December 27, 2017
Not every state holds dear to its old-fashioned stores the way Vermont does. Chances are pretty good if you get off the interstate and drive through just about any part of Vermont, including the Northeast Kingdom, most every town still has an operating country store.
Some are local in nature, catering to mainly local people, but others attempt to attract tourists. However, most, if not all, feature a mix of locally made products and practical items, and are always a good measure of fun, too.
The many country stores continuing to operate across Vermont are a special ritual for visitors and locals alike.
Some feature a pot-bellied stove, many have all manner of practical household, local and hobby goods—fishing gear, bullets, yarn, clothing, pots and pans, local beer, cheese and fruits and vegetables grown nearby, and, of course, maple products galore.
Darcie McCann, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, said, “Our country stores have always represented the very heart of our communities and region. They are far more than a place to buy necessary goods or services. They are a gathering place, a special place to say hello to neighbors and find out what is really going on in town. They represent the very best of our past and futures.
The Hastings Store in West Danville has been in business since 1853, and it has been in the same family for generations, since 1913.
The store is currently owned by the third generation of the family, husband and wife team Garey and Jane Larrabee.
In 2005 Hastings was recognized officially by the Vermont Secretary of State for having been in operation continually for 100 years or more.
On the store’s Facebook page, Roger Hamilton, a customer wrote, “You can’t get more family oriented than Hastings Store. It’s the one-stop shop for everything. A gallon of milk, fresh-cut steak, fresh hots with natural casings right on the link, pick up your mail, fresh maple products … you name it, they have it.”
Jane Larrabee sat down for a recent interview to share her family’s long history with the charming store, at the corner of Route 2 and 15, near Joe’s Pond.
Her grandparents bought the store in 1913, Jane said. Her grandmother, Jennie Underwood Hastings, had put herself through college, business school, and was working at a women’s dry goods store in St. Johnsbury, her grandfather, Gilbert Hastings, too, was working at a mercantile in town, so together they brought a strong foundation to running the store.
That hardworking sensibility was passed down, and is evident still. “My grandparents were very big on efficiency, get your work done, do it right, and then play,” Jane said.
Although her grandfather had come from a farm, he had a hay allergy, so was unable to work the farm, said Jane, but her grandparents kept a beautiful garden, she said. The store still makes its own sausage with fresh sage, her grandmother’s prized recipe.
Her grandparents began operating Hastings Store on Oct. 13, 1913, just two weeks after her grandmother had given birth to Jane’s aunt, she said. The next year, her grandmother was name the post mistress, a job she kept from 1914 to 1946. “When she retired, my father was just home from World War II, and he became postmaster.”
Jane’s parents, Ralph and Mabel, would go on to run the store after her grandparents retired, but even in retirement, her grandparents were often at the cash register and helping out.
The family has all lived together at the store, too, through the generations, though daughter Jenny and her family live just around the corner; though Jenny is a full-time nurse, she helps out often, and her two daughters, Alyssa, 8, and Ava, 5, can be seen at the store frequently.
Jane tells a charming story of how she would say good night to her dad.
There was a hole in the floor above the counter from where a stovepipe had once been, and a grate was over the hole that you could see into the family’s upstairs apartment through. Her mom would lower a tiny Jane through the hole to be received by dad, running the store downstairs until 9:30 p.m. every night, to kiss him good night.
“I can still remember my little Donald Duck slippers preceding me through!” recalls Jane.
Back in the day, the store had a party line, “That was a pain!” recalled Jane.
She recalls the ice house the family had adjacent to the store and how much fun she had jumping in the wood shavings in the ice house!
Many people in the camps around Joe’s Pond didn’t have phones, and the family store was often called on by police when a family emergency needed to be reported to someone staying in a camp, and the Hastings would run to inform the person, said Jane.
“If they needed something, they’d come to the store,” said Jane.
She said a poem called “The House by the Side of The Road,” has long been quoted by her family, and it said, “The reason you’re here is to serve other people.” It’s a mantra the family maintains to this day.
Jane and Garey took over the store in 1974 from her parents. They hadn’t planned to, but that’s how life worked out, she said. The ice was cut in January and February and it would last clear through to September, she said. Her grandparents also ran a smoke house to cure hams on site, she recalled.
Charming as growing up in a country store sounds, and is, “When you’re working for yourself is a lot of work,” said Jane.
Jane is also a Justice of the Peace, and she said she’s performed about a dozen weddings right in the Hastings Store! One couple, who had been together for 45 years, decided to finally tie the knot, right in front of the ice cream freezer, “because it was the sweetest place in the store!” said Jane with a laugh. Others purposely were married right in front of their charming vintage U.S. Post Office box, to help the men remember anniversary dates, she said with a laugh!
The generations-old Willey’s Store in Greensboro, an iconic, much-loved institution in the area.
The Willey’s Store “is a treasured local landmark, located near the shores of Caspian Lake and in a community which draws in many summertime visitors from away.”
The store, which has been in the Willey family since Burt Willey bought it in 1900 running the store with his wife, Hattie, has an upscale line of clothing and merchandise, a full-service True Value hardware store, a market with local organic veggies, local beer and wine, and everything you’d need for a picnic or to stock a camp or cabin. It is also a UPS drop off location.
After Burt and Hattie came Gertrude and Robert then Phyllis and Ernie, then Robert and Tom Willey (brothers) and today Rob Willey, the fifth generation.
The store is run today by Rob Willey and his partner, Bethany Warner, with Robert Willey, Rob’s dad still there every day, mostly in hardware, and having fun chatting and teasing customers.
Robert’s grandparents lived upstairs, in what is today the clothing department managed by Bethany, and the back storage area is still covered in charming floral faded wallpapers that carry decades-ago memories. Rob says he could expand and use the space for retail, but he’s reluctant to erase that history.
Rob and Robert Willey offered a tour from basement to the upper level of the charming store, huge, and added onto five times at least. Rob is overseeing updates and there is constant work to keep the historic structure standing proud.
Both men had left for a time, but came back to the family business; they have been running it side-by-side for the better part of the last decade. Robert’s brother Tom ran the store for a number of years, as well, they said.
Rob came back to the business in 2009, not long after his dad, Robert, had returned.
Rob remembers starting out working when it was his grandparents’ store, Phyllis and Ernest, and being about 14, and bagging groceries; he said when he’d use a yard stick to push debris out under shelves toward his grandfather, who swept it up, his grandfather would pocket all the change that rolled out, and Rob learned to push the piles his own way, instead, to gather the coins!
Stocking shelves and dusting are something both men could do in their sleep, they said.
After Rob began as a bagger, he then worked on the newspapers, and when he was young, The New York Times would have up to eight sections, and Willey’s would sell up to 400 copies on a Sunday, he said.
Willey’s store has fostered a number of the Vermont-grown brands that today have national acclaim, from Ben & Jerrys to Cabot cheese, Jasper Hill, Hill-Stead Beer, and more. Not that many years ago, the lake was the only draw in the region, but today, places like Jasper Hill and Hill-Stead, Circus Smirkus, Pete’s Greens and more draw in visitors who love the area, said Robert.
“The local food thing is huge – and we’re right in the middle of it,” said Rob. “Cabot probably started on our shelves before they went national.”
A full version of this story originally appeared in Vermont’s Northland Journal.