The 1890’s General Store

Photos by Jim Phillip


Before Rockford, Illinois became known as Rockford, it was called Midway Village. Travelers would stop here at the midpoint of their trip between Chicago and Galena, which is on the Mississippi River. The Rock River had a rocky bottom which made passage (fording) easier than at other areas. Hence the name that stuck for the growing town: Rockford.

Rockford’s living history museum, Midway Village, hosts many fascinating events – the nation’s largest WWII reenactment, a WWI reenactment, school programs, weddings, and garden tours. The small town is made up of several original buildings along with a few replicas that portray life in the 1890s. The docents are a wealth of information about life in earlier times. In a recent tour of the general store, I learned of a few sayings that have lasted until our time.

For instance, I thought the phrase “The whole nine yards” had something to do with football, although why ten yards wouldn’t be better, I’m not sure … sigh. (Laugh if you must.) What it means is that a woman wants to purchase the entire bolt of fabric for sewing.

What about “Get down to brass tacks?” The docent pointed out a row of brass tacks that were placed every six inches on the counter’s edge near the cash register. They were used to measure fabric, ribbons, and string before cutting. You can barely see them in the picture above.

“Cash on the barrel.” The pickle barrel that is. Nothing was ever stored on the pickle barrel because it was opened so often to buy pickles. See how the lid has a flat area with a slight edge? Because of that edge, coins wouldn’t roll off. You can see the large pickle barrel in this picture too.


1890 Post office

Most small town general stores doubled as the post office.
The docent is standing before the post office boxes.

Even though my series is set in Kansas (not Illinois), a small town general store
and its owners are featured in The Prairie Doctor’s Bride.

One other piece of information imparted was that when the first settlers arrived here from the east, they thought the land must not be any good for farming. They were used to forests that they had to cut down in order to farm the land. But here they saw grass, grass, and more grass which might be good for livestock…but not crops. Any trees they saw hugged the rivers. I guess that is a warning about first impressions! Now the Midwest is known as the world’s “bread basket” because its soil is the richest in the world and crops grow exceedingly well.

Prairie Grass

Here I am standing on a patch of natural prairie in northern Illinois! Look at the height of that grass! I cannot imagine walking beside a wagon and trying to get through it. I also cannot imagine coming upon a snake!

What is your state “famous” for?

The countdown has started for my next book ~ Wedding at Rocking S Ranch.
I will tell you all about it the next time I post.
Until then, have a safe, fun summer!

Available for pre-order HERE.

Release date is July 17th!

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32 thoughts on “The 1890’s General Store”

    • Hi Jerri,

      I agree! That’s what really rounds out and enriches historical fiction for me too. Meld the history with a good story and it really brings the past alive.

  1. Great blog! I just moved to Florida and it is famous for lots of things, like Disney and Universal but also sunshine.

  2. Looks like an interesting place to visit. I live in Texas and what I think people might think about when they think of my state might be cowboys and longhorns. Or maybe the tv show Dallas.

  3. I loved this. I don’t think New York state is famous for Lucille Ball but I grew up and still love in the next town from where Lucy was born and raised. There’s a Lucy and Desi museam, a big festival every year, her child hood home is still standing.

    • Hi Cathy!

      That is interesting! I didn’t know that about Lucille Ball! I think of NY and it is NYC and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. But there is an entire rest of the state, isn’t there? Here in Illinois we feel that way about Chicago. There IS more to the state than just that city!

      • Most people do think of just NYC. I’m in the South Western corner. I’m very close to the Pennsylvania line.

  4. I love living history museums, and it looks like you found a great one, Kathryn! Love the pictures of the general store. So much of town life took place at that hub. I love the cover on your new book. Such joy and playfulness between the hero and heroine. I can’t wait to learn more about it!

    • Hi Karen! Thanks for popping in! I’m happy with the new book cover too. Can’t wait to tell everyone all about it the next time I post. This museum is close to my home and I do enjoy visiting there.

  5. Fun blog. It’s funny how old sayings may not come down through generations with their original meanings or we are just way off on what they had meant in the beginning. Oh my what is Texas known for? I think that would be depending on where you are from in Texas. Texas has so many different terrains and climates that’s too hard to give a clear cut answer to. Tex-Mex as well as authentic Mexican food, brisket, chili are the foods I think of. The Dallas Cowboys are the most loved and most hated team in football. Cowboys, rodeos, the State Fair of Texas tend to come to mind when people think of Texas. I remember when I was little and we moved to Kentucky, what people there thought of Texas as was horses, cowboys, wagons and the old saying “Everything is bigger in Texas”. Kids actually thought we lived in the days of the Old West in Texas still.

