General stores, once ubiquitous in town, were a casualty of change

 — Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Ward’s store in the hamlet of Guilderland was also in business until the 1960s. Originally operated in the 19th Century as Olendorf’s, Thomas B. Ward operated it as a WGY store beginning in 1926. Both Petinger’s and Ward’s stores functioned as their communities’ post offices until their closing. Note that Ward’s had also added gas pumps. Petinger’s and Ward’s were the last of the many general stores that once had operated in town.

The Walmart and Amazon of yesteryear were the general stores found in almost every small community, crammed with an amazing assortment of goods.

The sight of the contents of Altamont’s F. & W.S. Pitts store in the 1890s would have boggled the minds of Guilderland’s 18th-Century settlers who were forced to be relatively self-sufficient except for a few necessities, items like tea, salt, or tobacco. Some of the town’s early tavern keepers, Nicholas Mynderse for one, sold or bartered these necessities in addition to selling alcohol and putting up travelers.

With the combination of Guilderland’s increasing population in the 1790s and the 1804 opening of the Western Turnpike, stores began to appear. Serving the small community of Hamilton near the glassworks early in the 19th Century, Christopher Batterman’s was probably the first.

Years later, when the 1845 New York State Census was taken in Guilderland, four grocers and seven merchants were counted. In addition to the hamlet of Guilderland, stores were recorded in Guilderland Center, Dunnsville, and Knowersville at that time. Jacob Crounse is known to have kept a store in Knowersville at this period.

The post-Civil War decades marked the heyday of the general store in rural America. Both the 1886 Howell & Tenney History of Albany County and Amasa Parker’s 1897 Landmarks of Albany County listed Guilderland’s general stores and their proprietors.

Dunnsville, Fullers, Meadowdale, Guilderland Hamlet, and Guilderland Center each had one, and Altamont had more than one. However, McKownville wasn’t mentioned in either volume, nor did a store show up there on the 1866 Beers Map. Perhaps a small store existed, but no record of it remains or an Albany store was in easy distance.


Catchy ads

Carrying a wide variety of goods, general stores sought to meet customer needs while emphasizing low prices, or at least the Guilderland stores were fixated on bargains, perhaps because of the numerous competitors in town. The coming of The Enterprise in 1884 provided the opportunity for clever advertising with lots of product variety and assurance of low prices aimed at drawing customers from the competition.

One simply stated “FIRST CLASS COUNTRY STORE.”

Several ads placed at the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898 by Altamont’s F. & S.W. Pitts were very eye-catching, especially since the headings were in a dark large font. “GREAT BATTLE! Not at HAVANA, but at ALTAMONT! Our battle is on high prices and we are confident of victory.” o

Another proclaimed “WAR! War has begun and almost everything is advancing. We offer the following at the same low prices.” Attached was a lengthy list of goods and prices.

The Pitts assured customers, “In placing bargains before the public, remember, we look, first of all to quality and then aim to sell it at lowest Albany or Schenectady prices.”

J.F. Mynderse sought to attract attention with “NOTICE: HOW TO SAVE MONEY.” Another ad stated, “SAVED anywhere from 20 to 50 dollars a year by trading at the ALTAMONT CASH STORE.”

Smaller stores in Dunnsville, Fullers, or Meadowdale where there was no competition didn’t advertise and they certainly didn’t carry the extent of merchandise the larger stores in Altamont or Guilderland Center did.

A selection of items listed in F. & W.S. Pitts’ ads illustrate a sample of the variety offered by the general store merchant. Food choices not available from the farm or backyard garden included cans of potted ham, olives, cans of salmon, pepper, raisins, currants, coffee, tea, codfish, molasses, candies, Malaga grapes and nuts.

Because baking bread and other baked goods was the housewives’ weekly chore, flour was always an important item, as well as baking powder, salt, and yeast regularly listed.

Personal needs were met by patent medicines, soap, gloves, shoes, rubber goods, overshoes, shirts, pants, ladies’ wrappers, various kinds of yard goods for home sewing, notions, tobacco, and jack knives. Household items included pots and pans, brooms, oil cloth, paints and wallpaper.

Not all of the town’s general stores would necessarily have carried so many foods and dry goods, some of which were probably considered luxury items for many farm families or a family where a laborer provided the sole income. And the stores with farmers as the majority of their customers carried fewer consumer goods and a good deal of animal feed, fertilizer, and items needed by farmers such as hay bands.

In 1900, when F. & W.S. Pitts when out of business, at their MAMMOTH CLOSING OUT SALE they offered “many thousands of dollars’ worth of goods” including  “dry goods, groceries, boots and shoes, flour, feed, patent medicines, paint, oils, wooden ware, stoneware (crocks), pants, shorts, underwear, umbrellas, whips, crockery, glassware, etc.”

Nowadays, Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah holiday shopping represent a key part of a retailer’s profitability, but during the heyday of Guilderland’s general stores, the holidays pass by with no special advertising even though Albany retailers advertising in The Enterprise were appealing to the turn-of-the-century Christmas shopper.


Pettinger prevailed

Down the road in Guilderland Center was P. Pettinger, whose general store probably operated the longest of any in town under one proprietor, from 1884 to 1927. His customer base must have included many farmers, leading him to carry an extensive line of animal feeds and items useful on the farm in addition to the usual groceries and dry goods.

An innovative merchandiser, Pettinger offered to deliver orders by wagon. The early 20th-Century years brought listing of his phone number, Altamont 9-F-14, allowing customers with a phone to call in orders, which he soon was delivering in an autotruck.

After a few years, he added auto supplies such as tires, tube, spark plugs, oils, and grease to his inventory. A Socony (now Mobil) gas pump, probably one of the earliest in Guilderland, was installed in front of his store. Pumps also appeared in front of J. Snyder’s store in Altamont and Ward’s Store in the Guilderland hamlet.

Petinger, who for some reason dropped one “t” from the spelling of his name in mid-1904, also had an arrangement with R. Van Allen, proprietor of the Fullers General Store, to pay cash for baled hay and straw to be shipped out from the hay barn next to a West Shore Railroad siding in Fullers. This arrangement was included in his regular advertising.


Rural mail delivery, easy transport ended era

General stores were the casualty of change. In 1890, the 65 percent of the population who lived in the nation’s rural areas were forced to pick up their mail at a local post office, which was very frequently located in the community’s general store, making the townspeople stopping by to get their mail a sure source of potential customers.

Much against the objections of local shopkeepers nationwide, the United States Post Office’s rural free delivery began on an experimental basis in 1896, and by 1902 all farmers were having mail delivered to the mailboxes in front of their farms. Parcel post home delivery soon followed.

Sears, Roebuck & Company issued its first catalog in 1894 and soon was offering every product imaginable, including canned goods at low prices, delivered right to the mailbox. They were only one of many mail order firms.

Once cars and buses became common, it was very convenient to travel to Schenectady or Albany where the stores had a huge selection of consumer goods and supermarkets offered lower prices.

One by one, the old general stores closed down and the ones that survived became mom-and-pop grocery stores, which in turn faced competition from the growth of supermarket chains. By 1928, Altamont had an A & P followed by a Grand Union in 1932. However, the mom-and-pop stores usually offered credit, unlike the supermarkets.

Internet shopping is only the latest innovation in the history of merchandising in this country.