|History: A Family Business Remembered
The Wells Family and the Old Store Museum
By John Walters
Photos by Paul Howe and Laura Jean Whitcomb
|This bright red wooden building used to be the heart of a rural New Hampshire town. Now, its two rooms are chock full of memories and mementoes, reflections of an era gone by. South Sutton’s general store, “George G. Wells Company” by name, is now the Old Store Museum.
“The post office was right in that corner, and the rest of this was merchandise of various kinds,” says George Wells. “We sold everything. Groceries, meat, eggs, coffee, tea, dry goods, clothes, wallpaper, paint, hardware, farm implements, everything. If somebody needed a bathtub, we would order it through a wholesaler in Concord. The storekeeper was the guy who took care of the village.” He should know; the now 84-year-old Wells spent much of his childhood in the store, which was the family business for many decades.
“We just came across a picture of me on the porch of that old store building,” says George. “I was born in 1921, and I’d say the kid in that picture is about 6 years old.” Not that he spent much of his time sitting on the porch; in that era, the kids were expected to pull their weight. “I did whatever needed to be done. We grew up expecting that we would work in the store; it was considered normal.”
There’s a portrait of his grandfather George G. Wells on the wall, complete with a truly impressive handlebar mustache — a real soup-strainer, as they used to say. George G. Wells moved from Sandown, N.H., to Sutton sometime around 1890. He worked at the South Sutton store for a short time, and then bought it from his boss. He ran the store until his death in 1926; then his son Harry (George’s father) took over. In 1935, “they changed the road, and took all the traffic away from the front of the store,” says George. Harry’s practical response: The store was moved from this building to another one along the new roadway.
The store was run by the Wells family until the late 1950s, in George’s imprecise recollection. (Like many of us, he’s better on stories and characters than on dates.) By then, times had changed and the general store was in decline. “People had become much more mobile. They could go anywhere they wanted to go, so it was difficult to compete. Almost impossible,” he says. The store was sold, and within a few years it was closed for good.
Steak and a haircut
In the golden age of the general store, travel was difficult. The roads were rough, and many people didn't have easy access to transportation. They didn’t even go from one Sutton to another very much, so there were three general stores — North Sutton, South Sutton and Sutton Mills.
In addition to selling anything that anybody might need, the general store was the social center of town. Which, in George’s mind, was a mixed blessing: “You knew everybody's business, and everybody knew yours.”
And sometimes your home life gets interrupted. “One time, the store was closed for the day. We were having supper, and there’s a rap on the door,” George recalls. “There’s a fellow holding his hand, and he’d been shot. He and a friend had been after a rabbit that ran into a wall. This man reached down to pull a stone away, and the gun went off and hit his hand. He came to my father's house because he didn’t have a car, and my father did. So we took him to the hospital.”
In the Wells family store, the shopkeeper wore a number of hats. George’s father was a justice of the peace, and often performed marriages. His grandfather was the town barber. The proof is on a shelf in the museum: A ceramic shaving cream mug that bears the name “G.G. Wells.”
“Grandfather did haircuts for the town,” says George. “I’m sure he’d have a little difficulty with the food and drug people today, because he cut hair and butchered animals at the same time.”
Ah yes, the good old days, when people developed strong immune systems. Or got sick trying. Speaking of getting sick, how about the shopkeeper mixing up a fresh batch of paint — lead included — right there in the store?
Wells doesn’t betray any ill effects from whatever he may have been exposed to in childhood. He’s trim and compact; aside from a touch of deafness, he’s in awfully good shape for an 84-year-old.
Then again, perhaps he benefited from the many patent medicines available in the store. “Most everybody did their own doctoring, whether it was human or animal,” he says. (And on a small farm, the animals could be just about as important as the humans.) There’s a collection of old remedies on display in the old store: Dr. Shoop’s Cough Remedy, Foley’s Honey and Tar Compound, Taylor’s Strengthening Plasters, Sloan’s Family Liniment, Catnip and Fennel Elixir, Paine’s Celery Compound, Baker’s Checkerberry, and one familiar name with a twist — Bengué, the original French spelling of that popular muscle rub, Ben-Gay.
Speaking of butchering, it was one important way that the shopkeeper was directly involved in the local food chain. A lot of his business was done on the barter system; farmers traded their crops and animals for items they needed, and the shopkeeper sold those bartered goods to his other customers, or even shipped them to out-of-town wholesalers. A farmers’ market, before such a thing existed.
