“Anything from a toothpick to a road wagon.”
This slogan was appended to the sign of a general store in a crossroads town in the mid-west. In fact, it was owned by a relative of the writer.
There isn’t much argument about the toothpicks. You can buy them in almost any store. But when it comes to a road wagon - farm wagon, that is - there is quite a bit of room for discussion. However, in a shed back of the store was a brand new Studebaker farm wagon.
Its shining body was painted green and the running gear wore a bright red tone. Standing against the end of the shed was a long red tongue and doubletrees. All one had to do was to lay the money on the line, fasten the tongue in place, and you were in business.
The general store in West Tisbury is a little more conservative. The sign reads: “Albion Alley & Co. Dealers in almost everything.” Joe Howes says that when he clerked there just before the turn of the century there was a sign inside the door which said: “If you don’t see it, ask for it.”

But Shopping Is Up to Date

This store is almost an antique, for in another two years it will be one hundred years old. But don’t think that when you step across the threshold that you are going to step back nearly a century. No indeed, shopping is as up-to-date here as anywhere.
The store was established in 1858 by Nathan Mayhew and was carried on by his two sons, Sanderson M. Mayhew and Ulysses E. Mayhew. It was started in a small room which is now attached to the rear of the present store. It houses such stocks as nails, kerosene, glass, and other less called-for items.
In the horse and buggy days the trip to Vineyard Haven was long and tiresome. Besides, it was hard to get the horse because it was always being used for some worthwhile purpose on the place, so shopping for quite a few miles around was done in West Tisbury.
Stocks were quite expensive. For the ladies the store carried many varieties of yard goods, laces, ribbons and other items from which they could fashion most of the clothes they wore. Then there were kitchen utensils and things for the house too numerous to mention.
Of course, if she was after material for that traditional black silk Sunday-go-to-meeting dress, she would probably make the day’s trip to Vineyard Haven. That is, if she could get the horse and rig.

Concerning the Wrapper

Then, too, there was the wrapper. There was quite an assortment of these garments. The wrapper was the morning attire for the lady of the house while preparing breakfast and setting the house in order. It consisted of a yoke and sleeves at the top, and flowed in ample lines to the floor so that only the yips of the wearer’s shoes were visible. It gave not a hint of the form concealed within.
Men’s needs were quite simple to supply. They came ready made. There were suits. If alterations were needed, however, they fell to the little woman - the seamstress of the family. Then, of course, there was underwear. Woollies and red flannel for winter and more gauzy items for summer - if one went in for that sort of thing in summer. Shoes, overshoes, rubber boots, oil skins, and such made up the personal needs for men, except perhaps for tobacco, both smoking and chewing and “see-gars.”
But there were also other necessities for men. Among these were tools and accessories. The store carried a diverse selection of hammers, saws, screw drivers, chisels, paint, putty, oils, kerosene, stovepipes. And in a shed in the back, one could find a mower and hayrake.
Grain of different kinds was here too, for grain was much needed for the farm animals and fowls. The profit on a bushel of grain was five cents. The cost of the sack it came in was also five cents. This meant that if the bag wasn’t returned to the store, the store just broke even. To make sure that the profit would be realized, a charge of five cents was made for the sack.
People came from distant parts of the Island to do their buying. Mostly they came in horse drawn conveyances. To accommodate them there was a row of stone hitching posts at the edge of the road, In the top of each post was a ring to which the rein could be fastened.
The Gay Headers, however, drove ox carts. As the trip to West Tisbury took a whole day, they came only once or twice a year. Usually they brought salt fish and muskrat skins which they traded in on their purchases. When they started for home, the ox carts were really loaded. There were barrels of flour, barrels of sugar, more than likely a barrel of molasses, and other supplies too numerous to mention.
But the store wasn’t just a place to buy supplies. It was a communication center. Here friend met friend. They talked over what had happened since last they met. They swapped news, they swapped yarns, and they even swapped a little gossip. On Saturday nights there were sometimes as many as twenty-five or thirty men sitting around the stove talking and smoking. The store was so crowded and the air was so blue with smoke that Dana Hancock and the other clerks could hardly find their way around to wait on the trade.

Where They Were Sitting

These folks weren’t sitting in arm chairs, either. Nor yet on cracker barrels. It was found after much research that the boxes that rubber boots came in made admirable seats for an evening of discussion. They were about three feet long, two feet wide, and about two feet high. Two men could sit on one box unless one man was an over-size model. Then, of course, he had a box to himself. When the boxes were not in use, they could be stacked in an out of the way corner.
These box seats were arranged in groups. The whalers sat on one side of the stove, the gunners sat on the other side. The young folks had a place near the front of the stove. Each group had the subject most to its liking.
When a newcomer came in, he joined whatever group he felt most at home with. If there wasn’t a vacant seat in that group, he just pulled up another box, and seats were shifted to make room. It was as simple as that.
The whalers were Sylvanus Waldron, West Mitchell, and George Fred Tilton. There was one story George Fred didn’t mind telling as often as the subject came up. It was about his famous walk out of the Arctic when the whaling fleet was forzen in, north of Point Barrow.
Somebody would ask if he didn’t get so cold and tired he was afraid he was afraid he just couln’t make it.
“Nope,” he would say, “When I felt like that, I just took another chew of tobacco, tightened my belt and kept goin’.”

