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My Grandmother: Mattie Lou Little
by Linda Bechham
My Grandmother: Mattie Lou Little
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 shoes.

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.

"With All Beings And All Things We Should Be As Relatives..."
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