By Susan M. Thigpen © 1983-2012
Issue: October, 1983
Today you can drive up to Midway Grocery and Oil Company on Highway 221, near Floyd, Virginia for a tank of gas or a cold drink and a pack of nabs and it’s a country community store…Right? It is by today’s standards but you should have seen it when…….
In 1933, John T. Harmon bought that piece of land. By the following spring, he and his wife, the former Lelia Akers and their family moved into a house built there and work was started on a store and service station down on the road in front of the house. The road was Highway 221, which was still unpaved at that time. The store was a log structure that was built with logs cut off of the property it stood on.
John Harmon was an industrious man. Besides the store, he also had (at various times) a sawmill, the franchise for a bus that ran from Roanoke to Hillsville, helped pave Highway 221 and Oxford Street in Floyd, and had hopes of a motel consisting of several separate cabins behind the store.
His store was the Wildwood Service Station. They had groceries and gasoline. The Harmon’s had a Delco system for lighting their house and store. Mrs. Harmon ran the store most of the time while her husband sawmilled. The children helped out at the store also. Her daughter, Margaret Harman, who is now the Clerk of the Court in Floyd County, said that as a little girl, it was her and her twin brother Marvin’s job to keep the old hand-pumped gas tanks pumped up. It was also her job to change the water in the soft drink cooler and keep it clean.
“Most of the people that came, 90% of them, walked there and traded eggs and butter for what they needed.” When customers came in for a can of kerosene and didn’t have the little cap for their can, her father would plug the hole with a gumdrop to keep it from spilling as they walked back home.
They opened around 7:00 in the morning and closed at 8, 9, or 10:00 at night, depending on whether or not they still had customers. The closing time depended on a lot of other things too. They had a radio at the store and lots of people came by and sat on nail kegs to listen to the “Joe Lewis” fight.
At lunch time, men working near by would come in, buy sardines and such, and eat lunch there. “We had a big glass container, shaped like an aquarium that held great big sugar cookies. Some people would come in and get two of those sugar cookies and a slice of the hoop cheese and make a sandwich out of them.”
A shed was built on either end of the store and Mr. Harmon’s lumber trucks were parked there. In 1939, he enclosed the garage ends and square dances were held there on Saturday nights. “Young children, older people, everyone came. Archie Vaughn, Jr. did the calling as Rom Slusher played harmonica, Waldo Slusher played guitar, Aton Weedle played banjo and Albert and Ivan Weedle played fiddle and guitar.”
The dances were continued until World War II, when most of the men folks were away in the service. The store was closed for a period of about two years then.
Practically everybody left in Floyd during the war worked at the arsenal over in Radford and John Harmon ran a bus service for all three shifts from Floyd to Radford.
There were a lot of enjoyable benefits to growing up around a store for the Harmon children. Once, in the mid-30’s, a new bread company formed and brought around free samples, tiny loaves of “Rainbow” bread, for the people to try. When a new soda pop came out, there were more free samples to be had. One was Byerly’s Orange Ade. Margaret remembers that strawberry soda was the favorite of most everybody though.
Once, two men who were strangers came in the store. One bought a couple of small items and gave Mrs. Harmon quite a large bill to pay for it. She carefully made change and then the other man bought a couple of small things, taking his time. After the second man paid, the first man spoke up and said that Mrs. Harmon didn’t give him his change back yet. Margaret said that her mother just reached back behind her where there was a shelf with her father’s gun, patted it and said, “Yes, I did.” The two men left. A few days later the sheriff came by to tell them to watch out because there were a couple of men in the area trying to pull a scam with large size bill changing. (Country people might not be wise to city ways but they’re shrewd judges of human character.) Mrs. Harmon showed those two that she wasn’t fooled or going to be taken advantage of in no uncertain terms!
There was always a lot of activity going on around the store. On rainy days it would really be crowded. There might be a “set-back” card game going on, some men playing mumbley-peg or, on occasion, a test of strength by the young men to see who could pick up a large sledge hammer and hold it straight out at arm’s length the longest.
There was one elderly man, “Captain” Ira Davis, who came by occasionally and told tall tales about bears and wild cats that scared the children so that they were afraid to walk home. If he was seen coming, the children were usually sent to the house because the parents didn’t approve of some of his “salty” language.
Margaret Harman said that her father always insisted on a family vacation. Every year they would put the sides on the lumber truck, a canvas top over it and put straw tick mattresses in it and go up on the river for a few days, to camp and fish. Once her father packed up the family and a few assorted relatives and took them all the way to Virginia Beach that way. They stayed at Lake Smith, about ten or fifteen miles from the beach, where her father would fish in the mornings and take the kids to the beach in the afternoons.
In 1949, the Wildwood Service Station was sold to Henry and Ava Saylers, who still own it. It has undergone a lot of changes made in the passing years but it still serves the community in much the same fashion as the old Wildwood Store did years ago. Community stores serve much more than groceries and gas. They are the social hub of the area surrounding them. Although folks no longer gather to listen to “Joe Lewis” fights on the radio and if there’s still a Byrley’s Orange Ade, I haven’t ever seen it, there’s still a feeling in the air at small country stores that tells of a time gone by when neighbors gathered around pot-bellied stoves and “socialized.” It’s great to know all of them aren’t lost to so called convenience and progress.