By Betty Keffer Munsey
When I decided to do Echoes From Catawba and started to brainstorm some topics to write about, it was a no-brainer to include Keffer’s Store. I contacted Betty (Keffer) Munsey to partner with me to do that article. She readily agreed. Two or three days later it dawned on me that there was not two but one person that could compose this article the best. Someone who lived there in the apartment above the store, namely Betty. I went back to her and told her that I was dissolving the partnership and I wanted her to write it from the viewpoint of being there to experience it. She agreed.
Betty received her bachelor’s and master’s degree from VA Tech and is a member of the VA Tech Extension faculty, retired. Although about eight years difference in age, my education and career path is the same as Betty’s. I, too, received my bachelor and masters degree from VA Tech. And, I am a retired member of the VA Tech Extension faculty. We both have backgrounds in writing and public speaking. Betty is active in her church and community, as well as working with husband Bob on their Bland County farm. As a lifelong friend and admirer of her, it is with pleasure I present to you Keffer’s Store through Betty’s words…
Nestled at the bottom of Catawba Mountain in the northern-most section of Roanoke County, Catawba Mercantile or more fondly known as Keffer’s Store, has been a Catawba mainstay since the late 1800’s.
Originally owned and operated by Mr. Barnett and later by Mr. J. L. Wells, my Dad, Minor Keffer, bought the property in 1941. My Mother, June Keffer, joined him as co-owner and loving assistant when they married on September 6, 1942.
After my Dad’s death in 1994 and due to my Mother’s declining health, the store was closed and the property sold in February of 1995. Mom later moved to her new home within sight of the store between the Catawba Post Office and the old Catawba Elementary School (now Catawba Community Center).
The store was a source of home and farm supplies as well as a community gathering place conveniently located one mile south of the Catawba Sanatorium (now known as Catawba Hospital), about ten miles east of the Montgomery County Line, about 3 miles from Craig County, and about the same distance from the Botetourt County line.
The Catawba Post office originally occupied a small corner of the store until the early 1950’s when my Dad built a separate small concrete building that allowed more space for the store as well as postal customers. The Postal Service later purchased a triangle of land across the intersection of routes 311 and 779 where a new modern Post Office was constructed and continues to serve postal customers.
The store was a family run business that was blessed by numerous long-time devoted individuals we considered as family members as well as employees. Ronald Thomas, affectionately referred to as “Big 6”, joined Dad in the store and worked 42 years before his death due to cancer. Dorothy “Dot” Garman lived on the Catawba Hospital Farm with her husband Claude and worked faithfully for 25 years behind the store counter. Frances Perry Lee would help milk cows on their family farm before coming to work in the store for 21 years. Others who worked for a lesser amount of time but provided valuable service were Roy Baugh, Susan Crawford, Frank and Georgia Ray, Steve Forren, and several others. Children and grandchildren filled in as needed.
Catawba Mercantile sold a large amount of feed, seed, and fertilizer and was recognized as the longest running Southern States Corp. private dealership in Virginia with over 53 years of faithful service. Boxes of produce lined the space down the middle of the store and in the refrigerated case. A large glass-front refrigerated case held loaves of meats and cheese waiting to be sliced according to customer requests. The store shelves were fully stocked with basics including canned goods, farm supplies, Wolverine boots, school paper and pencils, candies prominently displayed in antique glass and wooden cases, and even chewing tobacco. A large metal Rainbow bread bag holder hung prominently over the sales counter and the front screen door reminded visitors that “Rainbow bread is good bread”.
Several hours before closing each evening, community men gathered around the old pot belly stove in the center of the store to share their opinions and commentary on community news. Their wives often sent lengthy grocery lists which store staff filled while the men visited and drank ice cold Coca Cola’s filled to the brim with salty peanuts. Others preferred RC Colas and Moon Pies.
In days before common credit cards, the store offered temporary credit “until the end of the month”. Customers would purchase items, feed, or gas and ask to have it placed on a ticket or a small piece of paper which was stored in a bulky metal storage cabinet and totaled each month. There were no fees for credit and most paid their totals at the end of the month. One of Dad’s final store instructions to Mom and I was to not pursue payment after his death of unpaid tickets as those who care will pay.
The store offered a variety of unique services including providing directions to lost travelers in search of Dragons Tooth, Catawba Hospital, and the Murder Hole in the days before GPS. Appalachian Trail hikers were often assisted in their travels. During the Catawba forest fire in 1963, the store remained open overnight providing food and lodging as needed.
Hunting season was a busy fun time of the year as hunters stopped to brag about their hunting exploits while one of the store staff members weighed their game and recorded their official VDGIF decals. Those who shot and missed were often doomed to having their shirttails trimmed as a visual sign of their disappointment. One young hunter proudly walked into the crowded store late one evening and asked to have his turkey weighed and tagged. Obviously proud of his first kill, the experienced hunters didn’t have the heart to tell him he had killed a buzzard and not a fat tom-turkey he planned to eat on Thanksgiving Day. My Dad finally quietly revealed the buzzard truth and encouraged him not to cook his bird.
In the days before self serve service, customers would drive up to the pumps, toot their horn (some repeatedly) and wait for someone to fill their gas tanks, wash their windshields, check their oil, and sometimes even asked to have the tire pressure checked. One particular doctor expected top-notch service but would not allow a female to touch his vehicle except in one case when Dad was sick and the Dr. didn’t know how to do these things for himself. As a side note, according to my Dad’s detailed inventory of store items, gasoline sold for twenty cents a gallon in 1941 when he bought the store from Mr. Wells.
My parents loved children and the children, in turn, loved them. The interior side door behind the large glass showcase was covered top to bottom with children’s school pictures or photos of children sitting on Santa’s lap, catching their first fish, or celebrating another birthday. Children loved sitting on Minor’s lap and receiving free candy. A few days before Christmas 1988 a little baby girl decided to enter the world a month early and was born in the driveway of the store mid-way between her parent’s home in Craig County and the Roanoke hospital.
Older customers were truly valued with home deliveries made of needed groceries and fruit baskets delivered to the homebound. A feisty regular customer would walk to the store from her home which was located in the woods east of the Catawba Hospital property. She always wore high-heeled shoes, a trim tailored suit, a dress hat with a veil, and carried a rather large purse for her petite size. Even in her late 70’s, she insisted on walking the mile home carrying her groceries and only allowed one of us to drive her with a lot of persuasion.
The store was always closed on Sundays, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day—inventory day. As my parents aged, they found it necessary to close the store at noon on Wednesdays. Otherwise, normal store hours were 7 am to 7 PM six days a week.
My Mother’s parting comments in announcing the store’s closing included this statement: “It is the support and patronage of our loyal workers, customers, and friends that have made our 54 years of business so enjoyable. With God’s blessing, Thank You”. (June Keffer)
We invite you to leave a comment and share your memories of Keffer’s Store.
Like articles like this? Then you would love Echoes From Catawba Volume 1, Growing Up In Catawba Valley, Appalachia.
Click here to order Echoes From Catawba Volume 1 hardcover, collector’s edition: $27.99, includes shipping. Also available on Amazon. Paperback: $18.99 and Kindle: $5.99
Also available at the Salem Museum Book Store in Salem, Virginia and The Emporium on Main Street in New Castle, Virginia.