By Joann M. Ringelstetter
In early May of 2010, on our way home from our North Carolina visit, we had planned to spend our last day photographing on the back roads of Kentucky. The afternoon before, as we left West Virginia and drove into Kentucky, it became overcast and then began to rain. It rained all through the night and we left our motel in the early morning rain.
Ruth had lined up a number of old grocery stores to visit that morning. At every one, I struggled to capture them in the driving rain. As we stopped to photograph Goldy’s Grocery, in addition to the rain, some very ominous clouds quickly moved in and we decided we’d better try to drive out of the approaching storm.
Our next stop was Blevins Grocery in the small town of Preston. In her research prior to our trip, Ruth had discovered that folks often “hung out” on the front porch of the store. We were looking forward to capturing some nostalgic scenes; however, it was Sunday and we figured that the store would be closed. As we pulled into the parking lot across the road from the store, there was a torrential downpour, along with lightning.
Even though it was early on a Sunday morning, the old grocery store was indeed open and there were men sitting on the porch socializing and watching the rain come down. We sat there in the car for about 20 minutes waiting for the rain and lightning to let up, but it wasn’t about to do that. Heavy rains are not exactly good for a camera and lightning is certainly not good for a photographer, especially one who is standing there with a metal tripod.
The longer we sat there, the more disappointed I became that we would have to leave without capturing this wonderful, old-fashioned scene. So I looked at Ruth and said, “I just can’t bear to leave without SOMETHING! I’m going to go for it as soon as the rain lets up even the slightest bit.” In a few minutes, the rain slowed just a bit and I jumped out of the car, grabbed the camera, tripod, and umbrella from the back seat, and set up in the rain.
I’m sure those men thought that I was absolutely crazy, but they were also happy to have their picture taken. One of them jumped up, looked in through the screen door, and shouted, “Hey, everybody, come out here. Someone’s taking pictures!” Soon, a couple more men came out of the store and sat down. A minute or two later, the owner of the store came out and sat for just a minute to make sure he was in the picture, too.
After snapping just a few precious photos, I grabbed my gear and darted across the road and into the little country store. I talked with the owner, Rubin Blevins for a few minutes and he told me that he and his wife had been operating the store for 40 years. He runs the store and his wife runs the post office, which is in a little room attached to the store. She also helps out with the store. He said that the post office was open two hours a day from 9:00 to 11:00 am. The store is open seven days a week from 7:00 am until 6:00 pm Monday through Saturday, and from 7:00 to 10:00 am on Sunday. He closes at 10:00 am on Sunday so that he can go to church.
I walked across the weathered wooden floor, past the old coal stove, to the vintage Ale-8 cooler at the back of the store. Ruth had told me that I needed to be sure to buy a couple bottles of this regional ginger-flavored soft drink. If it hadn’t been so early in the morning, I might have also purchased a “Preston Steak Sandwich,” which is actually old-fashioned bologna sliced with an antique meat slicer. On my way out of the store, I photographed the rusty old Rainbo bread sign that was attached to the screen door.
A couple of months after our visit there, the Owingsville/Bath County Chamber of Commerce gave Blevins Grocery the honor of being named Business of the Year. According to the book, “Nana’s ScRaMbLeD Memories,” by Jodie Blevins Ratliff and published in 2011, Blevins Grocery is 82 years old and her parents, Rube and Helen Blevins, have owned and operated the store for 42 years. The store is still in its original state, with “no running water, no restrooms, no electric or gas heat and no air conditioning.”
The train tracks that were used in the early days to deliver the mail to Preston and the gas pumps that dispensed Regular and High Test (unleaded) gas are now a distant memory. One thing, however, that hasn’t changed is how the Blevins treat their customers, old and new. They treat them like family. If you ever have the pleasure of visiting Blevins Grocery in Bath County, Kentucky, be sure to have yourself a “Preston Steak Sandwich” and a bottle of cold Ale-8.
Happy New Year and Happy Shunpiking!