The Cook Store gate-keeps stories far beyond the business.
LON – Chipped of paint and stiff with age, the Cook Store’s weather-worn screen doors guard secrets of a bygone era: Signs, in a literal sense, that make it seem the little store is open for business. But creaky and stubborn, those doors protest loudly when asked to open.
After all, it’s been 16 years since they shook hands with the store’s last customer.
Inside, a 1976 wall calendar watches time pass out the window. It sees the cherry-red chairs on the porch, beckoning visitors to sit a spell. Just as locals used to do.
Back when the Cook Store was making memories instead of being one.
Original tin, dating back to 1913 when the “new” building was constructed, still decorates the store.
The store is silent these days, save for the memories that haunt it.
“Pull up a nail keg and try a bottle of that new peach flavored soda pop,” echoes Earl Cook, the store’s longtime owner. “It came out years ago with the flavor of cling peaches. This time it’s freestones.”
Cook said those words back in 1981. Perhaps they were spoken from his perch behind the counter.
“He would sit right here with his feet propped up,” says John George, showing off a spot next to the window. “And he’d wave when you walked around the corner. He wanted to see who was coming and going.”
John and his wife, Ramona, own the building today and live just up the road. The Pierce City couple moved to the small community of Lon — where the store is located — in the early ’90s.
“The idea of having such an iconic little store was part of the appeal of living here,” says Ramona George.
But the store wasn’t always a quaint nicety. In its early days, it was a necessity: Frequent trips to town for farmers were simply unrealistic, especially back in 1904 when the store began.
“It was a long dirt road to town and people didn’t want to do it,” says George.
In those early days, the store housed a post office as well as an Odd Fellows Lodge. But both closed years before H.S. Cook, Earl Cook’s father, bought the business in 1924. By that point, the store was on its second building; the “new” one was constructed in 1913 across the road from its original location.
At the time, Cook’s father also acquired a Model T truck to enhance the investment. “My Dad thought that truck was a big improvement, but he didn’t realize the coming of cars and trucks would be responsible for the closing of most small country stores,” said Cook in 1985.
But at the time, the truck was used to haul farmers’ wares to town: The Cooks were newfangled when compared to the store’s previous owners, who carried freight with a wagon and team.
“It would haul 20 sacks of feed,” echoes Cook’s words, spoken of the truck, from 1981. “It was real slow on the upgrade. We took sour cream to Springfield twice each week until milk routes started in the area. Dad traded and took in all sorts of produce from farmers in the area. In fact, the first year he operated the store, Dad took in more produce than he sold in merchandise. But we eventually stocked enough goods that we could fill most anyone’s needs…”
On April 1, 1945, Cook bought the business from his father. “The fact that I bought the business on April Fool’s Day has nothing to do with my still being here today,” he said years later.
It wasn’t his first time to own a store: He and his wife, Letha, opened one on Division Street in Springfield in 1936. But when Letha died in 1945, Cook took his 5-year-old daughter, Ann, back to the store in Lon.
And that’s where he stayed for the rest of his life.
Lon’s one-stop shop
The Cook Store in 1959 (The Springfield Daily News)
In its early days, the store’s shelves were stocked with clothing, yard goods, horse collars and pads, shoes, churns, shaving mugs, lamps, hardware, footwear and the like. Later, feed became a big deal — so important, in fact, that Earl added a room for it on the side of the store in 1947. An early historic preservationist (or perhaps a fiscal conservative), Cook took pains to carefully remove the original tin siding and replace it on the new part of the building.
It’s a space that remembers what it was designed to do: Paper labels, some barely clinging on, still show where different varieties of feed were stacked.
Electricity, thanks to the local rural electric cooperative, came to the store in 1949. It illuminated a whole new world, making refrigerated goods such as lunch meat, milk and cheese also available.
For years, another hot seller was gasoline. “There was a gas pump here when my dad bought the store, but he used more gas than he sold,” said Cook. “It had a hand pump which sat right over the storage tank, and pumped a gallon just like a kerosene dispenser.”
That old tank held around 100 gallons — in later years, that number grew to a capacity of 11,000.
“We sell more gasoline all the time as people build more and move into the area,” said Cook on another occasion. “We catch a lot of to-and-from work trade.”
Shopping and socializing
Generations have greeted the door’s well-worn handle.
The store’s hardwood floors recall footfalls of generations gone. The original tin ceiling reflects history; its walls tell the laugher of a joke well told. After all, the store wasn’t only for shopping. It was also for socializing. “Everybody’s friendly,” observed Cook in 1959. “We’re all like one big family.”
George points out a ledge that’s worn smooth from sitting; for years, there was also an oak bench alongside the old wood stove for those visiting friends. “We’ve taken pretty good care of that bench,” said Cook.
So many stories were told there. Perhaps even a few of them were true.
Take a look around the Cook Store today
Thomas Bitting sees those storytellers in his mind’s eye. He and his brother, Buddy, rode bikes all over the area collecting bottles to sell to Cook in the late 1960s.
“I think they were worth a dime apiece back then,” he recalls, who worked at the nearby Buena Vista Ranch. “…And on my way home, (I’d) stop there on my bike for a bottle of pop. It was about half way home and I’d sit for a while and listen to the old men tell stories.”
And maybe, once in a while, they were interrupted by the ring of a telephone.
“A modern day farmwife, knowing that her husband has gone to the community store to get gas for his tractor may decide she wants a grocery item or some other commodity and telephones Cook to ‘tell Jim to bring home’ whatever it is,” reported the Springfield Daily News. “Or someone may see a neighbor driving down the road in a car in the direction of the store and call up to have him bring by ‘this or that,’ whatever might have been forgotten in an earlier trip from that household.”
