Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Peddler

Judy Ricker


A little ways down the road, about sixty or seventy years down the road, was a wondrous and memorable icon in the White Rock section of Madison County, in the form of Mr. Earl Rice’s rolling store, better known to us as the “Peddler.” Wednesday became our favorite day when we could sit out on the porch and listen for him to make the turn from the main road and start up our remote, rocky, and bumpy road. As he came by Jesse Wallin’s house, he had to change gears to start up the hill. The engine would roar and the gears would grind as he shifted into “bulldog.” By the time he got to Rankin and Emily Wallin’s house, he was coming on pretty strong. There was a huge rock that crossed the entire road between Rankin’s house and ours that years of rain and wear had made quite a step up if you were coming up the road. When it rained, the water would stream down the road over that rock and make a small waterfall that fascinated us into standing barefoot and letting the cool water splash over our feet. But when Mr. Rice’s truck hit that rock, it started a racket that you could hear for miles. Galvanized pots and pans were tied to the sides of the truck on nails and they would clatter and clang together as the truck jolted from side to side. The chickens that were in the coops would squawk and cackle and we knew we would have time to get from the porch to the road before he stopped in front of our house. Granny never seemed to be filled with such a wonder as us and kept on working until she heard him stop. Then she would come on down to the road with her trading goods. She had a little black leather change purse that she kept in her apron pocket. It was worn from many years of opening and closing, and we knew we were in for a treat when she opened that metal clasp on the top. I think she knew Mr. Rice wasn’t going anywhere with a bunch of younguns standing in the middle of the road yelling and waving like a bunch of banshees.

That truck was so filled with wonders that it would be impossible to list them all without leaving something out. The bed was all weathered wood with a tin roof, so tall it swarped the low branches of the trees as it swung by. On each of the outside walls hung galvanized pots and pans of all sizes and shapes. They were hung on nails and tied with hay baling string. There were cast iron skillets and stove eye lifters, shovel handles and axe handles. The chicken coops were tied to the bottom where there was a small running board that he could walk down and get things off the side of the truck, or to put a chicken in a coop if someone had one to trade. He had enamel pots, but he kept them inside as they were easy to chip and everyone knew an enamel pot would leak after it was chipped. There was a big wooden 55-gallon barrel of coal oil that he had strapped to the back. The coil oil was used to start fireplace fires and wood cook stove fires and huge fires at hog killing time to heat the water that scorched the hair off the sides of the hog so you could scrape it. Granny had a gallon tin can with a little spout on the top and a screw lid to pump the oil into. She kept a corn cob in the spout and when time came to build the fire, the cob was used as a starter as it was most already soaked with oil. Once we got the coal oil out of the way, we could concentrate on all the other goodies that lined the shelves once you passed through the “golden” door that was swung wide to display all his wares. There was an aisle down the middle of the truck with a wooden floor. The floor planks were wide oak with tongue and groove, sturdy to hold all the weight of the goods. Shelves lined each side from bottom to top with the back of the shelf slanted downward to keep the wares from sliding off in the floor as he made his way across the rough and rocky roads of Shelton Laurel.

All the wonderful smells and aromas, filtered through the lens of childhood, make me think of soap and camphor and horehound candy and peppermint and leather all rolled up together. There was a 25-pound cake of hoop cheese with a red rime around the edges. It came in a round wooden box with a lid and special people got first choice of that box when it was empty. Granny had two of them, one she kept her yarn in and the other was filled with quilt scraps. Flour came in 25-pound sacks, sugar in 100-pound sacks and salt usually in 10-pound sacks. The sugar came in bigger sacks because sometimes the sugar was used for more than just making cakes (especially when mixed with corn). Mr. Rice also had various kinds of animal feed, like cow feed and horse feed in 100-pound sacks, but we usually grew our own feed, kept in the corn crib beside the barn. In the winter time, Granny would add a cup of molasses to the corn to give the cows and horses a little extra energy to weather the snowy days. The flour and sugar sacks had special cotton prints that were saved and sewn into aprons and pot holders and dresses for some. I remember one lady who had made a dress out of a feed sack and it had “100 pounds net weight” written right across her behind. Below the bottom shelf on the floor were wooden kegs with screws, nails, horseshoes, horseshoe nails. He also had a keg of crackers that he sold by the pound. That was before saltine crackers came in a plastic tube inside a square box. There were jars of liniment, tins of salve and various tins and bottles for all cures and ailments.

Granny did the bartering for most of the goods. She would have a big fat hen already caught with its legs tied together to trade. Mr. Rice would take the chicken and hook the legs on a hanging scale to tell how much it weighed so he could give an equal amount of goods for the weight of the hen. Granny had already crossed the hen’s wings and tied them so she wouldn’t flop about and squawk. He then would put the hen in one of the cages on the outside of the truck if there was room, but he also had a trap door in the middle of the aisle that led to a coop beneath the truck and sometimes he would put the hen in there. Granny had big fat Dominecker hens and also had several red hens, Rhode Island Reds, but we laughingly called them Red Island Rhodes. She kept these hens because they laid big brown eggs with thick yellow yolks that made the cakes richer and gave a golden color to her pound cakes. If we had been especially good, and Granny always led us to believe we had, even though we knew we hadn’t, we would each be given a big brown egg and Mr. Rice would trade the egg for a bag of candy. But first, he had a rolled-up tube of paper, kind of like a paper towel holder in nowadays times. He would hold that tube up to his eye, hold the egg to the other end and hold it up to the sun to see if it had a chick in it. Of course, he couldn’t sell an egg with a chicken in it, so Granny always made sure our egg was fresh and wouldn’t be hatching out a baby chick when someone was getting ready to bake a cake.

We stared with wonderment at the ribbons and lace and thread and sometimes wanted to trade our egg for some of that just so we could look at it, but Granny said you can’t eat ribbons and lace, so we didn’t trade for that. She would trade shuck beans or “leather britches,” ‘cause some city folks didn’t have the chance to grow beans for leather britches. Shuck beans are green beans that have been strung and broken into pieces and sewed onto a thread and hung in the attic to dry. It takes five pounds of green beans to make one “mess” of leather britches, but after they are soaked in water all night and cooked with a piece of side meat, there is no other taste like it. She always said a green bean without a string on it ain’t worth a lick. Granny usually traded for a piece of camphor that she would put in a jar of alcohol and use to rub on your chest for a cold or sore throat. She would trade for some Garrett’s Sweet Snuff, salt, and sometimes flour and baking powder, cinnamon and sugar. After all the trading was done, Granny would buy some extra candy and take it in the house to hide from us so she could dole it out on special occasions, but we always found her hiding place and thought she didn’t miss the pieces we had taken.

Then Mr. Rice was off on up the road and we were content and happy with our wares, our mouths all sweet and sugary and blowing bubble gum bubbles that would burst and stick all over the front of our face. We’d see who could blow the biggest bubble, then reach over and make it pop all over their face. We would be content and happy and wait until the next Wednesday when we would sit on the porch and wait again.

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Judy Ricker was born and raised in the remote mountains of Mars Hill, Madison County, North Carolina. Her stories are currently being published in the News-Record & Sentinel in Marshall, North Carolina.

© Judy Ricker

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012