Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

The Rolling Store

By John L. Doughty, Jr.


This writer fondly remembers the 1950s and school vacations spent at the farm of my uncle and aunt, Henry and Mable Breithaupt located several miles down a gravel road winding along French Fork Bayou in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana. The farm consisted of forty acres of cotton, as well as a few acres of corn planted as food for plow mules, chickens, and pigs. A vegetable garden grew near the farmhouse, and a small grove of plum trees, which produced the sweetest plums on God's green Earth, sprouted from the moist ground around the well.

The farm was remote and almost self-sufficient. Breakfast consisted of coffee made from beans roasted in the oven of the butane stove and ground in the hand-mill attached to the kitchen wall, eggs fresh from the hen, bacon cut from slabs hanging in the smokehouse, and fresh milk occasionally flavored by bitterweeds eaten by the family milk cow. Sunday dinners frequently centered around a fried chicken that had been alive that very morning.

Wild food often graced the Breithaupt table. French Fork Bayou flowed near our front door, and in the spring and summer we ate fish. At the back door, across the fields, lay the vast Catahoula Lake swamp which, in the fall and winter, produced raccoons, squirrels and rabbits for the dining table.

Mr. Carl Girlinghouse and the Blue Goose. Photo: John L. Doughty, Jr., 1991.

Occasional trips into town were necessary. Several miles of poorly maintained gravel road and many miles of narrow, winding, barely-black-topped highway lay between our farm and Jena or Jonesville. Round trips required several hours in a beat-up Chevy pickup truck. However, every Thursday afternoon at almost exactly the same time of day, "town" came to us: the rolling store.

Mr. Carl (C. J.) Girlinghouse drove the store, an old school bus painted blue and affectionately calied "The Blue Goose" by customers. Mr. Girlinghouse had removed the seats and replaced them with wooden grocery shelves built along both interior walls. The Blue Goose stocked the essentials: groceries, candy, tobacco, feed, and kerosene.

Carl Girlinghouse explains, "I sold lots of coal oil, thirty or forty gallons a day. Fifteen cents a gallon. Lots of people back then still had coal-oil lanterns."1

My Aunt Mable bought flour, meal, sugar, salt and pepper, and household items such as needles and thread from the rolling store. She also bought sacks of laying pellets and feed for baby chickens and bartered fresh eggs with Carl Girlinghouse. My Uncle Henry bought Prince Albert in the pocket tin, and fifty-pound sacks of horse-and-mule feed to supplement our plow mule's steady diet of dry corn-on-the-cob, shucks included.

To me, my brother, Robert, and my cousin James Breithaupt, the rolling store came as a once-a-week visit from heaven. Although some considered us poor, even as children we had money to spend. We ran trot-lines in French Fork and sold catfish; we picked up and sold pecans; we ran trap-lines in the swamp and sold hides and meat; and we chopped and picked cotton for my uncle who paid us cash. Most of that money went toward items we considered totally unessential, such as shoes and school clothes, but we spent a certain percentage in the rolling store.

We bought candy bars of every description, Moon-Pies, suckers, chewing gum and bubble gum, Cracker-Jacks, and soft drinks. In the hot delta summer, we bought ice cream. The rolling store had an ice cream freezer.

It is no wonder that the rolling store is a vivid, pleasant memory to those of us that were children of the Louisiana Delta during the 1950s. But to none of us is that memory as vivid--and sometimes as unpleasant--as it is to Carl Girlinghouse, the man who owned the rolling store.

Today, Carl Girlinghouse, eighty-four and a widower now, lives in Nebo, Louisiana, in the house that he and his beloved wife, Mattie, built with their own hands. His eyes and his voice are as clear and sharp as his mind and his memories. And tangible history and a touchable memory sits behind his neat frame house--the rolling store.

The Blue Goose has faded and returned to its original color of school bus yellow, it lacks tires. When Carl Girlinghouse went out of the grocery business, he removed the shelves and used the bus to haul watermelons. He now uses it for a storage shed. With a new coat of blue paint, new tires, new motor, and rebuilt shelves, the Blue Goose could roll again.

The story of Carl Girlinghouse and the rolling store is truly an American one, entrepreneurship at its best, a story of how hard work and perseverance leads to success. The story also speaks of failure and how character combined with hard work can pluck pride from the jaws of defeat.

The Blue Goose story begins in 1932, the year Carl and Mattie married. She moved from Nebo, and they lived in Winnsboro where he worked for J. W. McLemore, owner of McLemore's Jitney Jungle. Carl worked in the store a minimum of twelve hours a day, six days a week, earning $18.00 per week.

In those days, two men dominated the grocery business in Winnsboro and all of Franklin Parish: J. W. McLemore and Finis (pronounced "fine-us") Howard, owner of the Piggly Wiggly. Carl remembers that Finis Howard had the banana concession; if you bought a banana in Franklin Parish, you had to buy it at the Piggly Wiggly. In addition to their large stores, each man owned two rolling stores. Both were operated by employees and did business only in Franklin Parish due to the requirement of purchasing a $100.00 license from each parish. They were not termed "rolling stores" by Mr. McLemore, Mr. Howard, or by Carl Girlinghouse. They called them "grocery trucks."

