It’s an iconic scene in every Western and in any film featuring a small town or rural setting. The general store with a cracker barrel, candy in jars, flour in 50-pound bags, bacon, saddles, dishes, and cloth covering every open space, was once a ubiquitous fixture across America.
The local store provided a vital link to the outside world, a link that city dwellers would never consider.
In Fremont County and just across the line in Natrona County, the local store served in many other ways besides as just a place to purchase milk and eggs, and to get your mail. It was the center of the community, a place to meet neighbors and friends, to do business, and yes, to get groceries.
County 10 will review many of these now vacant, destroyed, or crumbling remnants of a lifestyle replaced when better roads, faster cars, and the local big box store arrived. In an age where a mouse click delivers whatever you desire to your front door with no effort at all the country store is a throwback to a simpler time.
You can feel the same sentiment in “The Little Man” by Alan Jackson
I go back now and the stores are empty
Except for an old Coke sign dated 1950
Boarded up like they never existed
Or renovated and called historic districts
There goes the little man
From Natrona to Dubois, and from Lysite to Muddy Gap, each of these businesses had a role in the ascent of communities across the Wind River Basin. They later marked their demise. Some still exist, providing similar services for the local community, while others exist in just a few old photographs and the memories of the aging people who shopped at or operated the store.
Some, like “The Bright Spot” the store at Hiland, were innovative, adaptable, and thrived through world wars, the Great Depression, the economic boom and bust that Wyoming cycles through continuously, and the worst winter weather imaginable.
Others, like the Basketeria in Pavillion, rise and fall with new ownership, changes in focus, and a revolving door of real estate signs outside after thriving for decades.
Some have long, established, accessible histories, while others require detailed investigative reporting to reveal the slightest clue as to how the operation began, what it offered, and what led to its demise.
Many were (and still are) located on crossroads or along major highways. Some began when roads were simply two-track dirt trails, and others required the arrival of the railroad or a federal highway to spring into existence.
No matter their origin, they all provided a service to their community. In our modern world, they seem tiny, quaint, and so closely arranged to each other that you wonder how they found enough customers to stay open, but they did.
Imagine town baseball played on a regular basis between teams from Waltman, Hiland, and Powder River, teams sponsored by the local store.
The older stores began before electricity reached the Wind River County. Many cut ice from local rivers and lakes in the late winter and stored it all year in ice houses, offering cold storage for local farmers long before refrigerators arrived.
Many started as a store, then added a lunch counter, offered breakfast, or had a bar in the back of the store. When the Model T arrived, with dozens of competing models in the 1920s, gas pumps sprang up outside the front of the store along the highway.
Many of the stores had a butcher shop, cutting custom meat for local customers, processing wild game, or bringing in ham, bacon, and sausage from regional suppliers. It was all part of the business.
They heated with coal or wood, with a few enterprising merchants creating their own stoves with diesel fuel or gasoline as the source of heat. Not surprisingly many of these stores suffered fires, with a handful burned to the ground.
Before electricity arrived, they often had their own gasoline-powered generators to run freezers and refrigerators. Ice cream was a huge attraction for almost every store.
The stories are unique but have a common theme as well. They brought in goods, added a modest markup, usually just enough to survive on, then sold those goods to their friends and neighbors. It was a lifestyle that has largely disappeared from the American landscape.
Here are the stores we’ll take a look back on in this series:
Casper to Shoshoni
Hiland “The Bright Spot”
Hells Half Acre
Shoshoni to Dubois
Gambles – Shoshoni
Polly’s Trading Post
Missouri Valley Store
Muddy Gap to Ft. Washakie