Now Another Tilton

Another Tilton comes in for mention. He was George O. Tilton, known as George O. by his friends. He came in usually on Saturday nights. He would sit and chat for a while, then get up and make his purchases. They often consisted of a bag of grain, a jug of molasses, and a can of kerosene.
George would throw the bag of grain over his shoulder, take the can of kerosene and jug of molasses in one hand, and hold on to the bag of grain n the other. About the time George was loaded and ready to start for the door, someone would query, “Say, George, do you remember...?”
Then he would go on with a long story - as long as he could possibly think of. George would stand there listening but never thinking to lighten his burden. When the story was told, he would make some comment, turn on his heel, and go out the door, continuing with his burden over through Tea Lane and up to Cape Higgon. A long walk for anybody with a bag of grain.
There was a saying bandied about quite a lot in those days. “Only one arm is stronger than the arm of the law - the arm of the Tiltons.”
One man came to the store every evening. He talked, but that was not the moving purpose of his visit. He was Eben Raymond, blacksmith, and he came to smoke his pipe. His wife objected strenuously to his smoking it in the house, so his presence at the store could be counted on.
Many a trick was played on the unsuspecting just to add zest to these meetings at the store. When the men went out to get their horses for the homeward trip, they often found the hitching rein tied in the most puzzling knots. One night Harry Athearn went out to get his horse and rig. He had tied the horse with a rope. He found that the end of the rope has been spliced in with true marine security. It took him quite a little while to get that one unravelled.
Donald Campbell says that the store also served another purpose that of employment agency. Not that fees were ever collected for a placement. But if a man needed work, he went to the store, found a seat, got comfortable and waited. Pretty soon somebody would come along who needed a hand on his fishing boat, wanted to do some haying, or needed someone to chop wood. Presto, and the waiter was out of the army of the unemployed. It was the same way with the prospective employer, he went first to the store.

They Felt Like Retiring

The years wore on. Customers came and went laden with goods. Sanderson and Ulysses Mayhew were getting older. They came to a time when they looked with favor on peace and quiet. They felt that they would like a respite from catering to human needs and wants. They communicated with Charles A. Turner, who had been a clerk in the store for a while but who had left and gone to Malden. After a period of negotiation he and a partner, Benjamin Woodaman, purchased the business in 1916.
Practically the same goods were carried and the same services rendered. People gathered around the stove, news and gossip were exchanged, and life went on much the same as before.
Life at the store, however, had begun to change even before the change in ownership. An innovation was the telephone. The wagon which had been going out one day to deliver the goods, began to have its activities curtailed. People were phoning in their orders, and the only need for the wagon was to make deliveries. About this time a new driver for the delivery wagon was engaged - Albion A. Alley - who later was to have a hand in shaping the policies of the store.
Then came the automobile. It probably affected the operation of the store more than the telephone. The round trip to Vineyard Haven was whittled down from half a day or more to a couple of hours, depending on how much business one had to transact. But it definitely made the larger town more accessible and something to be reckoned with.
Time marched on and so did the store. In 1945 Mr. Turner began to think of retirement and in that same year his former delivery wagon driver acquired the store and took over the reins. In later years, life has become more difficult for a general store. The chain stores have invaded Vineyard Haven and Edgartown, making competition stiffer. Nevertheless, Albion Alley & Co. are making progress and, what is more important, prospering.

As in the Old Days

People still collect at the store to exchange gossip and news, get their mail, and supply the needs of their households. Perhaps they are not the colorful characters of the years gone by, but there is laughing and joking as in the old days. These people all have needs, and Albion is there to supply them. The old slogan, “if you don’t see it, ask for it,” is still operative although not visible on the walls. The proprietor has arranged things so that you can see more than ever before.
The store has been completely renovated. An addition was built on the read this last winter, in which the post office has been installed. The partition between the two rooms has been removed, making on big room. The stove has been replaced by an overhead heating unit. Stands have been placed in the open space on which are displayed a large variety of items of merchandise. The former freezer has been replaced by a new one, and it is filled with frozen innovations. In fact, the store seems all set for another hundred years.
The proprietor has gone through some renovation himself. During the winter his appendix kicked up. He had it removed. He didn’t have a new one installed as there weren’t any in stock. He’s going to get along without one and is doing quite well. Although he may not be good for a hundred years, he will be serving his customers for a good long time - we hope!