The Old Store Museum is a trove of unsorted treasures. There’s stuff everywhere, no labels or organized displays, and precisely one item from the modern era: A centrally located fire extinguisher.
Some of the collection is from the store’s old days, but most of it was collected by George’s Uncle Carlington. That explains the impressive spread of iron goods in the museum. Carlington liked to collect the tools and products of the blacksmith’s trade: Horseshoes, hinges, saws, augers and a lot of other unrecognizable things. Carlington himself was a builder and contractor; he helped build Sutton’s Town Library and many other buildings.
On the wall of George’s home is a poster for a dance featuring “Harry Wells’ Popular Novelty Orchestra.” Yes, when he wasn’t running the general store, George’s father was an entertainer, frequently playing at the grand hotels in the Sunapee area.
“He was a trumpet player,” says George, “and he had 7 or 8 guys on the orchestra. They played at the hotels in the area. At the time, Lake Sunapee was a big gathering place. People would come and spend the whole summer at the grand hotels.”
In addition to their duties, at the store and elsewhere, George’s father and grandfather were deeply involved in community life. Each served in the State Legislature; his grandfather was one of the founders of the Merrimack County Telephone Company. “They were also very generous when it came to taking care of people who couldn’t provide for themselves,” George recalls. “In those days, the country shopkeepers kept people from going hungry.”
While George’s grandfather lived to a ripe old age, his father wasn’t so lucky: “He died when he was 54 years old of a coronary attack, and he had worked very, very hard, and that was what took him off, I guess.”
Miscellany and ephemera
Some of the Old Store Museum’s most fascinating items are the true odds and ends. “Do you know what this is?” asks George, picking up a collapsible footstool with a cloth top. It looks like the kind of footrest used by classical guitarists, but I figure there’s more to it than that, and plead ignorance. “It’s a gout stool.” Of course. That would have been my second guess. “Gout was prevalent, and not much could be done about it. If you had gout and were visiting someone, you brought along your gout stool, so you could elevate your foot and take the pressure off.”
How about that dusty cloth coat that’s carefully draped over a dressmaker’s mannequin? “That’s a duster.” Explains the color, anyway. Back in the days of the horseless carriage, “you put the duster on to protect your clothes, because it was so damn dusty. When you got where you were going, you took it off and your good clothes would be protected beneath.”
Attached to the ceiling is an oversized spool holding a length of rope. If you needed some rope, the storekeeper would cut off the proper length and sell it to you. On the floor is a big barrel, formerly used to ship molasses or vinegar. (If I’d stuck my nose inside, I could probably tell you which.) And in the front room is a box with the legend “Stickey and Poor’s Cayenne.” The box is about 8 inches wide and 6 inches deep; that’s a heck of a lot of cayenne.
Along one wall, there’s a fireplace, provenance unknown. It’s not attached to anything, it’s just something George’s aunt picked up and added to the collection. There are two big stacks of authentic old Shaker boxes, their color darkened unevenly by the passage of time. There’s a glass case with miscellaneous china dishes and cups, and another case full of thread, pins, buttons and other sewing equipment. On a countertop is a stereoscope viewer and a stack of stereographs published by Kilburn Brothers of Littleton. Back in the day, Littleton was the stereograph capital of the world, and Kilburn was the biggest producer.
That’s just a sampling. The more you look around the museum, the more things you see. And after you thought you’d seen everything, your eyes will land on something you hadn’t spotted before.
The Old Store Museum is just off Route 114, in the historic center of South Sutton. As the road curves, there’s the old meeting house on the north side — a big white building you really can’t miss. Behind that is the old school house, a dark red building where a single teacher handled grades 1 through 8. To the right of the meeting house are two buildings: The old store, bright red with white trim, and a blue house where George’s family lived for many years. These days, George lives about a quarter mile down the road in a compact gray Cape that’s a little worn around the edges, but holding up very well for a place that’s about 200 years old.
There are a lot of interesting things in the museum, but it’ll take a little persistence to see them. The museum is an extremely low-budget operation. Better make that a “no-budget operation.” No staff, no regular visiting hours. How can people visit the place?
“Well, they can give me a call,” says Wells with a smile. “I live close by, and I’m unemployed.”
He’s also the best tour guide you could ask for.