An Odd Little Mercantile Store

 

first-home-merc-restored
The first Home Mercantile in Nazareth, Texas, c. 1910s

 

The Home Mercantile was the oldest general store in Nazareth, Texas serving the community for 90 years in two different close proximity locations. The first store was erected in 1905. The second store was erected in 1928, less than a half block away from the middle of Nazareth after the original was torn down.

Both Home Mercantiles’ served as places for families to trade farm produce in order to purchase staples necessary for living. The second store served a variety of purposes and needs from residents buying basic groceries, selling their dairy cream, as well as storing their meats. From 1937 to 1980, it housed the town’s post office. This structure was utilized by the community as a cream station, cold storage zero locker, beef processing plant, liquor store, groceries, bulk flour, notions, threads, sewing materials, bulk cookies, candies and oysters. It was a vital part of the social structure in the Nazareth community – from general gatherings to boxing matches between boys needing an outlet besides school and farming.

The first general store was dismantled in 1928 when the Home Mercantile Co. built a new brick store in that same year, built by Ed Kern and Conrad Schulte. This move made it become the oldest grocery store and true general store in Nazareth. It was noted this building was the first brick and concrete building in Castro County according to an oral history of Ed Ramey.

The store stayed open seven days a week from 8 a.m. 6:30 p.m. with counter clerks at the front of the building. The clerks did not help customers who went around and picked up their groceries and shopped for themselves.

The Nazareth Post Office moved into the Home Mercantile around 1937. It was located in the northeast corner of the store with an arched window and bars. The history of Nazareth’s post office is tied to the Home Mercantile for more than 50 years. Mail was delivered around 6:30 or 7 a.m. Rose Warren, the longest serving Postmaster, was a community-minded person and accommodated postal customers by opening extra hours, and if customer packages were not wrapped properly she would rewrap them. Nazareth has had 15 postmasters and three officers-in-charge. The first postmaster was Frances McCormick starting on March 6, 1903.

After the death of Ed Kern in 1931, who died from blood poisoning, Rose rented out the building. Later, Rose and Conrad Schulte bought out the other stockholders in the store and then a couple of years later Schulte sold his shares to her. She then closed the store from 1932 – 1936 to be with her children. When she remarried Joe Warren in 1936 the store was reopened. Joe was an Indian Trader who had ties with Navajo Nation.

home-merc-c1931-1932-restored
Home Mercantile inside view, c. 1931 or 1932

Merchandise and food sold at the Home Mercantile was unusual for a rural Texas Panhandle town. Gingersnap cookies were sold from big barrels that had to be measured out. Oysters were sold in the German community that came in a gallon can. Measuring them out into paper cartons to be weighed was an awful experience to due their smell for the clerks.

There was also a bulk cookie counter about seven or eight feet long that was lined with little glass doors on both sides. Flour and sugar were sold differently, back then in either 100 lb. sacks of flour, 50 lb. sacks or 25 lb. sacks – no 10 or 5 lbs. sacks. These sacks were stacked on a big counter at the back of the store for the big farm families to purchase.

Every other morning a delivery of fresh vegetables and produce were delivered from Amarillo and dropped off at the front door. Eggs, cream, and milk were all locally produced and bought by the store to resell. Before the eggs were purchased they were candled to determine the condition of the yolk and white. Candling also detected bloody white, blood spots or meat spots inside the egg. Normally, candling was performed in a darkened room with the egg held before a light.

The northwest portion of the store had a cold storage locker that took up about a quarter of the back of the store. It was a zero locker with lock storage boxes. People would utilize these boxes by renting them because they had no big freezers at home to store their meats. There was also a storage room for hanging beef butchered on the farm and locals would bring it to hang it in the store for curing which was an eight to 10 day process. The butcher shop was also in the store and they would butcher, wrap the meat and package it. It was put it on quick chill plates at about 20 below zero to freeze it fast. That was the secret to keeping good meats – freezing them very fast. The store did sell block ice for a short time and it was placed on a straw pile.

