While for years people have discussed how the proliferation of Walmart across the country has contributed to the downfall of many towns’ historic downtown shopping districts, most people may not know that the same thing is happening in deeply rural parts of the country as well. As the number of Family Dollars and Dollar Generals has grown, the number of small country stores has rapidly declined. While these big chain stores can carry more items at lower prices and can be incredibly important in rural “food deserts”, they don’t have the same personality as independent stores. You certainly won’t get the same level of service from an hourly employee as you will from an owner/operator. I was very happy when the Marketing Director of Henderson County’s tourism department contacted me with a list of the six independent shops which were hanging on in Henderson County. I took a day to visit these six stores and meet the people who were running them and try and get a feel for how they are making a go of it. It was a great day in the American heartland. These places were sometimes hard to find, and some didn’t even have a sign out front at all. They were definitely catering to the locals more than the casual passers by, but all welcomed me in warmly with true Kentucky country hospitality. Henderson County’s country stores may not have had a lot on their shelves, but they were wonderful places with a lot of heart. While trying to capture the soul of these places on film was somewhat of a challenge, it was one I embraced. This is what I hoped to find as I traveled the country. These places are the very definition of the word “local”.
I started my day at Cagey’s General Store on route 811 in Reed. Cagey’s has been in that location since just after the Civil War, although it was rebuilt in 1936 after the original building burned to the ground. This was one of the better stocked of the country stores I visited, but it was also the most remote. When I visited, it was doing an excellent lunch business, and the club sandwich I had was fresh and delicious. While I was eating, I struck up a conversation with an older couple who had grown up in the area, but currently live in Florida. They told me that when they were growing up there were actually three stores in town, as families often only went to the city a few times a year. That day, they were enjoying a ride through the countryside, soaking up familiar views and sharing stories from their youth. This lovely couple really brought the past alive for me and reminded me of a time before the big chains started spreading into the heartland. Cagey’s is and always has been a center of the community there, and I hope they can thrive for years to come.
To find them, take route 811 North from Route 60 at Perfection Tool near the Green River and the Spotsville Bridge. - and just be aware that 811 crosses 60 twice near Reed and you want to take the western option. Go over the tracks and you can’t miss it.
Travelling across the Spotsville Bridge, I made my way down to Zion, where the tiny Zion Country Store has been serving the community for at least 50 years. In those days Randy and Diane Peckenpaugh owned it and there was a small lunch counter where Diane would whip up all kinds of things for the locals. It may have changed a bit over the years, but it’s still serving the community today. The shelves were stocked full in this tiny store, and they offer breakfast, sandwiches, burgers and pizzas as well. This is the only gas station in the area, and they also sell diesel and propane. While this store had the feel of a fairly modern gas station, it offered so much more than just chips and soda. There was a lot of traffic going past when I was there, and it seemed like the kind of place that people from the community were sure to frequent. Many people did just that while I was there to grab a sandwich, a cold drink or just to chew the fat. The ladies working there were a little camera-shy, but were friendly and welcoming nonetheless.
Zion Country Store is located right on busy Highway 351 in downtown Zion. If you are driving through Zion, you can’t miss it. Stop in, fuel up and recharge with one of their excellent hot submarine sandwiches.
Bryant’s Grocery has been serving customers in Hebbardsville since 1930. There is no sign out front, the mark of a truly local spot, and you might blow right past it if you aren’t paying attention. It’d be a shame if you did though. The centerpiece of this tiny town, people are always dropping in for a bite to eat or to catch up on all the gossip. I had the opportunity to do just that when I dropped by this out-of-the-way gem and met with Bonnie who owns the store with her husband Jerry. They bought the store a half-dozen years ago, and have been working hard to keep the tradition alive ever since. They’re open for breakfast and lunch and offer a wonderful bologna sandwich - a real treat that people who didn’t grow up eating don’t know what they’re missing. The seating area in back is cozy, but on a nice day you should sit out front and watch the world go by.
Bryant’s is located on Route 416 in Hebbardsville, right where it makes its turn. There isn’t a sign out front, but you really can’t miss it.
If you’re hungry at 6 a.m. in Henderson County, you should head out to Niagara, “The Heartbeat of Henderson County” and grab breakfast at the Niagara General Store. They’ll be open with coffee on and ready to go. Unlike Cagey’s or Bryant’s, you can’t miss the sign at this big store right in the middle of town. They offer a full breakfast menu and plenty of options for lunch as well. This place has some wonderful bric-a-brac on the shelves to look at while you wait for your meal, and a homely picnic table seating area in the back. Dan Todd and his wife own the Niagara and are striving to make it better every day.
Niagara General Store is also located on Route 416 in Niagara. They’re open from 6 a.m.to 2 p.m. so be sure you get there while they’re open.
Of all the wonderful people I met, John, who owns and runs the North-South Truck Stop Cafe was definitely the most outgoing. Maybe it’s from his years in the Air Force, or maybe it just comes naturally, but he welcomed me with a firm handshake and a big smile and was very happy to show off his cafe. The North-South was actually a truck stop at one time, but not since the parkway took most of the traffic away from Route 41 where the cafe is situated. A plain building with a small and simple sign, this is another place you could blow right past if you weren’t looking for it. Once you step inside though, it’s a warm and welcoming place with a friendly staff and a loyal local clientele. Their menu states right up front that the North-South is “not fancy, just good food”. They’ve been serving up hot meals to locals and travelers in the know since 1956. It’s even rumored that Johnny Cash used to stop here. The North-South is open early for breakfast as well: 5 a.m. during the week and 6 a.m. on Saturday, and stays open all the way until 8 p.m. making this the only place on my list which serves three meals a day.
The North-South is definitely worth a visit if you are traveling on Route 41 south of Robards, Kentucky, and worth the detour if you’re anywhere in the area. I’m sure John will be happy to see you. Be sure you save room for some pie.
The Geneva Store was the only place I visited on this journey that was west of the city of Henderson. It wasn’t far from downtown, and was definitely worth the drive. Serving the community of Geneva for over 70 years, this country store definitely has a loyal local following. There’s a picture on the wall of a young boy in front of the store in 1950. Not so young anymore, he still comes in every day. I really enjoyed meeting the owner, Mona, who bought the place just a few years ago. She told me that she has a group of regulars that are so regular you could probably set your watch by when they walk in the door. They sit in the same seat and often order the same thing. Mona loved them though, and wouldn’t have it any other way. She says they have a great location and get a lot of local workers coming in for lunch. They’re also right on the bike path, and have a tire pump and some basic tools in the back in case someone has a breakdown. They can fix their bike and get a cold drink while they do. The Geneva Store opens at 5 a.m. but closes at 3 p.m. so be sure you get there early. And if someone looks at you a little funny, it’s probably because you’re in their seat.
The Geneva Store is located on Route 136 west of Henderson. It’s just a short ride from downtown. Be sure to get a seat by the window.
I had a great time traveling around Henderson County and visiting these wonderful old stores. If you ever find yourself in the area, be sure to stop into any of these businesses and show your support for the small, the independent and the local.