My friend Melba McKeever’s daughter Mary Beth ran home to get two of her family treasures after I gave a lecture that she attended in Sneads Ferry, N.C. recently. They turned out to be account books that her grandfather, Ollie Marine, kept at his general store in the village of Marines in Onslow County, N.C., from 1927 to 1941.
Named for Ollie Marine’s ancestors, Marines sat on the east side of the New River, just across the river from Sneads Ferry. That land is now part of Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps base in the U.S.
Melba’s great-grandparents settled on that side of the New River before the Civil War. Rather ironically, given the village’s name, the U.S. Marine Corps took the land and moved out all the residents to make way for the construction of Camp Lejeune in 1941.
A Village Seen through its General Store
At first glance, the ledgers look less than riveting. They contain long lists of merchandise, columns of numbers (credits given, payments owed, the values of goods received), and page after page of individual customers’ accounts.
And yet, in their own way, the ledgers say a lot about the village and what kind of place it was and how people made their livings. Commerce is its own kind of art, and in Ollie Marine’s lists and numbers we get a portrait of Marines that we are not able to get any other way.
The store was one of only two in the village, and Marine didn’t only sell groceries and merchandise. He also paid cash or gave store credit in exchange for goods, so you can tell what local people were growing and how they were making their livings.
Marine also gave cash or store credit to people who did jobs for him, so you can tell a good deal about the village’s tradesmen and women, too.
In addition, he had a farm, a blacksmith shop (where he was the smithy) and the river’s only gristmill. At least some of those accounts show up in the store’s ledgers, too.
The gristmill stood in a shed next to the store. Farmers brought corn there to be ground not just from the village of Marines, but from the communities on other parts of the river as well.
One of the places they came from was Fulford’s Landing, on the other side of the New River. (It’s now part of Sneads Ferry.) In the photograph to the right, taken sometime between 1938 and 1941, you can see a trio of men carrying hefty bags of cornmeal home. They’ve just returned to Fulford’s Landing, after carrying their corn across the river to Ollie Marine’s gristmill.
Marine’s store ledgers cover the last 14 years of the community’s existence, prior to the military’s confiscation of the land and the forced removal of the village’s people.
A Little Bit of Everything
The store’s first ledger is untitled. It begins in 1927 and runs to 1937. The second, labeled “Day Book No. 7,” runs from 1937 to 1941.
Like most country stores in eastern N.C., Marine’s store carried precious few luxury goods in the 1920s and early ‘30s. The only exceptions were plug tobacco, cigarettes and soft drinks, if you consider them luxury goods.
But you get a good sense of what people bought at the store from the ledgers. Some items are constant. Again and again, you see coffee, flour, molasses, salt, sugar, kerosene oil and gasoline.
Marine seems to have carried a little bit of everything, though: nails, thread, lace, vanilla, writing tablets, fly spray, hair grease, Coca-Colas, shoe polish, medicines, stove wicks, and on and on.
As the worst years of the Great Depression passed, he also began to carry a few more exotic foods, like the occasional box of pineapples or bananas.
Increasingly, he also sold local farm products. A few years earlier, most of the New River’s people would have either grown or made them for themselves, or they would have done without: milk, butter, lard, sausage meat, fresh cabbages and potatoes.
His purchase of an icebox sometime in the late 1930s made some of those items practical to carry for the first time.
The Working Man’s Lunch
That was the beginning of the era of canned goods, too. They show up in Marine’s accounts repeatedly: corn beef hash, potted meats, Vienna sausage, beans, peaches, sardines and mackerel—“the working man’s lunch,” I’ve often heard old timers call them.
No doubt many of the hands that worked at the little lumber yard just outside the village, and the guys that worked on the road crews, and others, ate their lunches and caught up with the local gossip at the store.
His customers all ran credit accounts. Those were hard years, after the tobacco crash in 1927, and then the Great Depression. Credit was the only way to run a business. While not even as big as many convenience stores today, the Ollie Marine’s store had pretty much everything his customers needed that they couldn’t grow or catch themselves.
His customers came into the store, picked out what they needed, and Marine would get it and charge it to their account, if he was confident that they were buying something that was not beyond their means to pay back.
His daughter, my friend Melba—who, by the way, is a flourishing 92 years old now— told me that he had hardly any schooling, but he was renown for his wide reading and encyclopedic knowledge. He certainly had to know a lot about men’s characters and their businesses.
Most of his store’s patrons were farmers. They’d pay him back for seed, fertilizer, groceries, plow bits and other supplies after they harvested their tobacco, cotton or peanuts.
Others paid their bills in other ways. A fellow named C. C. Garuto did repair work on his truck and automobile. Another gentleman, Bruce Harrison, did engine work for him, probably either on his boat engine or on the gasoline engine that powered the store’s gristmill. Jack Robinson, presumably a carpenter or cabinetmaker, did work on his house.