The store also sold and packaged sliced meats that were displayed in a cold meat counter with a glass front. Often the counter would have two or three loaves of bologna or pressed ham. They would also sell sliced loaves bread.

The Home Mercantile did have a cream station with a metal trough in the cement floor for running water started by Ed Kern. The windmill water of about 50 degrees kept the cream cool inside the store. They tested the cream and graded it on butterfat content. Sediment tests were done at the time to determine on how clean the cream was and to do this the cream was stirred and poured into a filter that would reveal how much sediment was in the cream. Then a sediment sample was pasted on a board. Some area farmers would bring in super clean cream, while others would have a lot of sediment in it. The store’s cream station went away when the Grade A dairies developed in the region after the end of World War II. In the later years the store did not test cream, salt hides or cut meat anymore because of USDA regulations.

Arsenic, mouse poison, calcium cyanide were stored right across from the bulk flour in the store. Cyanide was in quart jars labeled as rat poison with skull and crossbones on the jars. No one considered these dangerous to have on an open shelf.

The main suppliers of dry goods for the store were bought from Amarillo Paper and Thomas Hardware. Bolts of materials, ribbons, laces were in showcases. Loretta Warren made crocheted items of baby caps and sweaters and Texas Star quilts to display in a case for sale to pay for her own funeral. The store also sold cigars. They also sold cream separators and parts. Essentially, the store sold what the farmers needed.

The most unique product sold at the Home Mercantile was alcohol. The entire Castro County region around Nazareth was dry, but Precinct 4 voted to become wet in 1959. The Home Mercantile sold varieties of liquor and beer in the back of the store until closing time. The side south door had a partition with a little gate separating the liquor store from the rest of the store. This separate entrance stayed opened until 9 p.m. at night six days a week.

Some customers did not want to be known as buying liquor and would ask Rose to go get them bottles of whiskey to put in their grocery sacks to disguise it. During the 1960s, even Texas Tech University students would come to buy their liquor at the Home Mercantile.

People always paid their bills promptly until the Depression. During the war years, there was no decline in business. World War II was a busy time; even with the use of war ration stamps. The Home Mercantile never went off credit system, as long as it was open. Local farmers who charged to their accounts paid their bills twice a year. In the end, there were a lot of unpaid accounts. They hand wrote out the bills. Some patrons paid on the spot. Rose wrote letters to customers to pay their bills. In one entry she wrote in the ledger, “This guy is a bum.”

The store was heated with a Delco gas stove in the center of store. This gas heater was butane and the earliest type of heating in the building. Near the stove was a radio used as a gathering point for community members to listen to the news and other programs. There was one older man, whose name was not recalled, who would come into the store and turn up the radio full blast, grab a handful of gingersnap cookies from one of the barrels and sit down to listen to the news.

Other social activities at the store included Thursday night poker parties. The store was kept open until 10 p.m. on those nights, often times with the poker players buying sandwiches. The store opened up on Sunday mornings after Mass so people could get the Sunday paper and any other needs. Additionally, they opened the store when someone had a requested need for an item.

The store was a gathering place for the community of Nazareth on many levels. It became a social place to meet after Mass or during anytime. A long window ledge was in front of the store was where community members sat talking and watching Nazareth life go by. More often, people would gather at night at the Home Mercantile storefront – after their workdays.

One of the most interesting social events held on some evenings were boxing matches in the middle of the store. No referee was appointed for these matches – it was for just whomever wanted to box in those days, with mostly young boys from the community looking for an outlet other than farming and school.

The store was sold to Duane and Nan Davis in 1985 who operated the store with a lunch counter and sold hamburgers. When Rose Warren sold the store to them the transaction was on the back of a brown paper bag. In 1980, the Post Office moved to its new home at 101 St. Joseph Street.

The Home Mercantile closed its doors in 1995.

 

Note: This story is also published on The Story of Texas, Bullock Museum website:

https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/discover/texas-story-project/home-mercantile-co-nazareth 

 

Photographs restored by Christena Stephens

© Christena Stephens, 2014 – 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Christena Stephens with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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