Country store ledgers provide an intimate look at lives from the past

Country store ledgers provide an intimate look at lives from the past

Long before the rise and decline of Piggly Wiggly and the A&P, before electronic cash registers and barcode scanners, and before the cash and carry business model, the country store was where people in Southern Appalachia bought their dry goods and sundries. Customers brought in their “greenbacks” (if they had them) and traded with the proprietor for needed items.

If they didn’t have ready cash, they were often given credit and allowed to take what they needed. At some date in the future, the customer would pay off the debt with currency or goods the proprietor could sell to other customers: eggs, butter, bacon, mutton, firewood or whiskey. These transactions were usually recorded in the store keeper’s ledger book. Sometimes arranged by name, the entries recorded the date of the transaction, items purchased and their cost, and whether payment was received in cash, credit or kind. Not only did the store ledger serve as the store keeper’s accounting system, surviving volumes provide a fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of ordinary people.

IRS StampThis ledger is one of 17 we have here in the archives at the Collections Preservation Center. It belonged to Deborah McGee, who lived near Waynesville, North Carolina. Most store ledgers give a detailed account of who purchased what goods, whether by cash or credit, and other types of trade done by the proprietor. This ledger, however, is unique. Rather than record sales made at a country store, it appears that McGee ran a “public house” or bar. The pages of this ledger record the names of local residents who came in and either bought whiskey or brandy by the glass or purchased the same beverages by the quart.

Deborah McGee was born about 1808 in Tennessee and died in Waynesville, North Carolina, at midnight on May 17, 1880. We know her date and time of death from an entry on one of the pages in the ledger. According to the 1860 federal census, McGee’s occupation is listed as “retailer of spirits.” It was undoubtedly a profitable operation since her real estate holdings were valued at $700 and her personal estate was valued at $750. That amounts to more than $40,000 in today’s money! By 1870 her fortunes seem to have fallen a bit. Though still living in Waynesville, her occupation had changed to “domestic woman” and a 26-year-old woman named Elizabeth Cisk was living with her working as a domestic servant. Her personal fortune had been reduced to $200.

While the dry facts from the census tell part of her story, the ledger gives us so much more. Not only does it serve to record who drank at her establishment and how much (I’ll give you a hint, it was a lot!), we also learn that she loaned money, rented rooms, served meals and bought surplus farm goods from locals including firewood, bacon, ham, wheat and whiskey. The ledger also documents the end of Deborah’s life. As I mentioned before, her date and time of death were recorded in the ledger by an unknown hand, but the ledger also provides an inventory of her personal possessions at the time of her death, and how much those things were sold for.

Records like this one provide us with a delightful and fascinating window into the lives of ordinary people. Finds like this make me proud to be an archivist, excited to come to work every day and are the reason you will often hear me exclaim, “I had no idea!”

Mike Aday is the librarian-archivist at the Collections Preservation Center, where artifacts from Great Smoky Mountains National Park are housed. The Collections Preservation Center existence was partly made possible through funding from Great Smoky Mountains Association. Email Mike HERE or call M-F, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 865-448-2247.

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