My Grandmother: Mattie Lou
|In 1920, J. Respass and D. C. Smith
opened an emporium on the corner of Sumter and Chatham
streets in Oglethorpe. It was an era of euphoria and relative
affluence following World War I, and the partners enjoyed a
bustling trade in everything from horse collars to high-buttoned
Respass English, who was my grandfather,
soon bought out D. C. Smith's interest. In a diverse career,
"Mr. D. C." went on to other enterprises, and he eventually
became the county tax collector, but it was as an undertaker
that he particularly endeared himself to people. My grandfather
died long before I was born, but I remember "Mr. D. C."
the portly, dignified, white-haired gentleman who ushered the
passing of his friends and neighbors into the next world. Even
as a child I was impressed by the assurance in his benign countenance.
Respass English died in 1924, and the
business passed to his widow. In that year the streets
were unpaved and hitching posts stood outside the store. A watering
trough accommodated horses across the street in front of the
pharmacy. My grandmother did not make many changes in the store.
When she retired in 1966, the front window bore, in faded gilt
lettering, the original legend, "J. R. English, General
Merchandise." She did eliminate the grocery. Gone were
the cracker and pickle barrels, the wheels of cheese, the salt
mackerel, the coffee grinder, the bins of loose rice, sugar,
and flour. She would sell dry goods.
In Macon County in 1924 there was a
brisk trade in kerosene lamps, chamber pots, galvanized
tin tubs, dippers, blue enamelware, Octagon soap, and washboards.
Customers selected oilcloth from wide rolls for their kitchen
tables and bought unbleached muslin called "Sea Island"
to make sheets. Striped mattress ticking was used to sew homemade
mattresses in the fall after cotton picking. In 1966, all these
items were still in stock to accommodate the few calls still
made for them.
Her stock of merchandise never altered
appreciably, for my grandmother was a cautious businesswoman,
wary of innovation. Losing money when the banks failed in 1929
probably reinforced her careful nature. Over the years the store's
appearance remained unchanged. It was cooled by ceiling fans
and heated by a pot-bellied, coal-burning stove. In later years,
a gas heater was the only concession to modernization. The wide
plank floors were scrupulously swept, and the glass cases sparkled.
No dust was ever allowed to rest on counters, shelves, or goods.
When I was small, my favorite
showcase was the one that displayed penny candies. I also like
the one with gaudy jewelry and the one that was delicately scented
from the boxes of loose face powder and other cosmetics. Later,
I liked to admire the ladies' and infant' wear, and the exquisite
boxed sets of embroidered handkerchiefs from England, France,
and Switzerland. My grandmother's pride was the bolts of beautiful
yard goods she enjoyed selecting from the wholesalers.
For all its quaint appearance,
the store really took its character from my grandmother herself,
so that it was known simply as "Mrs. English's". She
was not a frivolous person, but as practical as the plain articles
of everyday use that she sold. She wore her waist length hair,
which was once luxuriant black, pinned back in a severe knot.
Her dark, deep-set eyes reviewed the world from behind rimless
spectacles. She never painted her face. If her appearance was
dated, she herself was ageless. Customers could depend on the
store for its regular hours, just as they could set their clocks
by the tall, spare figure in a neat print dress, going about
an invariable and punctual routine. Customers trusted her goods
as they trusted her. Her manner was reserved, yet a child felt
a deep security in her presence.
The building was remodeled and
now houses the county welfare offices. For four decades, within
her limited means, my grandmother dispensed her own brand of
public assistance. If someone's home burned, she donated sheets,
clothing, crockery. Many were the needy children who received
discreet gifts of socks, underwear, gingham dresses and shirts,
blue jeans and sweaters. She extended credit during the Depression
and afterwards, for some farm families had cash only in the
fall when the crops were sold. The money she lost on accounts
was negligible for two reasons. First, she was an uncanny judge
of character. Secondly, people always paid my grandmother because
they respected her.
The qualities that command respect
are elusive, but my grandmother earned it because she
endured, because she had integrity, and because of her Victorian
gentility, a combination of manners and moral attitudes that
has faded in a more discordant age.
| To read the exact text see: pages 47-49; "Macon County
Life: 1933-1983" by Ryland Dean Fowler, editor; copyright
1983 by The Macon County Historical Society. Story posted here
with permission from Mr. Dean Fowler.