was a metal frame with glass in it to show the cookies. Course some of it got broke out.

"The lid was on a hinge. They would put this on the box, an' then they'd open it jus' like a lid. When you wanted cookies, why, they'd get in there an' get 'em out an' weigh 'em.

"They even had a vinegar barrel you'd pump your vinegar out, along with sellin' nails, bolts, brooms an' mops an' everything like that. Had chicken an' hog feed. An' they sold coal oil or kerosene, too."

Oletha Matheny remembered the kerosene.

"Yes, we had that old crank kerosene," she said. "If you wanted a gallon o' kerosene, you turned a crank an' the kerosene came out. If you wanted five gallons, you turned it to five gallons.

"My daughter, Sharon, wasn't very old an' Harold's brother and wife was there, an' they had a little grandson, Larry, with 'em. I think the funniest thing was when they were playin' once, an' they were hollerin' down in the tank. It'd have a hollow sound, an' they was havin' fun. First one an' then the other would holler.

"Well, Sharon had her head down there a hollerin', an' Larry turned the crank an' got her head soaked with kerosene. I don't know how long it took to get that smell out o' there. It's funny to look back on, but it wasn't funny at the time."

The old crank telephone hung on the west wall back behind the Macaskie desk about the middle of the store. Both were central to the operations of the general store.

"On the old crank-type phones, everybodys'd ring, an' they'd all listen so you couldn't talk about your neighbors, that's for sure," Matheny said, laughing. "Other people really used it more than we did, though. If they didn't have a telephone, they'd just come an' use it."

When the Mathenys ran the store, much of the credit kept in the Macaskie desk was for oil field workers who were paid twice a month.

"Harold'd laugh an' say, 'Your payday is my payday,'" Oletha said. "But we scarcely lost any money. That's the kind of credit we did. We didn't let people have it long term, and we usually knew when we were going to get our money."

Competition between stores in the area was another fact of life for the general storekeeper. As Matheny said, "General stores was quite common. You always had a little competition."

Some of the competition were the huckster wagons that drove around the country. It was like a grocery store on wheels. Goods were stacked on shelves on both sides of the back of the truck or wagon. Orders were placed at the back as the huckster stopped at each farm house, buying eggs and even selling ice cream. Each store usually had its own customers, though. But Oletha remembered a time when they got a sudden rush of new business at their service station in Yale.

"There were a couple of little boys that never had any money to spend," she said. "My brother-in-law, Cecil, was livin' with us at the time, an' he felt sorry for 'em. So he bought some pop for 'em an' those little boys went up town an' said, 'There's free pop down at Mathenys.'

"I think every kid come runnin' down there," she said, laughing. "They didn't realize Cecil had paid Harold for it."

But for Matheny, running the Bellair store was an enjoyable time in her life, even though they didn't have time to take vacations.

"That was something that we should've done but we didn't," she said. "As I look back on it, it was a lot o' work. But everybody worked that way. We were together an' that was the happy part of my life."

Matheny sold the Bellair store in 1955 to its last owners, Bill and Ruby Ritter, who had run Ritter's store three miles northwest of Bellair for 20 years.

During those last 15 years, the Bellair store wasn't as much a gathering place as it used to be. People still came by to visit, but then there were better roads and supermarkets and people were traveling more.

According to Ruby Ritter, now Ruby Hickox who still lives near Bellair, there weren't as many people in Bellair anymore — either they died off or moved away. The store was changing, too, though.

"We rearranged the counters to make 'em look more like the modern check-out counter," Ruby said. "That's when we took one o' them counters out an' put the lunch counter there. You know, we did a pretty good business around lunch time then."

With the addition of the lunch counter, the Ritters sold most of the same goods as the owners before them. And they also gave credit.

"A little too much sometimes," Ruby said, laughing. "But we got away from the credit by that time.

"Had a fella that was workin' on a drillin' rig up around Moonshine that came in an' told me he forgot his checkbook. He wanted to know if he could have some gloves an' just a few items. An' he told me he'd leave me his watch cause he'd be passin' through the next day, an' it'd be his guarantee.

"Well, I let him have the stuff. When he came back for his watch, why, he got quite a bit more stuff. He gave me a check for it an' picked up his watch. An' his check bounced."

She laughed and said, "I lost it all. But I don't think it was over $10 or $15."

The Bellair store still had a kind of reputation for having whatever people needed.

"If there was things you couldn't find somewhere," Ruby said, "people'd say they'd come to Bellair to find it."

People couldn't say that after 1970, though. Bill Ritter died in October of that year. Ruby had a sale just after Thanksgiving and the store was an empty shell, holding fading memories of a time gone by.

"A fella from Oblong wanted to buy the store complete an' put in an antique place," Ruby said. "He wanted my house, too. An' at the time I didn't know what I wanted to do. He was kind of interested in it, but he didn't want the store unless he could have my house, an' I didn't want to sell it.

"Other than that, I didn't have any other chance to sell the place. I wonder sometimes if I should've sold it to him."

After her husband died, Ruby was glad to get out of the business. They had planned on selling out that summer, anyway, because business was dropping off.

"But I always enjoyed it," Ruby said of her 35 years in the general store business. "I missed the store. I missed seein' people an' talkin' to people. Sometimes I get a little homesick, too. I hated to see the store leave there. And I hated to be the one that done it."