Monday, June 4, 2012

Finding the old Gordonton Store

That store might have been anywhere.  Tidewater Virginia.  South Carolina Lowlands.  A Georgia swamp. Florida Panhandle, or maybe, most likely, somewhere in Louisiana.  Might even have been in Alabama, as a well-known New York gallery print once noted on the back. Friends of mine bought a copy, believing it was taken down there.  It wasn't.

The photo was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1939, when she was doing work for the Farm Security Administration, photographing examples of poverty and the plight of migrants as well as American farmers during the Depression.  Here's a photo of Lange when she was taking pictures in California:

The print will be familiar to many.  I think I first saw it back in college days, and H.G. Jones, the longtime curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill, included it in his "North Carolina Illustrated 1524-1984." It's an icon for many of what life might have been like, in one small place on one day, in the Depression-era South.

I remember when it appeared on the cover of one of the early issues, maybe the first, of "Southern Cultures" magazine pubished by historians at UNC.  I told Harry Watson, a boyhood friend who had become a professor of history at Chapel Hill, how much I liked it, and he told me it had been taken barely an hour's drive north of Chapel Hill. Here's a copy of that photo.

Not long ago a friend who grew up in Person County mentioned the photo, and told me the store was still standing. I was amazed to hear that, because the photo of the old store made it look as though it might cave in. It seemed to be held up by the metal drink and cigarette signs nailed to the wall, some old cedar or cypress posts, some stacks of rock holding up the porch, and habit.

Just the other day I was coming back from Raleigh a little earlier than I had expected. Driving up Highway 86 near the old Warren place in Prospect Hill, I eased onto N.C. 49 headed toward Roxboro, hoping to run across Gordonton some ways up the road.  Gordonton, it turns out, is little more than a crossroads, but out of the corner of my eye I spotted the store as I came around a curve. It's a little different now -- a big tree grown up and overgrown at one corner, some different siding hiding two of the three second-story windows, but those porch posts are a dead giveaway. Here's a snap I took:

 The metal drink signs and fuel pumps are gone. I don't know about Raney Baynes, the white man leaning in the doorway of the original (and said to be either the owner, or brother of the owner), but there's no question (and never was, judging by how many people have posted something on the Web about the store and its location) where it is.  And those stones holding up the porch sure look familiar, too.

Coulda been anywhere. But there it was.


  1. Jack, your story brought back many memories. We have had two fine gentlemen in our family pass away this year. They lived through the Depression and that event shaped them into great men who loved their families. Thanks for the ride down memory lane.

  2. From “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits”:
    “Lange became aware… that the rural South could be part of a global economy even as its workers knew only their local community. She was shocked to find that a Gordonton [Person County], North Carolina, woman had never heard of California….
    “This was changing, Lange observed as she listened to the aspirations of her interviewees. The woman who did not know about California had heard of Amelia Earhart and wished she could travel. ‘I’ve never been nowhere except to Durham and Danville. All I’ve seen is corn and tobacco — and a houseful of children.’ “
    More about Lange in North Carolina here:
    -- Lew