Alabama Folkways Articles

June, 1996

Rolling Stores Once Were Common in Rural Alabama

by Stephen Grauberger

"The children, in the evening, when they was out of school or in the summer...you would see them down the road, just a-dancing because they knew they was going to get some candy or get something off that rolling store." (William King)

In the past, rural areas in the Wiregrass were populated with families on small subsistence farms, sharecroppers, and field laborers. During these times, rolling store merchants were fairly abundant throughout Alabama, plying their trade on dusty dirt roads winding through the countryside. In Pike County alone, it is estimated that there were at least 25 rolling stores operating before World War II. While most people still made periodic trips to town for supplies, the rolling store was an added convenience to them and a necessity for those who were not able to get in to town to shop. The stores serviced regular routes so that customers could expect the truck to roll up and toot its horn the same time each week.

It was common for people who ran rolling stores to swap out merchandise for common farm goods such as eggs, chickens, pecans and maybe shelled corn or vegetables. One Pike Countian recalls times of boyhood mischief when he and friends would flag down a rolling store to exchange a few stolen eggs for candy or tobacco.

Often rolling stores would have cages built up under the truck bodies with a trap door above to drop in live chickens. One man told a story about a woman wanting to sell a chicken to the store and to buy something in exchange. She asked the man to help run down the chicken. After a long chase, he caught it, brought it back and put it in the cage. About that time her husband drove up and said, "You're not going to sell that chicken." It sure made the merchant angry when he turned that chicken loose.

William King who now lives in Corinth, north of Troy, ran a rolling store until 1994 in Russell and Macon Counties. When he started his store in 1963, he bought a school bus engine and chassis. With his father-in-law he enclosed the chassis in a long box built of wood and tin.

Then living near Hurtsboro in Russell County, he began his business by picking out about 60 houses to visit for each single route. He developed six different routes, one route for each day he worked in the store. King's many good customers came to rely upon him. Through the years his routes changed, as folks died or moved away.

He sold a great variety of good out of his store. With his wife Ethel helping him most of the time, he stayed in business for more than 30 years. They never got rich from the rolling store, but were able to support their family of three growing boys. The type of good sold varied over time due to changes in lifestyle, competing vendors, and the increased mobility of the population. Before the arrival of large, discount chains in the region, they used to sell clothes out of the store.

I remember we bought a case of little girls' dresses. Some of them (his customers) got to laughing down on one road where we went first. We sold them all (the dresses) on that road that day, you know. They said that Sunday at church on Easter, every little girl had the same color dress on."

Early in Kings' business people tended to buy staples like flour, salt, baking powder, canned goods, and salt fish. They could sell a whole wheel of cheese in one day. Hardware such as nails, screws, and tools were always carried and sold. To stock his store in the 1960s King would buy fifty 25-pound bags of flour from the milling company at one time. People bought 25 pounds at a time or he might split up a bag if needed. Lard was bought in 25-pound units. Before he retired in 1994, two or five pound bags of flour were the normal units sold. In the winter, almost everyone would meet the rolling store with a jug to carry away kerosene. King kept a big tank on the rolling store that he would fill each morning to supply the kerosene.

The rectangular store is long and narrow inside with shelves on each side. It carried an ice box to keep frozen food, ice cream and various meats for sale. There was only enough room for two people to work. One person stayed at the door dealing with the customers and the other filled the orders from the well-stocked shelves of merchandise.

Junior Walker, who lives near Ramer in Montgomery County, still runs a rolling store part time when he is not harvesting pulp wood. He fixed up an old bread truck which he stocks with canned goods, bread, cakes and candies, and vegetables in season. He can be seen every now and then working his rolling store on the border between Montgomery and Pike Counties.