End of an era

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 7, 2001

Once upon a time the rural landscape of Butler County was dotted with these businesses, mostly simple frame structures. They often featured a couple of low-tech gas pumps out front along with a bench or two so local folks could come by and sit a spell (and gossip a spell more.)

Many times a large thermometer touting a favorite soft drink hung by the entrance-just "so's you'd know" it really WAS hotter than You-Know-Where' that day.

As a genuine country kid, you'd bound through the screen doors with their familiar squeak and bang and enter a treasure trove to explore.

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Oh, sure there were all sorts of meats, canned goods, cleaning supplies, shampoo, toothpaste-but what about the GOOD stuff?

That's right, jar upon jar of tantalizing penny candy (that actually cost just a penny), fishing supplies, stacks of coloring books and comics, forbidden pouches of snuff, packs of smokes' and lots more.

Of course, frosty cold bottles of Co-Colas', Grape Nehis and Orange Crushes were just waiting to be fished out of ice-filled coolers.

It was a perfectly delicious and harmless way to quench a south Alabama-sized thirst on a scorching July afternoon.

Welcome to the old-fashioned country store, where the atmosphere was homey, not high-tech.

This was a place where you were more than just a customer; you were also neighbor and friend.

I speak in the past tense, because these special places keep dwindling away.

The area is about to lose yet one more.

Saucer's Grocery, located in the Liberty community just off Highway 10 West, closes its doors on Saturday, April 7, 2001, after 36 years in its present location.

But the connection between its dapper 82-year-old owner, Tommy Saucer, and the country store biz' goes back a long way.

In 1929, an 11-year-old boy got started in the grocery business in Oakey Streak.

How does a kid that age become a budding entrepreneur?

"I started out using $5 credit at Mr. Ed Tillman's country store.

My grandfather stood the bill, but he never had to pay it," explains Mr. Saucer. (It certainly didn't hurt that the young storeowner was a natural "whiz" at mathematics.)

The savvy young businessman always worked and paid his own bills in order to operate his store.

Along with Mr. Tillman, Mr. Saucer did business over the years with Mr. Marvin Stallings, Metcalf Wholesale, Beeland Wholesale and Sellers Wholesale (Montgomery).

Sometimes he'd head into Georgiana to do business with Morgan and Sons.

For six years he maintained his Oakey Streak location, then moved to the Hillary Hughes property where the business operated for 30 years. Back in 1936, Mr. Saucer added gasoline to his grocery sales.

Since 1965, he and Lois, his petite, soft-spoken bride of more than 57 years, have run Saucer's Grocery in its current Liberty location. "From the very beginning, each store was always called Saucer's Grocery," Mr. Saucer says with a proud smile.

As this elderly gentleman glances around the interior of the small cement-floored white frame building, his bespectacled eyes take in the half-empty shelving along its walls.

He shakes his head of handsome silver hair a little sadly.

"I have never seen the shelves looking so empty around here," he murmurs.

During the store's heyday those shelves overflowed with most anything one might need.

Like many country stores, Mr. and Mrs. Saucer offered cured and fresh meats-bacon, bologna, pork chops, sausage, wieners, cheeses and more, cut and wrapped to order. "One visiting family down here bought $600 worth of meat and took some of it back with him to Ohio," the store owner exclaims.

Mr. Saucer shows off an antique hand scoop.

"Know what this was for?" he asks with a chuckle. "Back in the old days, you'd use one of these to scoop up anything from meal or sugar to flour, even salt," he explains.

"Staples like those came in big barrels or sacks back then, and cooking oil came in big drums," comments Mrs. Saucer. She adds, smiling, "Back then Cokes were only 5 cents . . . sardines and potted meat were 5 cents a can."

Mrs. Saucer says that the popular vice of smoking cost customers a mere 15 cents a pack and the choices were largely limited to the Lucky Strike, Camel, and Chesterfield brands.

Yes, prices were low-but so were wages, if you were lucky enough to have a job.

During the difficult days of the Great Depression, many families, black and white alike, were going hungry.

The Saucers were authorized, by Mr. Lesley Nall and Mr. Ed Lassiter (of the Roosevelt administration), to give food to the poor and needy.

Any bills these needy people could not pay were to be given to Lassiter who would then reimburse the storeowners.

From the Roosevelt Era to the Korean War, the enterprising Saucers routinely bought chickens, eggs, cotton, hogs and pecans and also delivered groceries to customers.

During the lean times of WW II the couple learned to deal with books of ration stamps for goods ranging from sugar to gasoline.

And what did gas go for in the "good old days"? "Oh, about 15 cents to 25 cents a gallon," Mr. Saucer says.

"And customers were complaining back then, too," his wife laughs.

While the Saucers always extended credit to patrons, they eventually had to give up involvement in the federal Food Stamp program.

All the bureaucratic "red tape" proved to cause them monetary loss and a big "headache."

Not only have they seen prices rise astronomically over the decades, the social climate has also changed dramatically.

The store has been robbed on several occasions, with one robbery last year costing the business over $1,000.

People pull up for gas almost routinely and then take off without paying for it.

"So far, there have been no robberies with guns.

But you never know about folks anymore, they've gotten so MEAN so young," comments Mrs. Saucer with sorrow and disgust.

The Saucers say their three children, Thomas, Frances and Rickey, along with the children's spouses, have been encouraging the couple to retire and "take it easy" for some time now.

"They worry about our health and safety, you know," says Mrs. Saucer, adding in a bittersweet tone, "I know we're going to miss it, being able to see everybody day in and out. We probably wouldn't give it up except for these health problems."

She motions down with her cane toward the leg scheduled for imminent knee replacement surgery.

"Too many years on this unforgiving old concrete floor has pretty much ruined this knee of mine," she sighs.

Many friends and acquaintances have been stopping in to wish the couple well, including customer and neighbor Frank Page.

Page admits he's "gonna hate to see the doors [to Saucer's] close that one last time . . .it's been a part of the community here for so long. They [the Saucers] just like my family.

I just don't want em to start "rusting" out all the sudden cause they are retiring."

And what is this hard-working couple's plan for happily ever after'?

"To try to live each day for the Lord to the best of our abilities, the ones we still got left, anyway," Mr. Saucer answers, smiling humbly.

There will certainly be more time for their four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

And who knows?

Grandpa Saucer could teach a younger generation the principles of business leadership.

Undoubtedly, it's an emotional time for the Saucers as they say "goodbye" to not merely a job, but a way of life that's fast disappearing from our rural highways and byways.

One day, in our own lifetime, the mom and pop' rural store may be only a cherished memory.