I was born in the shadow of Sand Mountain. Guntersville is literally at the foot of Sand Mountain, but culturally apart in many ways. River people and mountain people are traditionally different. Despite this fact, Sand Mountain has had a huge impact on my life as my paternal ancestors have lived on the mountain for five generations. My father was born and raised on the mountain and my early childhood was influenced by frequent visits to see my paternal grandparents, as well as to attend annual events and the occasional funeral. I guess you could say the mountain is in my blood even though I was technically born on the river and have lived most of my life two hours south in Birmingham.
Beyond having a farm on the brow of Sand Mountain, my grandparents owned and operated a country store that was the hub of their small community for about forty years. Prior to them, there had been a store in the same location going back to the late 1800’s. To this day I still have the hand written ledgers from the original store and the same names listed can be found around the community today. Ties to this area go deep.
For most of the forty years my grandparents owned the store, my grandmother would leave the farm at dawn six days a week, year round, to open the store. Work days were roughly twelve hours, mostly standing on concrete floors as there were no other employees. The local community depended on the store for groceries, gas, cigarettes, and pretty much anything else they needed as town was about ten to fifteen miles away, so being open was vital to the community.
On weekends and summers, my parents would take my brother and I to visit. I vividly remember trying very hard to wake up in time to go with her to open the store. What was a hard day’s work for my grandmother, was a treat for me. On those days where I managed to get up in time, we’d quietly creep out of the house, careful not to wake anyone and off we’d go, down the rough country roads to the store. I loved those early mornings with her – the frost on the ground and everyone still asleep but the two of us. It was like we were the only two people in the world.
Arriving at the store, she’d unlock, turn on the lights, and be ready behind the counter when the first local farmers stopped by. I have to say that another motivation for me getting up early was the prospect of chocolate milk and doughnuts for breakfast – I could pick anything I wanted in the store…and get it for free. There I’d sit, chocolate milk in hand, just as the sun started to rise. My grandmother was always an early riser. A habit most likely instilled by a lifetime on a farm. I never lived on a farm, so I like to think that my habit of doing the same somehow came from her.
As the rhythm of the day started, regulars started filing in – some were on their way to town and needed gas. Others stopped for a spell, utilizing the ramshackle collection of chairs and wooden Coke boxes, to sit and share the news of the day. I’d hang out on the fringes of them – they all seemed to know me, but I never remembered names, only faces and the slight variations in the worn overalls many of them wore. Although their daily reality was foreign to me in many ways, sitting there with them, I felt like I was part of the community. It was a sense of belonging that life in the city never quite seemed to provide.
I can still remember random details of the store itself – like the huge Coca Cola box that greeted you when you walked in. You had to slide the top open and reach down into the dark abyss to retrieve a soda, but on hot summer days in Alabama, you were guaranteed one of the coldest drinks that could be found anywhere. Above the drink box was a row of crackers, Tom’s peanuts and Slim Jim’s. Peanuts in a RC Cola glass bottle has to be one of God’s most sublime creations, or at least my mother always thought so.
The big wood counter was U shaped and sat in the middle of the store. Beyond the drink box, it was the first thing that greeted everyone who walked in the door. A big , old-timey, gold cash register, along with an adding machine, store credit journals and large white scales sat along two sides of the counter. Along the third side were open glass jars of all sorts of penny candy – bubble gum, banana chews, Smarties, Bit-O-Honey, Tootsie Rolls, and Mary Jane’s – just to name a few. Poverty was a way of life for many a family on the mountain – a hard reality on adults and children, yet somehow, my grandfather was able to elicit a shy smile on a tear stained face, just by giving a local kid a piece of candy from that counter.
Before recycling became a thing, it was just normal for folks to stop in, buy a soda in a bottle, drink it, and leave the bottle in a wooden Coca Cola crate by the door. Every week, when the delivery man would come, he’d leave with the empty bottles. Wire milk crates could be repurposed as chairs and often were. I remember sitting in one as my grandfather taught me to play solitaire at the old table in the store. There was fresh sliced bologna and block cheese on hand, and a few other staples on the wooden shelves throughout the store. Beenie Weenies, Vienna Sausages, and crackers is still one of my dad’s favorite meals in a pinch.
Life in the store wasn’t always candy and smiling faces though. I have vivid memories of a sheriff’s car pulling up outside the store with a trunk load of confiscated marijuana hanging out of the back. Both my grandparents were deputized by the local sheriff to act as citizen law enforcement in the absence of an officer if needed. My grandmother carried a revolver in her purse and had a shotgun behind the store counter – just in case. We kids knew to stay away from both – respect for the purpose of guns was taught early.
Sometimes a rather normal day could become exciting quickly…like the time we watched a dead rattlesnake in the back of a pickup flip around and squirm for what seemed like hours. Or when my cousins would come over to play and we’d use an endless supply of old books, Coke crates, and even an old barber’s chair stored in the back of the store to create a world only visible in our imaginations. We’d be stormtroopers marching with Darth Vader or Han Solo in the captain’s seat of the Millennium Falcon, flying away to a distant moon. It is amazing how much stomping on Coke crates sounds like marching storm troopers. Legos were used to construct blasters and we ran around the store “shooting” at each other. My poor grandmother put up with it all and even managed to run a business amidst the insanity.
It was a great childhood – one that I wished I could gift to every child today. It taught me about community, respect, hard work, and loyalty while allowing me to just be a kid. There was no internet, no SnapChat, no cell phones, no video games. We used cardboard boxes to slide down a hill for fun and our biggest concern was hitting a rock on the descent.
When evening came and the shadows started to deepen, the work day in the store would end. We’d help my grandmother restock the drink box and shut down for the night and then it was back to the farm for dinner and bed. In the summertime, we fell asleep to the sound of crickets coming in through the open windows.
In the times we live in, I often long for the simplicity of those days.
Photos not marked were taken by Heather Bean.