Thursday, April 10, 2008

Working at Hopkins Grocery

Part 3:
Behind the Meat Counter

Gerald McKibben

I spent a lot of time behind the meat counter. Richard Mauldin (He had a son that was ahead of me at BHS; I can’t remember his name) and Gene Carpenter were the butchers. It was common for workers to come in at noon and order “Twenty five cents worth of chess and crackers” at the meat counter. We would cut off a portion of hoop cheese and wrap it, along with a good number of crackers, in butcher paper, tape it shut, and mark “25c” on it for the cashier. In retrospect it seems like a meager lunch for working men. Maybe they picked up something else too.

One thing we did, which seems strange now, (we did many things that seem strange now) is to go next door to McElroy’s Lumber Co. the first thing every morning and bring over several cans of shavings from their planer mill. This we emptied out onto the floor behind the meat counter. There was a big wooden meat cutting table in the center where steaks and other meat cuts were made. Most cuts of meat required trimming to get rid of excess fat. Discarded bits of fat, bone or whatever were just raked off onto the floor, where they joined the shavings. Then at the end of the day, when the store closed, we would sweep up all the shavings with their trash, bag them up, and then mop the floor. This seemed to keep it clean, though I doubt it would meet Health Department requirements today.

Richard (“Mr. Mauldin” to me back then) was a good man to work with. He was easy going and a good and dependable employee, but he had a way of letting the Management know if there was something that displeased him. At that time the grocery stores stayed open until pretty late on Saturday nights; Hopkins was no exception. There was one man who always came in at or slightly after 10:00 every Saturday night. I remember some grumbling along about 9:45, when everyone was dead tired and there were no customers in the store. There was some cynical joking about staying open just for Mr. so and so.

Richard told me about an incident that happened once, before I started working. It seems that the store would often stay open much later than 10:00 on Saturday nights. Richard had to drive several miles to get home, and he got tired of staying at work that late. So that next Monday morning he made it a point to be a full hour late coming in to work. Now the butcher back then had some very important duties early Monday morning; that’s when the meat orders had to be phoned in for the week.

So Howard was upset with him. When Richard got there He said “Richard! Where have you been”? To which Richard replied, “I just figured if we didn’t have any certain time to quit, then we wouldn’t have any certain time to start.” He said they started closing earlier after that.

A service the store offered back then was custom butchering. You could bring in a hog (already slaughtered of course) and have it butchered to your specifications. Killing and butchering of animals on the farm is always done in cold weather, for obvious reasons. Richard had a story about that. He said one day in the middle of the summer a man came in and asked if they would butcher a hog for him. He said he asked the man why he had killed a hog at that time of year. “I didn’t kill it”, he said. “It just died”. Of course he refused to butcher it.

I’ve enjoyed recalling and writing down these events. I realize that I was thinking about that one store in that one little town, but what happened during that period was doubtless happening in small towns all across America. Small towns by and large catered to an agricultural society. Agriculture as a business is getting bigger every year; it grows with the population, and will continue to do so (as long as people like to eat and wear clothes). But the number of people who make their living on farms today is just a fraction of the number who did so fifty years ago. Economics and other factors have dictated that farms become much more efficient than the small family farms of yesteryear. And as that changed, so did our society.



  1. Gerald, I am pretty sure that Richard's son was named after him, Richard Mauldin, Jr. Could be wrong, however.
    Thanks, enjoyed the stories.

  2. I remember Guy, who got the phd in Math, Charles who lived most of his life close to his dad and was recently deceased, and Ruth. Good stories.

  3. Good articles Gerald. Sure enjoy this site and the stories that you guys seem to remember better than I can. Keep it up.

  4. I also enjoyed the Hopkins stories. Hope to see more like that. As I have written before, I just wish life these days was less complicated and like it was back in those carefree days

  5. Like Gwen Hannon and me, Guy transferred from Baldwyn to Booneville and graduated in 1956. He is now a school teacher in Johnson City, Tennessee. I'll see him in June when I go to a conference at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. Guy greatly enjoyed Gerald's Hopkins Grocery feature and said he would forward it to his sister. I've encouraged him to log on to the blog and share his stories with us. One that he and I can tell is when we were students at Northeast and went to Memphis to take the physical exam for possible admission to the Air Force Academy. We both failed the physical--Guy because he had a racing heart (it started racing even more when those Air Force doctors came at him) and I because I couldn't hear high frequency sounds well enough to pass the hearing test. It was probably a great benefit to the country that neither one of us wound up in the Air Force.

  6. Bobby, I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who failed that test on account of not being able to hear the high frequencies. Like you, it was probably just as well that I remained grounded. I wouldn't trade anything for my years with the Army. Ironically, I lived and worked not far from the Air Force Academy when I was stationed at Ft. Carson, Colorado. Football games at Falcon Stadium were one of the coldest places I've ever been, voluntarily.

    Gerald, loved the reminiscing. Let's have more of those good memories.

  7. Gerald, the following is true, so help me.
    When the National Guard Armory in Memphis was at the fairgrounds, there was a small neighborhood store across the street near the railroad tracks. We got some of the best sandwiches there each day.
    A railroad switch engine crew was there once getting lunch. I checked out behind a black crewman who had bought 2 tins of sardines, a pack of GRAHAM crackers, a raisin cookie, and chocolate milk.