Some of the store’s customers did day labor on Marine’s tobacco farm. He probably only had a few acres of tobacco, if that, but even a small plot of tobacco was valuable.
For most local farmers, a successful tobacco crop was their only chance for cash profit. While that might or might not have been the case for Ollie Marine, tobacco was his only crop worth spending money to hire laborers. A local black farmer, Jim Bell, did a lot of his plowing.
Eggs, Salt Ham and a Skunk Hide
A multitude of little jobs revolved around the store. In May 1937 Marine gave Arnie Robinson $4.70 in store credit for shelling pecans. Others cut firewood. John Dexter, a fisherman, shucked oysters.
There’s also a notation on Dexter’s account for October 21, 1934 that credits him 75 cents for “work on fish.” That was presumably his pay for cleaning, salting and packing fish.
Nobody was getting rich. In 1937, the ledger indicates that M. J. Hobbs did “20 Hrs. Work” for him. Hobbs was credited $2.50, or 12 and ½ cents an hour. More than once, I’ve heard that was the local going rate for hard labor, until the building of the U.S. Army’s Camp Davis 12 miles west at Holly Ridge turned everything upside down in 1939.
Others brought in things they raised on their farms, harvested in the river or caught in their traps. A few farmers sold small quantities of their money crops at the store, usually tobacco or cotton, but sometimes potatoes or peanuts. One farmer sold pork cracklings to the store.
Quite a few traded chicken eggs. Raymond Henderson, for one, traded eggs, but he also brought in a salt ham on July 10, 1937. After a hog killing, F. A. Smith brought in lard, another time a ham. Earl Fonville brought in a skunk hide on December 13, 1929.
Ella Bell, presumably a widow or single woman, was one of the store’s regular customers. She often brought in eggs, though once, on June 7, 1927, she also gained store credit by doing $1.20 worth of washing.
Elma Munyford, another female head of household, cut firewood for store credit in the winter of 1932.
Salt Fish and Oysters
Quite a few men brought in oysters, clams and fish. A notation of “fish” meant salt fish, almost certainly salted spots or jumpin’ mullet (striped mullet). Like nearly all proprietors of general stores in eastern North Carolina, Marine kept a barrel of salt fish at the store for retail sale, but he shipped the bulk of the fish elsewhere.
The New River had been famous for its oysters since at least the mid-19th century. In the 1930s, the local oysters still brought premium prices at markets in Wilmington, New Bern and elsewhere.
An oysterman’s was a hard life, though. You worked hard, you often worked in frigid weather, and you made little profit. There were times during the Great Depression when you could hardly give the oysters away.
In the fall of 1932, for instance, John Dexter sold oysters to the store. The ledger doesn’t indicate the quantity he sold, but it had to have been a day’s work, so at least several bushels. He made 15 cents.
I don’t know anything about John Dexter, but I know from other oystermen’s stories from that time period that oystering led many a man to despair and drink. The brevity of oysterman’s lives was proverbial.
A New Pair of Overalls and a Flour Bag Dress
Marine traded with both white and black. Many of his African American accounts are rather sparse, however.
The account of Henry Fair for 1931, for instance, shows 36 purchases of merchandise, but the highest charge is $1.49.
Overall, though, I don’t see a big difference between the black and white customers. Plenty of white customers had just as much of nothing.
Some of Marine’s black customers, such as Jim Bell, Alonzo Bell and Belford Montford, clearly did as much trading at the store and did as much work for him as anybody, or more.
Some people only did business with Marine during the fall. I suspect that those were tenant farmers and sharecroppers in whom he had less confidence. He treated them as “cash only” customers and the only time they had cash was after the harvest, if then.
Those farmers probably traded for only a few staples that they couldn’t grow at home: flour and kerosene, for instance. In many years, they hoped only to be able to afford a new pair of overalls and brogans for their boys, and a new dress and shoes for their girls to wear to school. The rest of the year they made do.
The Last Days of Marines
The last entry in the first ledger, a simple payment made by a man named J. H. Barnhill, is dated February 8, 1938. Barnhill paid 31 cents to Marine for merchandise that he had bought the previous December. That was of course at Christmastime. He may have purchased a little penny candy or a few oranges for his children’s stockings.
The last entry in the second ledger, the Day Book # 7, is that for Lem Millis, with no details as to what he purchased. The date was Sept. 26, 1941. That was only a few days before the military finished removing people from the land and the village of Marines was abandoned.
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I would like to offer a thousand thousand thanks to Melba Marine McKeever, Mary Beth McKeever and Terri McKeever for their friendship and their help with this story!