The Country Peddler
By W. D. Minter
Growing up in rural Texas during the Depression years of the 1930s didn't offer much in the way of entertainment and excitement, at least not by today's standards. One of the highlights I remember of my early boyhood years were the visits of the country peddlers.
Once a week, sometimes every other week, one of these merchants on wheels would visit our neighborhood stopping at each house and blowing his horn to see if to see if the residents needed any of his merchandise. Most everyone went out to look at the goods whether they needed anything or not. Money was in short supply and though it was readily accepted, it was not a requirement to transact business with these resourceful merchants. Eggs, chickens, pigs, and just about anything of value could be substituted for money. The inventory of these businessmen consisted of just about anything that a country store of that time would stock, just not as much of it. If one of them didn't have a needed item, he would bring it out on his next trip.
These traveling stores usually consisted of an old pickup or a
1 1/2 ton truck with a homemade hut on the back, something
like camper shells of today. There would be shelves along the
inside walls to hold the goods and an aisle down the middle.
Usually they had cut a hole in the back of the cab so the
peddler could climb into the back without having to get out of
the truck. A few coops and cages would be tied on the top to
hold chickens and other livestock taken in trade and some
hooks and brackets fastened to the outer walls to tie on
merchandise too large to fit inside. Since very few people
could afford a car in those days, these peddlers served as
our convienence stores between our infrequent trips to town.
I remember the excitement of waiting for the peddler to swing out the back door and the wonderful smell that would flow out and surround you. The smells of fruit, candy, tobacco, leather, and other items would all combine and make mouth watering aroma. There always seemed to be a good supply of candy for the kids and tobacco products for the grownups. You could get a pretty big piece of candy for a penny and all flavors of Kool Aid, which we called "Polly Pop" then, for a penny a package. One package of mix, a gallon of water, and a couple cups of sugar made a delicious drink.
A friend and I soon learned to do a little trading of our own. In the spring and early summer eggs were plentiful and when we gathered them we would keep out two or three every day and hide them in the barn. On peddlers day we would have some excuse to be away from the house and meet the peddler out of sight dwn the road, flag him down, and trade our dozen or so eggs for candy and gum. Of course it would all have to be eaten by the time we returned home. But that never seemed to be a problem.
Another peddler I remember was old Walking Tom. Tom traveled on foot and he sold reading glasses--eye glasses as the grown ups called them then. Walking Tom covered the whole county so his visits were infrequent. But if you needed his services in a hurry, you could leave a message for him at the country store and speed things up a bit. Tom would sit on the porch, open up his little case and let you try on glasses until you found a pair you could see clearly with. Tom was a great conversationalist. While you tried on glasses he would bring everyone up to date on the news. He must have read a lot of newspapers, for he always knew what was going on locally, statewide, and around the world. He could hold his own with just about any subject his customers wanted to talk about. Kids would usually stop their play and set on the porch steps to listen.
In addition to being the country optometrist, Walking Tom had one more talent, his mathematical skills. When store owners wanted to do inventory, they would go and get Tom, set him down in a chair with a cold drink and begin to count: "24 cans of beans at 10 cents each, 15 gallons of lard at $1.50 each, 19 25 lb. bags of flour at $1.25 each . . . and so on. Ocassionally they would stop to rest or to wait on a customer and then start again. Tom would sit there and listen. When the counting was all finished the store owner would turn to Tom and Tom would tell him the dollar value of his inventory . . . to the penny. I don't Know if Tom ever made mistakes, but no one ever doubted him enough to add it up by hand.
After World War II started people began to leave the farms and take jobs in factories and defense plants. They bought cars and washing machines and migrated toward the cities and larger towns. This mobility soon put an end to the need for the country peddlers and they quickly disappeared. But the excitement of peddler day and those wonderful aromas coming from inside those old trucks is still one of my fondest memories of the so called good old days.
W.D. Minter, who was born in 1932, is a descendant of Abner Hill Minter, who was a brother of John Morgan Minter of the Pine Forest Minters. W. D. lived in Texarkanna, Texas, at the time of his death in October, 2003.