Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tinkers, Peddlers, Truck Farmers, and Furniture Salesmen. Oh My!

by Pam Hillman
Eric Sloane (1905-1985)

My family and my husband's family have a history of being peddlers and truck farmers. Both my grandfathers sold produce out of their trucks in the summertime. Watermelons, peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, okra, whatever they could grow, but the family didn't eat, so they sold it. They were called "truck farmers". And on some days, they participated in the farmer's markets in neighboring towns, but mostly they went door-to-door and sold their produce.

They had routes that they would service. Once my grandfather told me about an old sword he'd traded for. Of course I was in awe of the fact that the sword might be from the Civil War, or some exotic place like Saudi Arabia. I was so enamored of the sword that my grandfather gave it to me instead of to one of my male cousins. It's just an old broken sword. It's not pretty and the grip and handle have been broken off, but maybe someday I'll find somebody who can tell me what time period it came from, or might even be able to repair it for me.

My father-in-law and his brothers went even farther afield when peddling. They were known to travel to the Mississippi Delta for a load of sweet potatoes, to Georgia for peaches, and down south Mississippi for watermelons. Anything they thought they could sell, they'd take off and buy it, sometimes driving over 24 hours straight to make the trip.

Come to think of it, my stepfather and stepbrother are still peddling, but I just never thought to call it that! They buy trailer loads of Georgia honey and sell it in California. They have a very loyal clientele, and they make 5-6 trips a year distributing honey all over the west.

But the most interesting stories my mother has told me is of her cousin, J. L. Jones. J. L. started out with a little country store on skids that he moved around when the notion struck him. If he thought business would be better at the crossroads close to Hudson Chapel Church of God, he sat up shop there.

A few months later, he might move three or four miles closer to the main road. Later, he'd move to a new spot. This mobile store was similar to the peddlers who rode all over the country selling everything from pots and pans, to sewing thread, to vanilla flavoring. The only difference was that J. L. was from the community and people knew him. Most were even kin to him. From those humble beginnings, J. L.'s business grew until he opened a very successful furniture store in Jackson, MS, the state capitol.

Traveling salesmen, tinkers, gypsies, and peddlers have a reputation of being shysters and crooks. The traveling salesman in most spaghetti westerns was portrayed as such and was often called a "drummer". (While researching this topic, I did a search for "peddlers", "drummers", and one of the very first articles to pop up was by my college English professor, Mr. Ovid Vickers. Out of millions of pieces, I thought that was really cool. Check out Mr. Vickers piece titled, "Some Drummers Didn't Drum", printed in The Neshoba Democrat June 28, 2006.)

But the traveling salesman that my mother tells me about was welcome when he came down the long, lonely dead-end road she lived on. He brought thread, cloth, seeds, pots and pans, along with news. I suspect both of my grandfathers loved that aspect of truck peddling as much as they loved making the sale. 

Regardless of the reputation of traveling salesmen, they were a major part of the fabric of America before motorized vehicles made traveling over a few miles a possibility without wasting the entire day.

I included a traveling salesman much like J. L. Jones in The Evergreen Bride. My fictional storeowner, Mr. Miller, owns Miller's Mercantile, and he moves the store when the mood strikes.

Sipsey couldn’t even be called a town unless you counted the church and the school, along with Mr. Miller’s store, and you couldn’t always count the store.  
The tiny mercantile consisted of two wagons butted end to end. The space was so tight, you just entered from one end and exited the other, and every nook and cranny was stuffed full of non-perishable foodstuffs, spices, sundry items, and a bit of cloth and thread. Mr. Miller moved his store to a new location whenever the mood struck him. 

So, there you go. Miller's Mercantile, handy-dandy resource for all your needs. Sure beats traveling ten--or even forty-- miles for a sewing needle or a tube of ointment, doesn't it?

THE EVERGREEN BRIDE by Pam Hillman (Available NOW for pre-order): Mississippian Annabelle Denson dreams of visiting cousins in Illinois and seeing a white Christmas. In the face of her excitement, Samuel Frazier hides his growing affection for her behind a quiet smile and a carpenter’s lathe. Samuel starts to worry that if she goes, Annabelle won’t return. Can he convince her to stay?


  1. Hi Pam. Nice article! When I was a girl, men used to come by our house with baked items and milk. I always loved seeing them. I hope you find out about that sword!

    1. My parents owned a dairy and we had a supply truck come by about once a month selling vet supplies. It was fun to see him coming, but about the only thing he had that a little girl wanted was rubber boots. Mama wouldn't buy me new boots EVERY month like I wanted! lol

      Now I'm reminded of the time I thought I really, really needed new boots and didn't get them. I had new rubber boots and had to go slop the hogs (one of the few times we actually had hogs). Daddy had used some old truck frames for the hog pen and I climbed up and snagged two good-sized holes in the toe of one of my new boots. Daddy had this horrible yellow bondo-like stuff (you farm gals think of a new-born baby calf and you'll know what color it was!!!!!) that would stick to anything and he dabbed that on there to fix my boot. So, I had to walk around in those boots with the icky yellow glue on the toe of my boot until I outgrew them. :(

  2. I enjoyed your post, Pam. My limited knowledge of traveling salesmen did come from the movies, The Music Man in particular. It's nice to hear what life was really like for peddlers, tinkers and "drummers" from someone with firsthand knowledge. Like Rebecca, I hope you learn the story behind that sword your grandfather took in trade.

    1. Keli, I'm sure there were all kinds...the honest and friendly, and the shysters, and shysters always make good fodder for movies, don't they?

      The last time I was a jamboree where there were several vendors who dealt with Civil War items, I asked if they knew anybody who refurbished swords. Didn't get a bite, but I'll be back at the jamboree in a few weeks, and might ask again. BUT this time, I'll have my OWN table and will be signing books, so won't have time to chat with the other vendors! :)

  3. According to census records, my great-great-grandfather was a peddler when he came to Milwaukee from Germany. I think he may have been a teacher in Germany, but peddling was a way to keep food on the table when they began a new life in America.

    1. Terri, that is so cool. I'd love to have more history on my family. More time to research it would be nice too! lol

  4. What a great post, Pam! How interesting to hear about your family and this vocation. I really enjoyed it.