The Country Store Club
from The Centennial of Bath, New York, 1793-1893
Hon. Sherman S. Rogers
Among the institutions belonging to the period of which I speak, but which has passed with it, never to return, is what I might call the Country Store Club. There was some opportunity for social conversation, for interchange of news and ideas, at the village inns—the Eagle Tavern and the Clinton House. There, a citizen sociably inclined, might meet, perchance, by the wood fire in the public sitting room an interesting traveler sojourning for the night, or two or three of his fellow townsmen, and under the inspiration of the last Albany Evening Journal or Argus have a political tilt that helped to relieve the tedium of the long evening. But the moral atmosphere of the village forbade much visiting so near the barrooms, and grave citizens with boys to bring up felt that precept and practice would harmonize better if the elders sought their social intercourse somewhere else.
So the Country Store Club was a natural evolution. When the nights grew long and it was comfortable to gather about the box stove, without notice to members from Dean or Secretary, the nightly sessions of the club began. They were continued through the winter and spring until the lengthening days and warm weather made protracted sidewalk-intercourse pleasant. There were no initiation fees or dues, no constitution or bylaws, no entertainment of meat or drink, no proposal of members. The club was free to all, and in one evening you might sometimes meet a roving member in all the symposiums.
When the night came and with it the mails, and the oil lamps were lighted, the members came drifting in until half a dozen or more filled the chairs and the more convenient places on the counters, and remained until nine o'clock, when the village curfew rang from the steeple of the old Presbyterian church, and immediately along the little street there was a clang of bars and closing shutters and the club separated for the night. Through the evening a little trade over the counter went on, adding a not unpleasant variety to the interest of the habitues, and giving to the principal debaters of the evening temporary rest and refreshment for the discussion that had not yet been fought to a finish.
There were several of these clubs on Liberty Street. Those that I remember best held their nightly convocations—one at the store of Reuben Robie, another at that of Dr. Rogers, and a third at the store of George S. Ellas. This last named was rather a younger body than the others. George Ellas himself was a man of much wit and reading, as well as business thrift and energy, and conversation never languished when he was present. But the men who gathered at the stores of Reuben Robie and Dr. Rogers were of graver and more sedate character. At Robie's the talk was chiefly of the old settlers, of politics and business, of farming, of the crops and the freshets, of the frosts and the droughts. At the Rogers symposium the debate took wider range. Dr. Higgins was often there, especially when the constitutional rights of the States were under discussion. Between his brown wig and the top of his hat, gently cushioned by his red bandana, he always carried a small copy of the Constitution of the United States. No man could advance wild views upon the Constitution in the Doctor's presence, with impunity. The appeal was always and at once to the text as written by the fathers.
How well I remember the face and form of George Huntington, worshiper of Thomas Jefferson, ex-State Senator and afterwards Justice of the Peace, as, tramping up and down in the ecstasy and fervor of debate, he denounced Nicholas Biddle and the "rascally banks," or defended with hot eloquence the doctrine of Universal Salvation against the assaults of his relentless Calvinistic opponents! William Hamilton, grave and silent as an Iroquois chief, sat by with only an occasional grunt of assent or dissent. James May often came in from his farm and was a good listener. Uncle Eli Bidwell, the oldest blacksmith in the village, badly bent from the shoeing of horses and oxen, but still vigorous, sat by ruminant, always preferring as a seat the mild end of a nail keg. Norman Daniels, the big carpenter, often filled a place on the counter.
Once in a while one of the village pastors or Edward Howell dropped in and gave the talk a more elevated tone than usual, and now and then Lazarus H. Reade, after finishing the newspaper at the Eagle and exhausting the combative powers of such antagonists as he might find there, dropped in to give a final fillip of interest to the proceedings of the evening by his brilliant conversational audacities. Now and then—oh, rare delight!—the conversation turned upon the early time,—the wolves that invaded the sheepfold, the panthers that lurked in the tree tops and dropped upon the traveler with unpleasant unexpectedness, the bears that sought out the promising pigs, the deer the farmer found browsing in his little wheat field in the early dawn, and that most interesting and fearsome of all reptiles since the fall of our first parents—the rattlesnake. On such an evening there was general amity, and Squire Hamilton took an extra charge in his long white clay pipe.
There was always perfect decorum. No matter how heated the debate might be, it was by self-respecting citizens, and never violated the conditions that made it proper to be heard by the little lads who sat on the counter listening with eyes and ears. Men in those days studied the Constitution, and discussed political topics with each other seriously; more seriously, I think, than now, when the business seems to have been turned over to the daily papers. Sometimes I am inclined, also, to think the same or something worse has been done with their patriotism; and the agnosticism of the time has driven out religious debate.