Saturday, February 16, 2019

Tinkers, Peddlers, Truck Farmers, and Traveling Salesmen

My family and my husband's family have a history of being peddlers and truck farmers. Both of my grandfathers sold produce out of their trucks in the summertime. Watermelons, peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, okra, whatever they could grow on their 40 acres in rural MS was fair game. They were called "truck farmers". On some days, they participated in the farmer's markets in neighboring towns, but mostly they went door-to-door and sold their produce.
Eric Sloane (1905-1985)

They had routes that they would service. And a lot of times they bartered for things. Sometimes things that didn't really seem like a good idea at the time. When I was a teenager, my grandfather showed me an old sword he had. He'd took it in trade off an old woman years and years earlier. He didn't have any need for the sword, but I suspect she needed the produce, but didn't have any money, so she offered what she had. 

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 to 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. I think the secretly enjoyed the adventure.

Come to think of it, my stepfather and stepbrothers 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 his little store on skids 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" and "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.

Several years ago, I included a traveling salesman much like J. L. Jones in The Evergreen Bride (The 12 Brides of Christmas, Barbour Publishing) that came out in 2014. My fictional storeowner, Mr. Miller, owns Miller's Mercantile:

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. The traveling salesman, 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?

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The Crossing at Cypress Creek

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  1. Nowadays we cringe when salesmen come knocking on our door, but I think some of the "pop-up" businesses that some cities allow are similar to the peddlers of old. Thanks for the post!

  2. I remember the Watkins man and the Raleigh man stopping by the house in the 1950's to sell vanilla flavoring, spices, liniment, etc.