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Rolling Stores and Locker Plants

I tend to wait until my cats run out of food before I go grocery shopping. Of course, by then we're nearly out of people food, too, and by the time I get everything checked off my list my buggy is piled high. Back at home I try to find a way to wedge more stuff into the freezer compartment of my refrigerator. Bags of broccoli, boxes of waffles, shrink-wrapped corn on the cob and trays of hamburger try as I might they refuse to stack neatly. Oh well, maybe the air can circulate better if things aren't too orderly.

I usually shop in the supermarket closest to home for convenience sake. I don't have to drive too far, there's a handy drug store, a gas station on the corner and even a Burger King in case I don't want to cook some of that stuff I just bought. Tim and I don't have a separate food freezer in our condo, but we think about shopping for one every summer when all the fresh vegetables are on display at the Pee Dee Farmer's Market.

When I was growing up, a farmer with a pickup truck came through our neighborhood every week or so. He'd have the truck bed loaded down with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, butter beans in the hull or already shelled and bagged up. There were cabbages, string beans, yellow squash and ears of white or yellow corn, sometimes even peaches or watermelons. It was nice to have such a selection to choose from right at our front door. Of course, we lived in town so if the farmer didn't come by we could run right down to A&P for what we needed.

Talking to Tim's mom and other folks around town, I have a fresh appreciation of how easy we have it today. It wasn't so convenient in the decade or so before I was born, and especially not out in the country. Many farm families had no automobile and some that did couldn't afford to drive it. Trips to town for the things the family didn't grow or raise might be made in a mule-drawn wagon once every few months, and if you ran out of something you might have to do without it for a while unless the rolling store came through your "neck of the woods."

The rolling store was a big truck with sides built up and a cover on top. Inside, two rows of tall shelves were loaded with staple goods of every kind, a narrow aisle running down the center just wide enough for one shopper at a time. Cash was short, and not every family had ready spending money to pay for their purchases. Large crates were attached to the back of the truck to hold live chickens, fresh eggs and newly churned butter, traded to the rolling store for sugar, salt or coffee, maybe dress fabric, smoking tobacco or penny candy.

From about 1947 until 1964, D. C. McFadden operated a rolling store in Williamsburg County, a large speaker mounted on top to let folks know he was coming. A former bread truck, his store had a feature many others lacked a cooler for soft drinks and ice cream. Tim's dad Theron Cox had helped him install it and rigged up a power cord. He'd leave the cooler plugged in overnight, then as he made his route during the day the ice cream would stay frozen and the cold drinks would stay cold. It was a popular attraction for all the neighborhood kids to hear Mr. McFadden's store coming!

Most meat and produce were consumed fresh, dried, canned or salted at that time. There wasn't any other way to keep perishable food. Only large cities had "locker plants," refrigerated buildings containing rows of individual meat lockers, rented (and locked up) by folks needing a place to store large quantities of meat or vegetables. Many Pee Dee area homes still used ice boxes, and actual refrigerators had small freezer compartments just big enough for an ice tray or two.

After WWII, Theron Cox began putting his refrigeration skills to work. Locker plants began to appear throughout lower South Carolina, and plant owners hired Theron to install the equipment to make them work. Now a family could purchase a side of beef or bring in their own pork and poultry, rent one or more lockers by the month to freeze and store their meat until needed. Families could have fresh-frozen meat and vegetables year round, although they might have to travel many miles to get to their locker.

As home deep freezers began to appear, gradually locker plants around the state began to close down. Supermarkets with adjacent locker plants began offering meat cutting services, sausage grinding, hickory smoking or sugar curing for hams in order to maintain their customer base. A few of those are still open, like Jim's IGA over in Lake City.

An ice cream truck comes through our neighborhood in the summer time, and the little musical melody that announces its presence brings back fond memories of popsicles and moo bars, vanilla ice cream cups and wooden spoons. But I'd love to see a rolling store come by my house, even if I don't have any live chickens to trade.


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