Auction at old general store stirs up memories

By on August 23, 2017

The Hess Auction Group held one of its most notable auctions of the year at Sonny’s Country Store Antiques in Adamstown at the intersection of Routes 272 and 897 on Saturday, Aug. 19.

“This is a big deal,” said Mike Hartman, son of Sonny and Mary Hartman, the late owners of the store who died in 2016 within six months of each other. “I think most of these people are his friends. They were from buying and selling antiques his whole lifetime from the East Coast, West Coast, and everywhere.”

From the Weaver Markets parking lot where most parked, a blended, monotone hum was heard from the historic property as three auctioneers sold simultaneously.

Hundreds of unique country store advertising pieces from their private collection had buyers bidding as high as $2,100 for a Sunbeam Bread sign and other store displays and signage.

“They were colorful because that was their only mode of advertising in those days,” said Hartman. “There were few magazines, so they competed for your money at the general-store level. That’s why everything is so beautiful and designed well.”

The Hartmans bought the store from the Graeff family in the 1970s and it appears the inside and outside of the building have not changed — possibly from the 1800s.

“This is exactly how it was when I was a kid, it hasn’t changed. Same shelves, same everything,” said Frank Lorah, born in 1940.

The property, which was a busy general store, belonged to his great-grandparents and he lived across the street next to Adamstown Eye Care which is now an antique store.

“My grandmother (Dora Lorah) lived next door where the eye doctor is,” said Lorah. “My grandmother’s sister, Mabel, ran the store.”

A bumper sticker on the front door window reads: “I’ve got Moxie.”

“She was the sister that never got married,” said Lorah. “She lived to be 106, or something. She was a little, feisty lady. She went up in a balloon at 100-and-some years old.

“I’d go to the store to get sugar and she’d weigh the sugar on a scale and take string from the ceiling and wrap it up,” said a neighbor.

The stringer is still hanging in the same place with the string dangling, ready to wrap-at least until auction day.

A correspondent of The Ephrata Review stood inside the general store and talked to George Wertz III on speaker phone. He was “in the mountains” and unable to attend the auction.

“I grew up a block down the road in the same house I was born at,” said Wertz, 57. “I would go on errands as a kid for my parents for things like flour and sugar and things like that. Mabel would give me candy for doing the errands.”

As Wertz talked, folks gathered and listened intently, and others walked around the store, looking at items and smiled at points in his conversation, grateful to hear the story behind the property.

“She let me pick out what kind of candy I want,” said Wertz. “They were called lady fingers, but they don’t make them anymore. I could go up there on my own as young as five years old.

“She would tell me I had to go back right home to my parents. Everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody and looked out for us.”

“She sold ice cream and we’d sit on the front porch and then we’d go play again.”

Mabel was apparently no lonely bachelorette.

“My dad would go up and sit with Mabel’s boyfriend and everybody called him Ramey,” said Wertz. “They’d sit by a big wood stove on these rocking chairs and smoke and talk for hours. My mom would send me up to get my dad and tell him supper would be ready in 15 minutes.”

A few stories floated about the “little trap door” in the ceiling that overlooked the store.

“Mabel’s father put that in so they could monitor the store,” said Wertz.

Mabel’s father apparently put a rifle though the floor, upstairs, down through the trap door and shot at an intruder.

“Mabel would have been in her 70s when I was a little kid and Ramey was older than her but in very good shape and lots of muscle,” said Wertz. “They were very protective of the kids in the neighborhood.

“Back then we didn’t have state police. We had the county marshal. Sometimes it would take a while for him to get there if there was a crime and that’s why people took the law and enforced it themselves, and then when the marshal could get there, they dealt with the situation.”

It was not unusual for a woman to run a store, especially if it was in her family and she was not married, he said.

“The women back then were very strong, character-wise, and they could hold their own doing physical labor,” said Wertz.

Wertz talked with affection and a sense of longing for the property and time period.

“If I could, I’d open it up as an old country store again to keep the piece of history alive,” said Wertz. “Turkey Hill came in and that pretty much threw her out of business.”

Mabel was robbed a few times in the 1970s and that prompted her to sell.

“There were three or four travelling gypsy women that came in the store and robbed her,” said Wertz. “Some of them kept her distracted and one peed on the floor while the other cleaned out her cash drawer.”

“I witnessed my wife’s cousin killed in a car accident at the intersection,” said Wertz.

“Mabel would go out and help injured people out there. She made me go back in the store, and so I sat in the rocking chair in the back of the store.”

Mabel also expected good behavior from the neighborhood children.

“Mabel would come out and smack kids on the butt with a broom for throwing snowballs,” said Tracy Gerhart.

“I really feel privileged to grow up in that time,” said Wertz.


A storied history

Prior to his death in 1863, the store at “Swartzville” belonged to Benjamin Swartz, who was appointed postmaster of Swartzville in 1859.

Being both a general store and post office, it was well-travelled.

It was sold from his estate to Jacob E. Becker, who subsequently became the postmaster.

In 1872, John Smith became postmaster, but the deeds for the store property have not been recorded and it is not known when Smith purchased it. He owned it at the time of his death; it was auctioned from his estate in 1892 and probably deeded in the spring of 1893.

According to one written account, Daniel S. Graeff acquired the store in 1893 from a “Mr. Regar,” but most likely it was from the Smith estate; Mr. Regar may have been the storekeeper at the time.

According to his Aug, 8, 1930 obituary in The Ephrata Review, Graeff “dropped dead by falling from a hay wagon on his farm.”

The obituary goes into detail about his actual death moment.

“He was taken to the office of Dr. Winters, at Blue Ball, for the purpose of having an X-Ray taken, in order to determine the definite extent of his injuries. While Mr. Graeff was waiting his turn in the physician’s office, in company with his wife and son, Wilmer, he suddenly lapsed into unconsciousness, as in a faint, and died a few minutes later.”

Graeff passed the store to his widow and was operated for many years by the couple’s daughter, Mabel.

Compiled with help from Cynthia Marquet, librarian, Historical Society of Cocalico Valley.

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