April 2016
Homeplace & Community

A Special Time Capsule

 
  Frankie Rogers is flanked by employees Brandye Plummer, left, and Tracie Snodgrass at Rogers Country Store in rural Dallas County.

Rogers Country Store brings a touch of
yesteryear to its rural Black Belt community.

Landmarks abound in Alabama’s Black Belt region, but a unique building far removed from antebellum houses, grist mills or Civil War battle sites has established itself as something extra special.

It’s Rogers Country Store, a relatively "new" structure just off U.S. 80 about 10 miles west of Selma. Thanks to energetic owner Frankie Rogers, it’s been keeping a familial tradition alive and well.

Historians will never compare it to Sturdivant Hall, the historic 19th century mansion-museum in Selma, but it’s a landmark just the same because of its vital location and service for those living in the area.

Some customers call it a "survival store" because it seems to have everything from soup to nuts, from needles and thread to headache powder and then some. Prices range from 5 cents for a small red and white piece of candy to $55 for a carton of cigarettes. Need an Auburn or Alabama baseball cap? They’re hanging on hooks near the register.

The store’s fame is due to the hard work of the Rogers and Washburn families. As the result of that effort, it’s as important today as it was decades ago on both sides of the busy highway that intersects with Dallas County 45 and leads to Marion on one end or Highway 22 that heads toward Highway 5 and eventually on to Mobile.

 
Rogers holds a photo of an old, family country store that served residents in rural Dallas County years ago.  
   

The store does a lot more than dispense gasoline, souse, hoop cheese, bait, cigarettes, razor blades, chewing tobacco, kerosene, pickled sausages and, of course, Moon Pies and RC Colas.

It also provides a touch of yesteryear with customers dropping by in the morning to get a sausage and biscuit, a cup of Community coffee and the latest gossip. The gossip is free.

Lunch often means cheese and bologna sandwiches made by Rogers or his two employees – Tracie Snodgrass and Brandye Plummer. The sandwich usually is washed down by a cold soft drink.

The store is a time capsule, a throwback to the days of easy living out in the country – thus the name. It may not have a pot-bellied stove as stores once did before central heat and air but the friendly atmosphere makes up for that "omission."

"What Frankie does is provide vital services to this part of Alabama," said Jimmy Holliman, one of the state’s leading cattlemen. "It’s a part of our daily routine in this area."

Holliman, former president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, usually visits the store in the mornings to catch up with what’s happening. He and the owner have been friends for years and their mutual admiration is easy to see.

Rogers and his long gone relatives exemplified the importance of country store business. He and his ancestors were always respected members of their communities.

A new country store was built just after the end of World War II and did well for several years. Time eventually caught up with it and it was torn down. Rogers built the current store in 1982.

One of the services referred to by Holliman involves, free of charge, directions for harried motorists unsure of just where they are and how far they might be from their intended destinations.

One out-of-state driver thought Tuscaloosa was "just down the road" and was stunned to discover he was still about 70 miles away. Others trying to find farms get quick, courteous directions and usually buy something as a way to say thanks.

Rogers Country Store is a hustling, bustling business from sunup to just before sundown when it closes. Hundreds of customers come and go throughout the day. Some stop to examine old photographs of previous stores that adorn part of walls or table tops.

The store is also used as a "way station" where divorced couples drop their children off for the other family member to pick up. Rogers said people also leave letters, checks and cash to give to friends and relatives.

Rogers recalled the time a North Carolina businessman and his counterpart from Texas met at Rogers Country Store. It seemed like a good place to break bread … or a sausage biscuit.

Rogers has lived in Marion Junction most of his life other than time for military training and a year or so as a roustabout on an oil rig 100 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

"You could say I’ve spent most of my life in country stores," said Rogers, who turned 65 a couple of months ago. "It’s all I’ve ever really done with my life and I’ve loved everything associated with them."

There was a time a few years ago when he decided to try something else and sold the store to someone he felt was capable of running it. That didn’t happen and Rogers got his store back after foreclosure proceedings.

An avid sports fan, he can rattle off the names of coaches and players who’ve passed through his store. Pat Dye is an occasional visitor. So are former players with fond memories of stopping by for a cold drink on a hot August day.

His store will never rival "modern" convenience store operations with bright lights and neatly lined off parking spaces. Rogers Country Store has a big parking lot with vendors and customers each vying for places to pull in as close as they can get to the front door.

Rogers has seen country stores come and go through the years and his business acumen help him weather a variety of economic storms that threaten the future of his operation.

"Frankie is a survivor who has adapted to changing times," said Tim Wood, general manager of Central Alabama Farmers Co-op in Selma. "He’s done it in a market that doesn’t always favor small enterprise."

Persistence paid off for some of Rogers’s country store competitors, but not all were able to hang in when economic times were too harsh to make it.

That’s what happened in nearby Marion during the 1930s. His grandfather lost his store as a result of a lingering Depression that lasted through the decade. He wasn’t the only one who succumbed to business pressures.

Rogers indicated that dozens of country stores have been forced to close or just tossed in the towel in rural regions of Alabama. It’s happened to a lot of them between Selma and Demopolis, but not to his store. He won’t let it happen.

He’s never taken the credit for his store’s success, preferring instead to praise loyal employees who handle the cash registers, answer questions or just provide big smiles when customers enter the store.

Snodgrass and Plummer are two of his most recent employees and they can’t say enough nice things about him.

"He’s the best person I’ve ever worked for," said Plummer. "We have a wonderful working environment and relationship at our store and Frankie is the reason for it."

When public health inspectors come around to check on things at his store, a high score of 95 to 100 is usually the result. There is one area that probably will never register at 100 percent, said Rogers.

"We won’t get a perfect score because we have a wood floor, but I’m not gonna rip it up," he said. "Other than that, we always do well when the inspectors come around."

Alabama may be the National Football Champion again, but Auburn rules the roost at Rogers Country Store where orange and blue are the preferred colors. Holliman estimates that applies to about 90 percent of Rogers’s customers.

Rural Alabama is a choice location for hunters and fishermen. Add lots of athletic talent and college coaches hunting for football recruits often drop by the store to get directions to where they live.

Former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, once one of the best in the country, dropped by Rogers’s store and asked for directions to a potential recruit’s house. He got it within seconds.

"You could say this is the center of knowledge when it comes to helping coaches find what or who they’re looking for," Rogers said. "One coach came by with a sick dog and I helped him find a vet."

Something like that is what separates Rogers Country Store from other businesses out in the boondocks. It endears customers to owners.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.