And then there were the afternoon school-bus stops, when the driver would let kids run in to the store for a snack. “If we had money to get out and buy pop and candy, we were allowed to do that,” says Sue Evans, who was a rider on that school bus around 1960.
Evidence, however, shows that the stops went back much earlier: A 1998 article in The Ozarks Mountaineer featured Rex Barnard, a Rogersville school bus driver, who stopped once a week in the ’40s for the students to get treats.
Rex Barnard drove a school bus in the 1940s and stopped at the Cook Store for kids to purchase sweets. (Photo from The Ozarks Mountaineer)
But Evans’ memories of the store aren’t limited to those Friday afternoons. She lived just down the road with her grandparents, and made a trip with them there every Saturday morning. “At the time, my grandparents could get about anything they needed at that store,” she says. “We very seldom had to shop anywhere else…”
Cook felt the same way. “If we didn’t have it, they didn’t need it,” he laughed in 1998.
Evans recalls the big butcher block that Cook sliced meat on, the orange “push-up” frozen treats, and how busy those Saturday mornings were. “People were coming in and out all the time,” she says, and notes a lot of her time was spent playing on the porch and watching the cars go by.
“I just kind of miss that time,” she says. “I wish that store was still open.”
Cook and customer in 1985 (Courtesy of Jim Mayfield)
Malona Williams wasn’t at the store as often as Evans was: Instead of Saturday morning shopping trips, she occasionally rode her bike — along with the rest of her family — down to the store for a grape Nehi as a child in the early 1980s.
“(Mr. Cook) always greeted you with a smile and a ‘Hi, how are you?'” recalls Williams. Her memories of the “warm, inviting” place paint a picture of a relaxed pace, one where “nobody was in a hurry.”
And, of course, they recall the store’s friendly shopkeeper.
“(Mr. Cook) was your friend as well as someone down the road selling you stuff,” she says.
A sign, at least 30 years old, still identifies the store.
A good businessman, Cook knew that change was necessary and evolved the store as time progressed. “You have to keep pace and change with the times,” he said in 1981.
Despite these efforts, the store’s heyday was over by the time the Georges became came on the scene in the early ’90s. The store’s small-town taste, however, wasn’t a thing of the past. “There were always the same pickup trucks here,” says George. “It was a gathering spot for the old timers every day.”
One change was the gas pumps, which disappeared in the early 1990s after the Environmental Protection Agency dictated their removal. But by that time, “it was a blessing in disguise,” says Cook. “(I) wasn’t making anything on it anyway.”
As time passed, the store’s shelves began to empty. By the mid-’90s, Cook primarily stocked soft drinks, candy bars, tobacco and a few grocery items. But he never really planned to retire. “I like people and enjoy the business so I’ll be around as long as the Lord is willing to let me stay,” he said in 1981.
And continue he did: Five days a week, until that last day came in 2000. The day, when with ill health to blame, Cook locked the door for the last time. “He just wasn’t able to run it any more,” says George.
For the first time in a nearly 95-year-long history, the little country Cook Store was closed.
Virtually the rest of Cook’s life was spent living across the street from the store, nursed by a son-in-law. He was within view, but not reach, of the store where he’d spent so many years and gained so many memories.
And when the 93-year-old died in January 2007, all that described those six decades was a simple sentence in his obituary: “For more than 60 years, he operated the Cook Store on Highway AD, retiring in 2000, due to his declining health.”
It was a short line for a long legacy.
Remembering for tomorrow
The Georges have been approached about selling the original tin ceiling — but they’ve declined. “Well, that would ruin the whole place,” says George.
Four years after the store closed, the Georges bought the store. They have a tenant who lives upstairs, and now use the building to periodically host antique sales.
“We get a turnout of local people who just want to come back in,” says George. He recounts one woman, now in her 90s, who came and sat down in a chair in the corner. “She said, ‘I just want to come in and sit in the store.'”
And, indeed, many aspects of the building look the same as they did to the nonagenarian’s child-eyes. Cook himself didn’t change much over the years, and the history-loving Georges have preserved much of the building as a larger-than-life time capsule.
A roll of paper, bolted to the counter, waits expectantly to wrap purchases; a rack, long empty, stands ready to show off battery cables. A chalkboard sign for Royal Crown Cola still offers regular unleaded gasoline for .99 a gallon.
It was probably the last price Cook sold the stuff for.
Barbed wire, in so many different styles, is found on a shelf; perhaps long-ago samples for farmers looking to order for their fields. In the feed room, the vintage air compressor waits expectantly to run again.
Because, you know, it still can.
And as years fly, seemingly quicker than the cars buzzing by, the store sits and watches. And remembers. Just as the people do: Haunted by friendly, ghost-like memories that invitingly seem to say, “Come, stop and sit a spell.”
Earl Cook and his store in 1985. (Courtesy of Jim Mayfield)
Want to see the store?
John and Ramona George are planning to have another sale this spring, but a definite date hasn’t been set yet. Watch Ozarks Alive’s Facebook page for further updates.
Earl Cook’s quotes were sourced from the following articles:
Among the Last of the ‘Mom and Pops,‘ Donna Baxter, The Ozarks Mountaineer, October/November 1998
Grocery store on Highway AD has seen much time pass, B. Fairchild, The Marshfield Mail, Sept. 6, 1995
Cook’s Store changes with the times, Jim Mayfield, Springfield Leader & Press, July 9, 1985
Cook’s Store keeps pace with changing times, unknown publication, June 1981
Saga of a 70-year-old country store, Mary Ritchie, Springfield Daily News, Aug. 24, 1959