Finding Nostalgia, and Fun, at East Tennessee’s General Stores
Rocky Top General Store in Harriman is the genuine article, just like the Liberty overalls and shiny red Radio Flyer wagons offered for sale there.
Customers purchase hardware, farm equipment, wood stoves and poultry supplies, including incubators holding 300 eggs at a time. Customized dog tags and keys are made while you wait. You can munch on complimentary popcorn while you mosey around the store. The popcorn machine was won on “The Price Is Right” TV show many years ago.
In the newer section of the general store, gifts, toys, cookware, small household appliances and books line the shelves. Glass cases show a full line of jewelry. An expansive furniture showroom is in the back. Starting this year, the Christmas section will stay open year-round.
This family-owned business has served Harriman since 1959. David Webb and his wife, Mildred, still tend the store six days a week even though they are well into their 70s. Their daughter, Debbie Mee, helps keep things running smoothly.
Travelers driving along Interstate 40 see the Rocky Top General Store sign and stop by sometimes asking where to find Rocky Top. The Webbs are avid UT fans, but the store’s name is a throwback to more rustic times. The Webbs’ collection of farm implements and century-old household items, such as a massive wooden washing machine, are on display. David collects old musical instruments and record albums. I’m thinking: “Is that Tennessee Ernie Ford on the intercom?”
The Rocky Top General Store and others in East Tennessee communities remain authentic to their roots. They sell merchandise, such as cornmeal and cast iron cookware, items that were found on the shelves a generation ago.
People from all over find their way to Old Pilot Hill General Store for music and barbecue. Donnie Hall claims his “Smoke Aint No Joke.” He prepares baby back ribs on Fridays and Saturdays, and barbecue pulled pork is available Wednesday through Saturday. I ordered the menu’s novelty item: a BBQ Sundae. It is pulled pork, baked beans and cole slaw layered in a mason jar.
The Pilot Hill General Store near Limestone was built in 1902 by Bill Hammer for a Union soldier named George Walters. Grandson Clarence “Sonny” Hammer, a friendly fellow in his 80s, leans on the counter and recalls the horse-and-buggy days. Years ago a beacon on the hill helped pilots navigate. The general store was a fixture in the community because it was also a post office and pharmacy. The upper floor served as a courthouse when the magistrate came on a monthly circuit. Even a cobbler was there to do shoes.
A few years ago, Donnie and his wife, Denise, purchased the store and the house next door and continued the tradition of selling general merchandise. They spruced up the white-frame store, added displays of historical photographs, hung vintage merchandise from the ceiling, and built a side porch. On Thursday nights, local musicians gather to “pick on the porch.”
“We have so many talented people in the community. They love to get together and play their music,” says Denise.
“Bring your instrument. Bring your voice. Everyone is welcome.” This invitation pulls in a crowd on Friday and Monday nights at Law’s Brickmill Grocery & Deli in Greenback. Saturday is karaoke night, another opportunity for the community to come together for music and fun. The deli has a Surf’n’Turf platter: grilled 8 oz. ribeye steak and choice of catfish or popcorn shrimp.
While you are there, you can pick up hardware, groceries, used clothes and knickknacks, though it may take you a few minutes to find your item. The Betty Crocker frosting is next to the chewing tobacco. The Linney fresh stone ground cornmeal mix sells for $9.99.
Forbus General Store in Pall Mall along U.S. Highway 127 has a different kind of entertainment. Championship card playing—a game named Pig—occupies players sitting in ladderback chairs in the rear of the store. Generations of Fentress and Pickett county folks have whiled away the hours, often helping themselves to juicy burgers, beans and potatoes from the snack bar. Fudge made in the store is the luscious dessert. Forbus General Store occupies a structure built in 1892. It has served as a post office, feed mill, lumber mill and pharmacy, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cumberland Mountain General Store along U.S. Highway 127 in Clarkrange has kept the look of the past. The original glass cases and shelves date to 1923. Country collectibles and household items are big sellers, as are the jams and hard candy. The Rock-A-Billy Diner occupies the back of the store and is open Wednesday through Sunday. Decorated in the 1950s juke box style, the diner serves hamburgers, hot dogs, catfish, fries, onion rings and milkshakes.
Have you visited these or other Tennessee general stores? Share your stories in the comments!