January 2014
Homeplace & Community

Back in Business

  Betsy Compton and Tony Luker have been managing the Jefferson Country Store since it reopened on Oct. 1, 2013. 

Country Store Re-opening Relieves Rural Crossroad Community

Churches and country stores have mirrored rural life since America’s founding, but changing times have taken their toll on small businesses catering to those who rely on them the most.

The churches haven’t closed or moved in the tiny Marengo County crossroads community of Jefferson, but, for a year, the Jefferson Country Store wasn’t much more than a name on an exterior wall.

Not anymore. A few months ago, new life was breathed into the grocery opened in 1957 when Ike was in the White House and the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik created quite a stir across the fruited plains.

Community patronage kept the store running for more than half a century and that’s just what brought it back to life as of Oct. 1, 2013.

"I crawled under these counters when I was a little girl and never forgot those days," said Betsy Compton, who runs the store with boyfriend Tony Luker. "We’re very happy to reopen it."

This T-shirt lets everyone know the Jefferson Country Store was founded in 1957. It’s for sale.  

The two are leasing the store from Hattie Morgan in an arrangement making everybody happy since the bottom line is insuring the shelves are stocked and the customers keep coming.

Reopening the Jefferson Country Store was just about the best news local residents could have received on the eve of the holiday season. They knew it meant a lot of things, not the least of which were gasoline prices.

Having the store in their neighborhood meant no more 20-mile roundtrips to stores in Linden or Demopolis to pick up milk, bread and other food staples. Such was the case during the year the store was closed.

News spread fast when it reopened and it wasn’t long before business flourished again as folks lined up to buy favorite treats including hoop cheese and crackers, souse, rag bologna, pickled pigs feet and many other delicacies not always easy to find at a supermarket.

 
Above, Betsy Compton divides her day – working at the University of West Alabama when she’s not helping at the Jefferson Country Store in Marengo County. Right, Nate Charleston, right, the first customer at the Jefferson Country Store, is a daily supporter of the business run by cook Tony Luker who waits on him.

Men in hard hats once again could drop by on their way to or from a nearby paper mill while senior citizens could relax in rockers near where Luker prepares his hamburgers and homemade chicken salad.

Benches are nearby for those who would rather sit than rock. Tables provide a perfect place to play checkers and dominoes. If games aren’t in order, there’s always politics and people to discuss at what easily can be called an indoor clothesline. College football, of course, often dominates conversations.

 

 

 

 

 

Left to right, a deer trophy “modeling” a sombrero is quite an eye-catcher inside the Jefferson Country Store in Marengo County.This is a sign of another time. It is being given new life on a shelf at the Jefferson Country Store in Marengo County.

Nostalgia oozes from every corner of a store with "A Family Tradition since 1957" on a bright red sign outside.

That tradition took a breather in 2012 when several factors led to a lock on the front door. It wasn’t long before efforts began to open it again.

Visitors marvel at the décor that would please those who love Norman Rockwell paintings and calendars - rustic, modern and other touches that are pure Americana.

Luker does a lot more than make hamburgers and biscuits. He’s no stranger to yard sales and other events where signs, once attached to the sides of barns and telephone poles, can be purchased and displayed in his store hugging Alabama Highway 28.

Founded in 1810 and named for our third president a decade later, Jefferson once was a hustling, bustling place with a hotel, two dry goods stores, a drugstore, two schools, a couple of tanneries, a wagon shop, blacksmith shop, Masonic lodge and, of course, a church.

Not much is left of those days, especially traces of what once had been. Jefferson’s major claim to fame generally is considered to be the birthplace of internationally acclaimed sculptor Geneva Mercer.

An unincorporated community with varying population estimates usually put at a few hundred, Jefferson is what rural America is all about. Residents now hope, one day, a post office or some semblance of one will return.

Luker, who grew up cooking and training under those who had more experience, is the acknowledged star of the store’s rebirth. During busy times of the day, especially at lunch, he’s like a perpetual motion machine - lining up bread for sandwiches, buns for hamburgers and, of course, jars of Duke’s Mayonnaise always nearby.

"I never use anything but Duke’s, especially when I’m making my chicken salad," he said. "There’s just something about it that you can’t find in other mayonnaise."

Created in 1917 by Eugenia Duke of Greenville, S.C., Duke’s is popular throughout the Southeast when it comes to tomato sandwiches, cole slaw and potato salad.

Luker’s day begins early and he’s at the store well before the 6:30 a.m. opening. That’s when he begins to make his biscuits. Some customers often arrive just as the doors open because they know the biscuits won’t last long.

As the weeks passed and November pushed toward December, business continued to grow, reflecting the optimism among those who were happy to shop there.

"We have some customers who only have to walk across the road to get what they need," said Betsy, who indicated she’s working hard to have wholesalers deliver eggs, milk, bread, cookies and other items to the store.

Saturdays are extra busy because customers usually aren’t working and take advantage of it by walking or driving over to have a biscuit and coffee.

Solid public support has been enough to convince the chief cook and bottle washer that the future looks exceedingly bright - making up for his 12 hour days/72 hour weeks.

"I was kinda scared at first whether it would work because of the economy being the way it was, but things have turned out for the best," said Luker, 33.

If he ever thinks the pressure has gotten to be too much, he can always count on Nate Charleston to cheer him up.

The store’s first customer on opening day, Charleston proudly plunked down a $1 bill which wound up in a frame and on the wall near where the hamburgers are made.

"He reminds me of it every day," said Luker, with a laugh that lets everybody know the two are good friends who share a hope that the Jefferson Country Store will continue to stay open.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.