Since November’s cool weather makes us look forward to a nice bowl of soup, or homemade chili, or a good old pot roast, or turkey and dressing, we will spend this month looking at grocery stores.
And this being a history column, we will go back in time — way back!
In times past, people simply raised their own food.
If they wanted vegetables, they had to plant them and harvest them and perhaps dry and store them for winter meals.
If they wanted fruit, they had to plant fruit trees, pick the harvest and enjoy it fresh or either preserve or can the fruit for future use.
If they wanted meat on the table, they had to raise the cow, the sheep, the pig or the chicken. They then slaughtered the animal and enjoyed the feast, or dried, smoked and preserved the meat for later.
If they wanted bread — well, you get the idea. Planting a wheat crop, harvesting the grain and taking it to the mill was just the start of making a loaf of bread!
When the Native Americans who lived in what is now Tennessee were hungry, they followed the same process.
The men of the tribe were the hunters and the ones who fished to provide meat for the family. Women and children planted corn, squash and beans, and would also search the forest for fruits and nuts.
Our pioneer ancestors followed the same traditions that their ancestors had. If you wanted to eat, you had better know how to farm.
We can estimate that 99% of the first settlers to Middle Tennessee were farmers. It was the No. 1 occupation of the world. The first thing the white man did when he arrived on the banks of the Cumberland River was to clear enough land to plant a corn crop.
Only then, with the crop in the ground, would he start to build his simple log cabin and provide permanent shelter for his family.
The pioneer’s diet was simple enough and most of it involved the corn he harvested, the hog he raised for bacon, the milk from his cow and the eggs from his chickens.
It was only with time that merchants set up shop in town and provided the things that couldn’t be raised on the typical pioneer farm.
We call those items “dry goods.”
A “dry goods store” would sell pots, pans, cloth, farm tools and other things the pioneer could not make for himself and also the food items he didn’t raise, such as tea, coffee or sugar.
Out term “grocery” comes from the French word for “wholesale merchant,” who would sell things by the “gross.” You can see how the word evolved.
It took a while for the word “grocery” to catch on, but in the 1860 “Tennessee State Gazetteer and Business Directory, No. 1” we see the listings for the town of Hartsville and find “I. P. Wilson… grocer.” We also find a “G.R. Bagley… baker and confectioner.”
This practice of raising your own food and meat would continue for over 100 years, up until the years after World War II, when most families in Trousdale County were still farm families.
We quote from a journal entry by a Smith County woman from 1896, “Mr. Wilson went to Rome (the small town up stream from Hartsville) today and got our sugar and coffee for this year, 40 pounds of coffee at 20 cents a pound and 295 pounds of sugar at 6 cents a pound.”
The difficulty of raising a wheat crop compared to raising a corn crop is why in the South we still eat cornbread with our meals instead of a slice of white bread. And the corn crop also gave us corn on the cob, corn pudding and corn liquor!
There were farmers who raised wheat and other oats, but the hills of our county were better suited to corn. And the grocer would sell flour by the barrel for those who wanted rolls with their Sunday chicken. They tell the story of the Nashville grocer who was awakened by his phone ringing one morning at 2 a.m. by a customer who had just gotten off work on the late shift and wanted the grocer to set aside a loaf of bread fresh from the morning delivery, and they would pick it up later in the day.
The grocer said he would and then when he arose at 5 a.m. to open his shop, called the customer back and said, “Whole wheat or rye?”