    • Hi there Stephanie,

      Everything IS bigger in Texas! It is a fascinating state! The people there have such pride in where they live. I’ve driven down the eastern part and the western part and you are right — it is so very different!

  6. Although many would say my state is best known for Independence Hall where the Constitution was drafted and signed (the place of our first national gov’t before Washington, DC), the Liberty Bell, Valley Forge, where Washington crossed the Delaware river, and of course Ben Franklin, I’d say our state should be known for the founding settlers here: Quakers fleeing persecution in England in the 1600s. Our state motto in fact is “The Quaker State” but I’m afraid these days people may think first of motor oil! lol My family came here in the 1600s too, so I wonder if that Quaker heritage is in my blood and the reason for my stance on non-violence?

    I loved your blog, Kathryn! I never knew the origin of the whole nine yards and brass tacks! Thank you! As for pioneers walking across the Midwest where the grass was so high, wouldn’t they have walked behind a wagon where the cattle and wagons had already flattened the grass? Of course watching out for “gifts” from the cattle? 🙂

    • Hi Eliza,

      Well — you are probably quite right about walking behind the wagon! That entirely makes sense. Guess I have seen too many Hollywood westerns 🙂

      There is so much rich history there in Pennsylvania. Before thinking of motor oil (lol) my thoughts went directly to a big round carton of Quaker Oats! Guess that might be the difference between a male and female point of view.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      • Thinking about the Oregon Trail getting pounded down and literally made into a road, I found this:

        “The Oregon Trail was laid by fur traders and traders from about 1811 to 1840, and was only passable on foot or by horseback. By 1836, when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho.”

        So folks probably could walk beside the wagons as you said! 🙂

        That quote makes me think maybe there were other trails across other parts of the country, and found this for Illinois:

        “Settler Trails: Early trails started to develop into roads as settlers moved into Illinois in the early 1800s. At first the settlers tended to come into Illinois from the south. They might float down the Ohio River and then move north up the Wabash River, the Embarrass River, or the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers…. Some came overland on the “National Road” through Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana. Vandalia, Illinois was at the end of the National Road. Vandalia was the state capital of Illinois before Springfield…. From the Wabash River settlers could travel north along the “Hubbard trail. ” It ended in Chicago after passing through the towns of Blue Island, Crete, Grant, Momence, Beaverville, Iroquois, Hoopeston, Myersville, and Danville. It was also called the “Vincennes Trace.”….In later years, more settlers came to Illinois via northern routes. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825 it created an all-water route from New York City to Chicago. A popular route for travelers was via the “Chicago Road” from Detroit to Chicago.”

        Likely WAY more than you wanted to EVER know!

        • Oops forgot–In case you’re interested, here’s the link for more Illinois-related info, listed under NE Illinois’s Old Plank Road Trail:

          And I forgot, of course: “The first roads and railroads followed the paths and trails used by Native Americans.”

          • Thanks Eliza! Most of those town names are familiar to me. I can see how the major freeways found their routes. Thanks for the link! I’ll check it out. I wasn’t aware that Illinois had an Old Plank Road trail. That intrigues me. I remember my father driving the family on such a road when I was VERY young, but it was somewhere in the southwest — Arizona or California.

  7. I didn’t know this KOOL-AID was founded here in Nebraska by Edwin E Perkins. Most born in this state call it the high desert of the north as no tree’s are originally from here all transplants from other states or countries. Wild grass and weeds are native to Nebraska.

    • Now that’s an interesting fact…the high desert of the north! Makes it sound a bit exotic… I’ve driven through Nebraska from east to west, and just remember it being a very wide state that way! My family stayed in Lincoln, Nebraska many years ago and I thought that was a pretty city.

        • Also can get very hot and muggy just had 30 days of 85 plus. Finally some rain. Think about it flat and dry.

          • Glad you got some rain! I hate the mugginess–we get that here in Illinois too. Can’t walk outside with out becoming drenched in sweat for no reason at all. Thankfully there is AC.

            Yes– lots of farm country out your way. Same here. I do love the openness — I feel creative in it. Big cities have their place and I enjoy a quick visit, but they tend to stifle me. It is truly a beautiful country we live in with all the diversity.

  8. Fascinating post. I didn’t know you were from Illinois. I am, too, although way down state. Fancy that. : )

    In many small towns (very small) the general store doubles as a post office — maybe the practice is going out of date, but I think it still exits in rural areas.

    Oh, and I love your new cover.

    • Hi Karen! I’m actually from all over as a “Navy brat” but lived mostly in San Diego and now rural Illinois. I would love to try living in a new place — perhaps the northeast or northwest, but being near family trumps new places for this gal 🙂

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