The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Grandpa’s Store

By Don Howlett © 1984

Issue: February, 1984

Grandpa Howlett was born and grew up in Carroll County in Virginia. He was named Norman Kelly Howlett (this is for the old timers that might remember). Among other things, he was a staunch Republican and Carroll Countian. To me, his grandson, (one of many) he was wonderful, lovable and loving old gentleman. In his lifetime he owned several country stores, usually one or two room, and usually tilting into a creek. He also at one time was a blacksmith at Mabry Mill (Robert Wood painted it and called it “The Old Mill”). Mabry Mill is still in operation on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Meadows of Dan, Virginia. I’ve always loved the sound of “Meadows of Dan,” don’t you?

Anyway, there were wonderful times spent at Grandpa’s store, which had, of course, cracker barrels, bushels of apples, pickles and a large wheel of rat cheese, canned sardines, tomatoes, chewing tobacco, snuff, tubs of lard, potatoes, onions, a pot bellied stove, cuspidor, and all those wonderful things of the past. (None of the bad things, Ha!) The smells were marvelous. We used to go to Grandpa’s on Sunday. For lunch we would eat at the store, such things as sardines and soda crackers, cheese and sometimes even open a can of tomatoes. For drinks my sister and I would have hot strawberry or chocolate pop (hot because there was no cooler at that time, in fact, not even an ice box), but that pop was always the best I ever tasted.

One of my favorite things to do was pump kerosene into a can and put a raw potato in the spout because someone long ago had lost the cap. I would crank and that pump would squeak. Another favorite was to pump gasoline in the old fashioned tank and watch it fill up in the glass at the top. The color was usually clear red or golden. The ruler inside or outside the glass would measure the amount - 5 gallon - 10 gallon, etc. It was, of course, gravity flow so you put the nozzle into the automobile and squeezed the handle to fill the car. At a much later time, I learned as a teenager that if you had no money and were short on gas, you could lift it high into the air with one hand, squeeze with the other and if you stopped at four or five pumps, could drain what is left in the hoses and then continue cruising the streets.

One of my favorite stories about Grandpa was when a foreigner (man not from Carroll County) stopped and got gasoline and wanted a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes (before they went to war they were in a green pack). Grandpa would not sell him the cigarettes. No matter how much the man pleaded, he would not. Why? He said, “I only have one pack left and the tobacco man won’t be here till Tuesday. If I sold them to you I would be out.” So he would not sell them, leaving an irate customer with a nicotine fit. He would not explain that to the customer, but the reason was he was trying to keep them for his regular customers.

It would probably turn people off now, but when you were young you thought nothing of it. (Well, maybe I did, why am I telling it?) My grandpa had a pocket knife, which was a prized possession and was used for everything. He would peel and scrape an apple. Why - because of false teeth. He used the same knife for cutting the cheese from the round, cutting off a chew from his plug of tobacco, as well as to dig garnets out of a mud bank for me, his grandson, and God only knows what else.

Speaking of his chewing tobacco, when we were young, my sister and I remember always a coffee can next to our fireplace for when he came to visit. This was for cleanliness. You see if it were not there he would spit in the fireplace and it would go “Sizzle.” We always had second hand cars, never a new one and of course my sister and I were taught always to let Grandpa sit in the front seat, and we always did. We would sit in the back seat and giggle. There was always a particular hazard in sitting in the back seat that no one thought of but us. Grandpa would chew and roll the window down to spit out the tobacco juice. The wind would blow it back into the back seat of the car. My sister and I would try to time the occasion and yell “DUCK.” If you didn’t you were sprayed in the face - so you see it was of vital importance. My dear Grandpa was never aware of this, if he had been, he would have stopped. He was never unkind.

At one time, when I was becoming a sophisticated and cultured person, I was sort of embarrassed by Grandpa. I thought he used terrible English. He said things like, “I seed ol’ Gyarl Talbert.” He called a café, “calf,” and a hotel, “hodel.” Later on in life, I discovered something about his speech. When I was in college, an English professor said, “I wish I could talk to your Grandfather, it sounds as though he speaks pure Elizabethan English.” From that day forward I was, in fact, never embarrassed, but extremely proud to be with Grandpa.

Another short story about Grandpa; he had a memory like an elephant and would repeat every story. For example, the time he had gone to Beckley, West Virginia to find work in the George L. Carter (from Carroll County) coal mines, he had caught the train part of the way back, but had to walk for miles where the train did not go. He would always point out the particular house and say, “That’s where they took me in, fed me cornbread and buttermilk, and gave me a place to sleep.”

Another favorite story, when asked, “Why won’t you eat cucumbers?” Grandpa would say, “Hogs won’t eat them, why should I eat something not fit for a hog?” Then he would grin. And another - if you were riding along and crossed the county line from Pulaski, Floyd, or Wythe Counties to Carroll County, Grandpa would say, “Feel that ‘air change, see how fresh and good it is, you can tell when you get to Carroll County.”

Grandpa died at the ripe old age of 83, of cancer. Until the day he died, he was county champion bowler. Young people liked him. He raised ten children in the mountains and had almost no money. He gave his love and would dig garnets out of the clay bank for you, share his cantaloupe, sliced with his pocket knife as you walked the five miles home with him. Do you know what? I’m sure I was his favorite grandchild because he gave me a dollar once. It was a most special dollar, I was the only one he ever gave one to, he said. I can only wonder - I’ll bet he told the other grandchildren the same thing….

In any event, I loved Grandpa and I loved going to his store.