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Prospect from the
"Prospect Remains Full of Optimism"
after Thanksgiving, in modern times at least, is synonymous with shopping.
Filled with turkey, pumpkin pie, and holiday cheer, shoppers converge on
malls and shopping centers to as it is put so succinctly nowadays, “shop
til they drop.”
Seldom do present-day consumers pause to consider that the convenience of today’s shops and stores was bought and paid for by the old general stores in many small towns. The country stores that were established around the turn of the [twentieth] century supplied the needs of the community, extended credit to customers, and allowed the American system of free enterprise to flourish and grow. During this tie of economic growth there were few towns with more enthusiasm for shopping than Prospect, Virginia.
“Back in the 1920's the stores in Prospect opened at 5:30 .m. and closed at midnight,” commented Robert Taylor, grandson of E. S. Taylor who opened the Taylor Store (pictured above) in Prospect in the 1890's. “Every Saturday three to four hundred people came to town to spend the day and shop. Prospect is in those days was a dynamic hub of commerce.”
And what of this bustling cent of business today? Prospect, in 1991, is only a faint shadow of its former self. A post office, general store, cabinet shop, thrift store, and tax consultant’s office are all that remain of the Prospect business district.
What, you might ask, could have changed a thriving prosperous town into a quiet little village? The answer lies squarely in the center of town: a deserted railroad depot without travelers or even trains.
The scene around the Prospect Depot was very different a hundred years ago.
“Everything was built around the railroad,” continued Mr. Taylor, who is now retired but still active in his business in Farmville, the Taylor Manufacturing Company. “There was always one and sometimes two cars of freight unloaded at Prospect every day.”
In more ways than one the depot was the heart of the busy town of Prospect. All news of importance came over the telegraph lines to the station agent. The mail also came by train every day. Incoming mail was tossed off the train at the station and hand-carried across the tracks to the post office. Outgoing mail was hung on a hook which could be snagged by passing trains. Horse-drawn vehicles congregated around the depot and there were two men employed full-time to unload freight from trains and onto the wagons of patrons who came to Prospect for their goods.
Wagons were the standard means of transportation in and around Prospect even after the advent of the automobile for several reasons: the roads were not good and there were no bridges. In order to cross a creek or even a river it was necessary to drive through it.
Tires were also a problem. Mutt Campbell, Prospect farmer, recalled a Sunday afternoon automobile excursion to Appomattox and back. “We had 17 flat tires!” he stated emphatically with a look indicating that he remembered every one of them.
The business conducted in Prospect during the early part of this century was impressive. A Taylor Store ledger for the year 1907, October through December, covered 508 pages.
The major exports or Prospect were pulpwood and sumac, a common roadside plant that was used to tan and dye leather. It was collected, often by school children, and dried in a dry shady spot (drying in the sun would produce a bleached useless product). The price paid fordried sumac was 50 cents per 100 pounds. It was shipped by the car load, and a tyical load of 15,863 pounds brought, at 90 cents per 100 pounds, a total of $142.77. Prospect was the only place in the state that shipped sumac and considering the volume of that trade, it seems remarkable that sumac still survives in the area.
Trade was the key word for business in early Prospect stores. For many years railroad ties were used as a medium of exchange by farmers who traded them for what they wished to buy in town. In the late 1800's the Taylor Store printed its own currency, $200,000 in bills and aluminum coins. “Taylor Money,” as it was called, was used by the store to purchase goods from its customers, who in turn could use it to buy what they needed from the store. The need for more currency was a result of the store’s policy of extending credit, which created a shortage of immediate cash.
The Taylor Store was a complete department store. C. W. Crawley was the head of the grocery department; Mrs. Etta Glenn, ladies department; Piker Taylor, feeds, fertilizer, and farm equipment; and R. L. Taylor, butcher. A cow and two hogs were butchered by the store every week. Johnny Taylor was the store’s “public relations” man because, as Robert Taylor stated, everybody liked him.
“Taylor Money” could also be redeemed at the other stores in Prospect, although at a ten-percent discount. There was, in fact, enough business in Prospect during the 1920's and ‘30's to support six general stores. In addition to the Taylor Store there were the following: Wilkerson’s, Ray Glenn’s, Burnett’s, Chick’s, and Allen’s Stores.
The village of Prospect also included a blacksmith shop (behind the present day Campbell County Store); an undertaker, Mr. Hubbard who also, in the same building, sold ice in the summertime; a slaughter hosue; a millinery shop; a soda fountain; a shoemaker’s shop; and the offices of two doctors and a lawyer. In the 1880's Prospect even supported three bar-rooms.
Many of the general stores had chicken coops on the premises to provide fresh poultry for their customers. Mutt Campbell recalled the weeks before Thanksgiving when all the turkeys came to town. So many turkeys, in fact, that many of them were killed, plucked, and shipped to Norfolk for the holiday.
Christmas shopping, of course, did not begin the day after Thanksgiving in those days. Most people waited until a few days before Christmas to put up a tree and come to Prospect to purchase presents.
Christmas presents were often meager during the lean years of the depression.
“We might get a half dozen grapes, an orange, an apple, four or five pieces of candy, and four or five nuts,” recalled Woodrow Carson, tax consultant in Prospect, “and we waited up half the night for that!”
When times were hard farmers brought their hams to town to sell and with a small portion of the money returned, bought fatback for their own table. Woodrow Carson, according his wife Kathleen, still enjoys fatback prepared according to his mother’s recipe–floured and baked and served with tomato gravy.
“Times were hard, but we had good times, too” remarked Kathleen Carson. “We made decorations for Christmas of paper rings, popcorn and cranberry strings, and running cedar. Shopping wasn’t a big part of the holiday then.”
Of course, no account of the shopping days in Prospect would be complete without the story of Di, the shopping dog. Di, a bird dog, used her retrieving skills in a most unusual way–she did the family shopping. Mrs. Alsop, the doctor’s wife, would call the store and inform them that Di was on her way. Equipped with a wicker basket, covered over with a napkin, Di would make her way to the store and scratch on the door. Once the shopping list was filled and the napkin pinned down over the basket’s contents, Di would carefully pick it up and proceed to the post office to collect the doctor’s mail.
Village dogs quickly learned not to be encouraged by an inviting link of sausage protruding from Di’s basket. If another dog threatened to deter Di from keeping her appointed rounds, she simply set down the basket, pounced on the offender, and the picking up her basket, proceeded on home. Although not a matter of official record, it is possible that our present day concept of express mail and package delivery originated with a dog named Di in the town of Prospect.
And what of Prospect’s future? From an economic viewpoint it is true that the trains may never stop again at Prospect. The town’s greatest asset, however, its people, have changed very little. The outlook for the town of Prospect, like its name, can be nothing but optimistic.
– Marge Swayne, The Farmville
Herald, Friday, November 29, 1991
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