THE GREAT FLOOD OF 1874
We (the Majercik Family) purchased the Williamsburg General Store in 1977. The original section of the store was built 101 years earlier, in 1876. Two years before, in 1874, Williamsburg suffered a major catastrophe. On a peaceful day in May, the dam a couple miles above the town burst, releasing a rushing, roiling, roaring wall of water, carrying boulders, trees, homes, barns, factories, and much of their contents. Nothing stood in its way. It gushed though sections of the large villages of Williamsburg and Haydenville and between them the smaller hamlet of Skinnerville. After a deadly rampage through Williamsburg, it spent its final fury in neighboring Leeds, a part of Northampton.
Heroes on horseback rode through the villages, warning of imminent disaster. Many people heard the warning shouts and the thunderous roar of the approaching inland tsunami and fled to higher ground; sadly, not all made it. Folks today will find the names of the many men, women, and children who perished on bronze plaques in the respective centers of Williamsburg and Haydenville. The calamity was America’s worst natural disaster until the Great Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889 (also a failed dam) where more than 2,000 people lost their lives.
Before the Flood, Williamsburg was a busy manufacturing community. Small shops all along the Mill River produced a variety of practical goods. Had the dam held, our General Store might never have been built and this story never told.
OUT OF DISASTER A NEW STORE EMERGES
One Salmon Kingsley (Kinney) Wait operated a general store in Skinnerville, near today’s Lashway Logging Company. He survived the 1974 disaster, but lost his business to the flood which scattered his ruined building and merchandise miles down stream. Kinney Wait’s home was in the center of Williamsburg, where he decided to build another store and continue his business. He re-opened in 1876. (That year, President Ulysses S. Grant decided not to seek a third term.)
Being along in years, Wait hired Paul W. Tarbox as manager and continued in business until 1893. The business was purchased by locally renowned and civic-minded Charles R. Damon, who lived in the building while operating an insurance office. Mr. Damon’s grandson was a good friend of ours during our early years in Williamsburg, and his Great Granddaughter now resides in the historic family home.
The business again changed hands in 1913, when Richard F. Burke came to town and re-established it as a traditional general store. On the correct side of the political spectrum, Burke was appointed Postmaster. The post office was located in today’s ice cream parlor. The late Robert (Bob) Nash, a wonderful friend during our fledgling years, pointed out the worn spot in the oak floor where he stood to sort and hand out mail to postal patrons. The gentle swoop in the floor is still there.
A REAL GENERAL STORE
Burke’s emporium offered boots and rubbers, hammers and nails, tar paper and shingles, meat and potatoes, yard goods and notions, and most everything else his townfolk neighbors required. Another member of the Burke family delivered groceries and necessities via a horse-drawn wagon to folks who couldn’t easily get into town. Later, we’re told, deliveries were made via a Model T Ford truck.
Perishable foodstuffs were stored in a small room at the back of the store. Ice was delivered to a built-in box on the outside, which is still there today. The “walk-in cooler” was, and still is, effectively insulated with sawdust – the only insulation in the entire building until we added modern material.
Much of the original store is still in evidence. Drawers with numbers tell the nail size (8, 10, and 12 penny, for example). Today the drawers hold all manner of merchandise – from locally hand-made soaps to bags of herbs and spices, and a wide variety of trail munchies. Customers today walk on the same oak floor boards as people 140 years ago. Original shelves carry today’s merchandise while wood ceilings have proven handy for goods which display best when hung.
In typical small-town tradition, the historic store served as the local gathering place for playing a game of checkers or discussing the latest political rivalries. In our early years we followed that time-honored tradition and set out a checker board in front of the wood stove we used for heat. Early customers enjoyed harkening back to the “good old days”. Checkers are no more, but the stove remains, though no longer used because we need room for merchandise.
You can see, and safely walk on, a large steel floor grate near our greeting card spinners. Canny Postmaster Burke arranged for the postal authorities to provide a heater to keep employees and patrons warm. He figured, why not locate the floor furnace where it could warm both post office and store? Today, the grate is part of our modern heating and air conditioning system.
PROUDLY THE GENERAL STORE’S LONGEST OWNERS
Forty years! Every one of them a challenge and a joy. We opened our doors during Columbus weekend, 1977. Many townspeople came in to meet us and wish us well. (Several wondered aloud how we could possibly make a living in such a small town.) Carol and I joined the Williamsburg Grange and the Congregational Church. I joined the Lions Club. We got to know our neighbors. Our children attended our local schools and the University. The Majercik family quickly grew to love our new town and we believe the town likes us.
We’re proud to have given hundreds of young people their first work experience. They, along with older employees, have contributed greatly to our success. Many individuals, some with us for as long as a quarter century, have become well-known to our General Store customers. Which is to say that our success in business and our happiness as townsfolk is because we have had such a treasure trove of wonderful people working for and with us to help make it happen. They, and the people from near and far who have been our faithful customers, deserve and have our deepest and most sincere gratitude.
We are also grateful to Historical Commissioner Ralmon Jon Black for providing the historical details for this article.