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Suddenly it’s 1909

You realize you are standing in a small corner of history remarkably untouched by more than a century of change.

Nearly 100 years ago Thomas Bros. Country Store first opened its doors when Ner and Nettie Heiges Thomas, local school teachers, decided to enter a career in merchandising. They established a general store across Main Street from its present location on Biglerville’s square. In later years Ner Thomas began to share his responsibilities in partnership with his two daughters, the late Miss Jean Thomas and Mrs. Marion Thomas Harbaugh who continues to run the store today.

 

 

One of the few remaining country general stores in the nation, Thomas Bros. Country Store is also the town’s oldest business. Established in 1909 it was moved to its present location in 1911. Even before construction began, residents were aware that something unusual was happening. A weatherboard house stood on the present store site until, one day,
it was seen rolling south on Main Street by means of windlass, logs, planks rollers, block and tackle. The house still stands on Main Street.

 

 

When the store was built the rural people came from all around to watch the construction of this “amazing structure” with high ceilings covered with elaborate pressed tin panels. The store was built as a community center with four floors. The basement housed a restaurant and harness shop with steps leading from the north side. The store proper occupied the remainder of the basement, the first floor, and part of the second as well as an attached warehouse.

It was the first structure in the area to have central heat, indoor plumbing and electricity which was provided by a Delco Plant housed in a small separate building. In those early years the Country Store served for everything from a supplementary schoolhouse to a community hall. The second floor was occupied by The Knights of the Golden Eagle, a lodge that rented the spacious front room, S.E. Kapp’s insurance office, the US. Fruit Inspection Office, Dr. Dills Dentist Office, and the Biglerville Free Library where election ballots were sometimes cast. On the third floor was a large auditorium where school graduation ceremonies and plays were held. Traveling Vaudeville dog and animal shows entertained audiences. Donkey basketball games were held there and donkeys were led up the fire escape. The congregation of the Reformed Church met in the large room until their church was completed. Also on same floor a small room was used by Biglerville’s Town Band as its headquarters. In the basement, carpenter Charles Myers was proprietor of a restaurant and Paul-Nitchman operated a saddle and harness shop.

 

 

Thomas Bros. Country Store provided all the needs of the surrounding community. The doors opened at 5 a.m. to accommodate the farmers who brought their milk to the Hershey Creamery by horse and wagon. They came early so the milk could ship out on the first train. The store remained open until 11:00 p.m. It was closed Sundays, of course.

 

 

This emporium catered to all the wishes of the locals -- an unbelievable inventory of merchandise including a complete hardware department with a glass room (holding all sizes of panes) and an extensive display of patent medicines “for man and beast.” Window shades were cut to order and linoleum was laid. Large Brussels rugs, wall paper, and Singer sewing machines could be purchased, as well as kitchen utensils and even 100 piece sets of china. The dry goods department was especially extensive. High stools lined the counters where shoppers sat for hours going through pattern books and choosing cloth and trim to make their sheets, curtains, table cloths (a must in these days) tea towels and even bath towels. All household items were made at home as well as clothing for the family. To accommodate these needs, hundreds of bolts of

 

 

fabric lined the walls and rose to the ceiling. Even coats and finest dress were made at home or by the dressmaker. The one item not made at home, a must to be worn at the time, was ladies’ hats. So Thomas Bros. Country Store had a complete “Millinery Shop” on the second floor. Securing professional milliners and supplies from Baltimore, the Thomas Bros. Store was able to provide local ladies with “custom made” chapeaux in the latest style. That was a real mark of distinction for Biglerville in those days. A large selection of leather shoes for the family was provided. In the early days, the ladies wore high button or lace shoes, boots, galoshes, rubbers, felt shoes, and even sneakers by Ball Band (considered the best) were displayed. All of the above discussed items were wrapped from large bolts of paper and tied with string--no bags were used for these items.

For the men there were overalls and long heavy underwear known as union suits. The summer versions were one-piece fabric garments known as BVDs. In these early days, shirts were often made at home but the stiff celluloid collars had to be purchased at the store. For the fashion conscious man, Mr. Thomas would take his measurements and order a “custom made” suit from the Royal Taylor Company in Chicago. Choice of fabric was made from a huge book of swatches, and local homemakers would beg for the outdated swatches to make wool comforters.

 

 

Of course the center of attraction was the grocery department. Customers would bring in eggs (often very dirty), butter, lard, live chickens, turkeys, and guineas in trade for the very few items they did not produce. All customers were “waited on” by clerks. Shopping was a long drawn out affair--jokes and local news interspersed the acquiring of each item. The purchaser read from his “list” or handed the note to the clerk who “filled the order.” The grocery merchandise arrived at the train station one block east in wooden crates, barrels, and cloth bags. Nearly every item was sold in bulk from barrels, huge tin cans, and tubes. These were the days before packaging when almost every item had to be weighed or counted and wrapped with paper and string.

In 1909 everyone, even those living in town, had their own garden, chickens and often a cow. (The Thomas family had their garden one block away on land they purchased especially for the use.) Indeed people of the era were quite self-sufficient. The grocery needs were slight. The most essential purchase was sugar which was needed in canning fruit and jellies. Many families bought granulated sugar in 100-pound cloth bags thereby acquiring enough fabric to make into a dress or shirt. Other essentials were pepper, salt, and spices--all items they could not produce. Also popular was molasses which the Thomas Bros. Store had in three large

 

 

their own jar or tin pail to be set under the spigot. (In the winter it took forever to fill the containers). Vinegar was sold likewise from the barrel. Peanut butter was scooped out onto a cardboard plate. (Every clerk dipped their cracker while weighing--Umm good!) Kerosene, also from a barrel, was a must for those lucky enough to get a new fan-dangled Perfection Stove for which Thomas Bros. Country Store was the dealer.

 

 

Reminiscing about the old days, Ner Thomas recalls “Getting here was part of the fun”, he laughs. “Shoppers walked or rode buggies from Arendtsville, Bendersville and other nearby communities over dirt roads often converted to seas of mud on rainy days”. But those early customers did enjoy themselves exchanging news and gossip around an old pot-bellied stove and kibitzing at the checkerboard game constantly in progress over a cracker barrel. Still known for its wide variety of merchandise, Thomas Bros Country Store has always offered a fascinating jumble for customers’ selection. It was once a dealer for Singer sewing machines and an outlet for Royal Taylor’s men’s suits. And so it is today. You can still find handmade bonnets, Amish hats.

 

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