“W.E. Etcheson, General Merchandise” was the large sign under which Donald Etcheson was (figuratively) born 82 years ago, and lived from infancy until young manhood.
Don Etcheson probably has more memories of the old Shafter Store, which was located on Ill. Route 185, than most people do.
This is not surprising, as he grew up there in the days when Shafter was rather a hub of business and activities.
He consented to share his memories of the store, the boyhood pranks of himself and his four brothers, his dad’s way of conducting business during the Great Depression, and other interesting facts about the people and times now considered long-ago history.
In the Beginning…
“I was born in the house just north a piece from the store,” Etcheson said. “My dad’s name was William Edgar Etcheson, but they called him “Pop.”
His mother’s name was Rosa (nee Blankinship). He had four brothers, Roy, Maurice, Jessie and Edgar, and a sister, Christina.
“It was a busy place around there (Shafter),” he said. "Dad also had a mill, just across the street, and a blacksmith shop.
“He ground up feed for the farmers at the mill back in those days, especially on Saturday. The farmers would bring their grain in, and he had a hammer-mill out there in the shop with a big tractor and a belt on it,” he said.
“He didn’t charge them a whole lot; money was hard to get back then. We had a guy by the name of Ferd Lempke who lived over there (across the road) for quite a while, and he was a blacksmith. The farmers brought their horses to him to be shoed.
“At one time, Ferd had a sorghum press back there and he made sorghum. There was a lot of things going on back then in Shafter.”
“They would also have picnics there on Saturday nights once in a while,” he said, “and back in those days, a horse and a wagon, with a frame built on it, would pull in. We called them medicine men.
“We had one of those out there one time and he told my dad he wanted to put on a show over there (across the road), and it wouldn’t cost Dad a dime. He said all he wanted to do was sell a bottle of medicine, so they got together on it and he got the word out he was going to perform that one night only.
“He drew a big crowd. He played the ukulele, and maybe the fiddle. When he got done, he had an intermission and came out with this bottle and tells you what it would do for you, for rheumatism, etc., for, I think, 50 cents a bottle. “Money was hard to get, but the farmers just ate that up, because he told them to take a dose of that and go to bed and they would get a good night’s rest,” Etcheson said.
“But they had good times out there,” he continued “I remember one time, on the Fourth of July. We always had a big picnic across the street on the Fourth of July and they would have entertainers over there that would sing and play and stuff like that. Then when it got dark, and my dad always had fireworks for them.
“I’ll never forget, one time my brother Maurice built a chute to shoot the rockets off in. He had all that laid out there, with all those rockets laid over on the side, and the Roman candles and other stuff.
When it came time to set it off, everybody got ready for it. He shot off a couple of them off and it was beautiful. Somehow, when he shot the third off, a spark flew off and set the whole mess off. Rockets and Roman candles shot off everyplace, into the crowd, and they hit the gas pump and the side of the store. No one was hurt, but that was the end of the Fourth of July celebrations after that,” he said laughing.
The Shafter Store Inventory & Other Stories
Don said the Shafter Store then “was kind of like the Walmart is today. The store had everything,” he said. “Nails, screws, boots, gas, groceries, etc.
Pat Roberts, who lived in the area then, had said “If you go to the store to get groceries and you didn’t have the money to pay for them, you just brought a chicken.”
Roberts also said that when she was little, she would go to the store with her dad, and he would always give her a nickel. She recalled that she thought she was in “hog heaven” because she could spend a nickel in the store.
“That was during the Depression, back in ’29,” Don said, “and nobody had any money. I didn’t realize what it (Depression) was. I never went hungry, because my dad had a store, but a lot of people didn’t have any money.
“So Dad would buy chickens and eggs. A man named Bule Harrison had a business in Mulberry Grove, and he would come and buy the chickens and the eggs about once a week. We didn’t have cold storage then to keep them, so he would come often.”
Don explained his job in the egg business as he got older. “I got in on candling the eggs to make sure they were all right,” he said. “We had a thing that had a light in it and two holes in it. We would be in the back room, where it was dark.
“When you turned the light on and put an egg in a hole, you could see through the egg and tell if it was good.”
The bad eggs would have to be disposed of and therein lies a tale. Laughing, Don recalled, “We (he and his brothers) took the bad eggs over to a in a field just south of the store, and threw them away.
“My brothers and I would have an egg fight with them once in a while and, of course, I got plastered, being the youngest. Edgar would really beat me up with them, then he would say, ‘You better roll on the ground and get that off of you. Mom’s going to kill you.’
“I’d sneak in the back door and change my clothes and put them in the basket. Later, I would hear my mother call, ‘Donald!’ It was quite a life out there then,” he said, laughing.
• In the feed shed – “My dad had a feed shed and sold Dixie Feeds to the farmers. They came out with sacks that the ladies would make dresses out of.
“I remember the ladies would come in to get feed and I’d go out in the warehouse and, of course, they would want the one on the bottom, so I’d have to move five or six to get the one they wanted.
• At the pumps – “We had gasoline and kerosene. We had it all out there.
• From icebox to glass-front meat case – “I remember we had an icebox with wood doors on the front when I was just getting big enough to walk. We kept stuff like our lunchmeat in it. Back then, electricity wasn’t out there.”
Don explained that they made a light plant that used batteries around the wall, which gave them 32 volts, just enough to have lights in the store. “Later, REA (Rural Electric Administration) came through, and they were rewired to receive 110-120 volts back then. That’s what really got us growing,” he said.
“Dad bought one of the first meat cases that had glass in it that let you see what you were buying. That was really an attraction. I used to cut up the pork chops. We had all kinds of lunchmeat.
“The farmers would see all that meat in the glass case and say, ‘I want some of that and some of that.’ We wrapped it in paper and tied it with string. We had wooden barrels of crackers, white sugar, brown sugar. We’d take it out and weigh it on the scales.”
• The huckster wagon – “That was a box with shelves on the sides,” he said. My brothers would load groceries, canned goods, anything they thought they could sell, on these shelves that were like cabinets. They had a regular route.
“They would go up north, back west and east, and they would come in that night. They would buy (barter) chickens and eggs. That’s how business was done back then,” Etcheson said.
“You would allow so much for the eggs and chickens on the price of stuff. Dad had that for several years, I don’t know just how long. I was too young at the time to be involved in that,” he said.
• Ill. Route 185 built – As the road ran right in front of the store and their house, Don remembers it being built. In fact, he had a memorable experience with it ... and the scars to remind him.
“I’m not sure how old I was, just a young boy,” he said. “I stepped on a piece of glass out there in all the dust and dirt the Caterpillar was digging up for the road.
Doctors Mark and Miller Greer came out to the house and operated on my foot. Somehow, I got blood poisoning in it, and I still have the scars from it,” he said.
“They came out and worked on my ankle in the back bedroom. I never will forget it. Then they gave you ether, and they didn’t do it like they do today. They held a rag over your nose and mouth and you can’t breathe, but finally you had to. That’s the way they put you to sleep. I never will forget that either,” he said, laughing.
“Then the blacktop (Route 185) came in, and when they got good roads, then the bigger stores and businesses started coming to town (Vandalia),” he said.
Before paved roads, the roads accessing Vandalia would get too muddy and become impassable in inclement weather.
“I was going to (Vandalia) high school back then and I graduated in 1946. I used to take the truck to town every day and go to school, and in the evening, I’d go by Gooddale and Puffers, a warehouse (on Sixth Street) that sold goods to stores. I’d bring home something every night for the store, then when I got home, Dad would send me over to Coffeen to Dixie Feeds.
Next Week – The move from Shafter to Vandalia.