This story was written about my father’s first cousin and written by Forrest Thornton.
Alvin Oral Thornton and his General Store
My Father, Alvin Oral Thornton, was born on May 10, 1891. He was the eldest son of William Page Thornton and Nancy Jane Bird. He was born on a farm in Putnam County, Curry District, West Virginia. It was there, in his dad’s General Store, that he learned the merchandising business. Even though he had a limited education, he seemed to have a good sense of how to manage a store.
One day while still working for his dad, he looked out the front of the store and saw an attractive young lady riding by on a horse, accompanied by her father. He got on his horse and pursued them. As it turned out, this lady was Miss Virginia West Bird, along with her father, Baxter Bird. They were on their way to attend a Sunday School Convention on Turkey Creek. This began a courtship and eventually a wedding. He went to the convention and while there, asked the young lady if she would like to have something to drink, she said, “yes!” He says that he won her heart at the candy stand.
They were married on Oct 23, 1918 at the Baxter Bird homeplace at the head of Big Browns Creek. Shortly after they were married, he told his dad of his intentions to start his own store in St. Albans, WV. Grandpa answered him; “You will starve to death in town.” Little did he know that in about two years he too would be moving to St. Albans.
NEW VENTURE IN THE CITY
My mother and dad arrived in St. Albans on Dec. 5, 1918. They rented a building from his uncle, Charley Loftis, in which to set up housekeeping. It was on West Main Street about three tenths of a mile from the Coal River Bridge, on the north side of the road. The building required a lot of work before they could live in it, because it had been a stable. Dad said they threw out the manger and all the other stuff and scrubbed it down making it presentable enough to live in until they could afford something else.
Dad also rented a store building from his uncle. This was the beginning of over 40 years of life and success as a merchant. He said that people would walk by his store every day and not come inside. So, he put a sign in the window: “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.” After this customers began coming in and business was booming. Much of the trade came from people working at the Bowman Lumber Co., in St. Albans. Also there was a ferry that ran between the Coal River Bridge and Nitro. As business improved, their life style improved, for they moved into a house that faced the road, just west of the store. It was the last of several houses on the right side of the road going west from the bridge. In back of the house, there was a steep bank that made its way down to some low land. This is where Tackets creek makes its way to Coal River. This name is derived from Fort Tacket that was on the Indian frontier in earlier years. It was on the west bank of Coal River where Tackets Creek merges with Coal. This low land is now flooded because of the dam that was built down stream on the Kanawha River.
BIG STEP FORWARD
Sometime around 1919 a fire destroyed the store and several houses, including Dad’s. After hearing about the fire, Grandpa Thornton came into town to offer some assistance. This prompted him to buy some property, including a store building. It was on the south side of the road a block from the bridge.
This was the beginning of a partnership called “Thornton & Son.” Dad fared very well at this new location. He then bought the house and lot adjoining the store from Mr. M. W. Wheeler, on Dec 6, 1923. Grandpa in the meantime built a house on the lot near Dames Hill Road then moved his family into it. Grandpa’s house is still standing, though the large front porch has been removed.
Another fire occurred when I was six years old, and this one I remember very well. It was near Christmastime in 1926. The building just east of the store caught fire, and sparks from it set the store on fire. Dad managed to get only the records before it burned to the ground. Our house was very close to the store, and it looked like it would burn as well. The fire department from St. Albans arrived in time to save our house. The fire started as a result of a man who had been drinking and smoking in bed, and falling asleep. When it was realized that the fire was spreading, Mother took us children next door to Grandma Thornton’s house. I can still remember looking out the window toward the house and store and seeing the flames as they lit up the sky. This was very frightening, and knowing how grandma was, I’m sure she didn’t offer us much comfort. I remember sometime later when my mother had to go to the hospital; we had to stay with grandma a few days. After they left for the hospital, grandma said, “You ought to be glad you had a good mother.” She might just as well have said, “Your mother isn’t coming back.”
The next day I went with Uncle Roscoe Thornton to look at the damage and poking around in the ashes we found some coconuts that had been roasted in the fire. We cracked one open and ate it. I like the taste of coconut and eating it reminds me of that occasion.
NEW STORE BUILDING
The fire did not stop the Thorntons. The lot where the fire had started was then purchased, giving us the whole block from Strawberry Road to Dames Hill Road. On this corner lot a big two-story redbrick and tile building was built. While the store was being built, an empty building across the street was rented temporarily. The new one was finished by the summer of 1927. This store was the best they had ever had.
Just before Wm. P. Thornton died (1950) he sold his half interest in the store to two other sons, Clyde and Roscoe. Then the name was changed to, “Thornton Sons.” The store was still a typical country style store. It always smelled good, with the odor of fresh ground coffee. The ceiling inside was of embossed tin with a beautiful design. The back storage room even had a manually operated elevator. The upstairs was used mainly for display of large items like furniture, carpeting, wallpaper and paint. Downstairs, in the back room there was a large floor scale that was used to weigh out large quantities of grain and other items. Dad would often proudly take me back there and have me get on it. He then would grin and say that I was getting big like him. Kerosene was sold in bulk and was used for lanterns. It came in a large drum with a pump that measured out into quart containers the customers would bring with them.
While I was still quite young I remember my dad letting me help restock the shelves in the store. Later on he would let me help fill the orders of some customers especially if it was one of our relatives. I would have to weigh out in sacks any of the bulk items like dried beans or potatoes. I also sliced bacon or lunchmeat and weighed them. Each item would be written on a charge pad and priced. In those days, there wasn’t any self-service. The customers were not to go behind the counter and help themselves. They would have to wait their turn for a clerk to fill their order. Many the items were inconveniently on shelves that were up very high. Some things had to be reached by climbing a ladder. They had a long pole with a hook on the end that was used to fish some things from the top shelf. Toys usually came un-assembled and it was fun to help assemble them. Being a clerk was not an easy job back then for you could not sit down at all during the working day. The clerk was to be standing and ready to serve the customer when he entered the door. There was always something to do, like restocking the shelves, sweeping, cleaning windows, etc. Almost everyone used the credit plan and would pay up on payday. This occurred more during the depression days. Some customers would run up a large account, and when they did get paid they would go somewhere else and buy what they needed. Some never did pay up even after having to be sued for what they owed. I remember my dad telling of a man that had accumulated a large debt. Then he came in the store one day and told Dad that he did not have to pay his account because he had just gotten saved and the Lord had forgiven him of all his debts.
Uncle Roscoe and I delivered the store “Handbills” after school for the Friday & Saturday specials. We would have to hand stamp the store name on each one and then take them to all the houses within a mile or so of the store on the west side of Coal River. Dad was always a hard worker and really made the store a success. He got up early and was always the last one to leave. He was a very good businessman, but somehow, he could not change his thinking when the self-service stores came in vogue. He said that if he changed the store to self-service, then the people coming in would steal everything.
The town people would come over the bridge to dad’s store to buy the fresh vegetables, chickens, eggs, and butter that the farmers had brought in to trade for things they needed on the farm. The store had just about everything that could be bought in those days. If a customer wanted something he didn’t have, he would make sure he had it the next time they came in.
Eventually, with competition of the super stores and because of Dad’s health, he had to sell out and retire. This was in 1962, age 71. The store building remained in use by other people until about 1987 when it was burnt so badly it was condemned and torn down. The lot was cleared off and a car wash was built there. It is rather sad to drive by and see the place now. The store was a landmark and is greatly missed by all that lived during that era.
Revised December 30, 1998
Written by Forrest Thornton.