Carl eventually worked his way up to driver of one of Mr. McLemore's grocery trucks. For the next few years, until 1944, Carl alternated between driving for Mr. McLemore and Mr. Howard, and returning to his wife's home in Nebo to farm. Mr. McLemore and Mr. Howard were both willing to rehire Carl Girlinghouse, which testifies to his business ability and his honesty. While driving for Mr. Howard in 1944, Carl Girlinghouse, thirty-seven years old with a wife and children, was drafted into World War II.

Carl quit his job and moved his wife and family to Nebo so Mattie could be near her family while he went to war. They built the house he lives in today and waited for his final draft call; luckily, it never came and the war ended. Carl farmed and worked in the Nebo oil fields until 1949, the year he started the rolling store that served LaSalle and Catahoula Parishes.

Discussing the beginning of the rolling store, Carl Girlinghouse said, "I was doing some farming and some oil-field work here in Nebo, but what I really knew was the grocery truck business. Then one day my brother-in-law, Leon Duchene, came up to me and said, 'Carl, why don't we build a grocery truck?' And we did."

The two men put up $1000.00 each and bought a new truck. A lumber yard in Winnsboro gave them credit, and they built a wooden body on the truck. Leon had another brother-in-law in a position to help: J. W. McLemore was married to his sister. "Sure," he told Leon, "I'll help you. And at the same time I'll be helping Carl."

He advanced them $1800.00 in merchandise to stock the truck, and the rolling store started rolling. Leon and Carl had an arrangement: Carl agreed to pay his sister, Leon's wife, $50.00 per week as a share of the profits; at the end of the first year, if Carl was dissatisfied, Leon would take over the truck. When that year ended, Carl had repaid the lumber yard, J. W. McLemore, and returned Leon's original $1000.00 investment. He told Leon, "I can make a living on the grocery truck."

With long hours and hard work, he made a living. Six days a week he left Nebo at or before daylight and returned after dark. He ran his main route, Nebo to Winnsboro (to McLemore's, his grocery supplier) and back, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

He left Nebo and went to Whitehall, then to Jonesville (where kerosene was purchased), from Jonesville to Harrisonburg, then Sicily island, then Peck, then into Winnsboro. He stopped selling at the Franklin Parish line because his $100.00 licenses limited sales to LaSalle and Catahoula Parishes.

When he left Winnsboro, he went back to Peck, then to Norris Springs, then back to Harrisonburg, then to Manifest, then back to Whitehall, then to Sharptown Loop (Shady Grove), and finally, back home in Nebo. Side routes such as French Fork Road were run once a week on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.

Tuesday morning (early) was his main supply day, and he spent Monday night in Winnsboro. He parked behind McLemore's store and plugged his ice cream freezer into an outlet Mr. McLemore provided. In good weather, he slept on a cot in the aisle of the rolling store. If the weather turned bad, he paid $1.50 a night to sleep in the Winnsboro Hotel.

At the end of each day, he plugged the ice cream freezer into an outlet at McLemore's store or at his own home, "It'd be just starting to thaw out by the time I got home. I'd plug it in and it'd freeze overnight and be ready to go the next day," Mr. Girlinghouse observed.

Dry ice, delivered once a week to Nebo, kept the insulated milk box cold. Soft drinks were sold at store temperature; he had no cooler. "Didn't have room," he said. "I kept a couple in the milk box, but they were for me to drink during the day."

Carl Girlinghouse's rolling store quickly filled a void in the lives of the rural people of LaSalle and Catahoula Parishes, a void larger than groceries. If a Monday customer needed a special item, hardware, for example, Carl bought it in Winnsboro and delivered it on Wednesday. Farmers ordered seeds from Winnsboro which the Blue Goose delivered. No one went more than a week without any needed items.

The elderly and the infirm found a special friend in the rolling store. Carl blew the horn of the Blue Goose before he reached his stops. People knew when he was coming and either waited beside the road or walked outside when the horn sounded. Some people, however, could not walk outside. They tied a rag on their porch or front door-knob. Carl knew his customers. When he saw the rag, he stopped and went inside. If someone were bed-ridden, Carl Girlinghouse stopped anyway.

If something seemed wrong or unusual at a house on his route, Carl Girlinghouse investigated. "Mrs. Clark lived down the road from ya'll (the Breithaupt farm)," Mr. Girlinghouse told me. "She was in her nineties. Every Thursday afternoon she was standing on her front porch waiting for me. I'd stop and go see what she wanted and bring it to her. Sometimes she'd come down to the truck, but she was too old to climb the steps and get inside. One Thursday I went by and she wasn't there; I knew something was wrong, I stopped the truck and went and knocked on her door. No answer. I opened the door and went inside, calling her name. No answer. I walked through the house looking for her, and when I got on her back porch, I heard her holler from the back yard. There was an old well in her back yard that had caved in and left a big hole. When I opened the door, there she was, down in that hole and covered with ants. I said, 'Mrs. Clark, what are you doing down in that hole?' She had a plum tree next to her back fence, and she said, 'Carl, I was trying to get me a plum. Come get me out of this hole.'"

Today, people buy groceries by the week and even the day. That was not the case back then. "You could get flour in wooden barrels that held ninety-six pounds of flour," Mr. Girlinghouse told me. "I didn't have any on the truck because I didn't have room, but I could get 'em. One time there was this black farmer that had eleven kids and a wife. When he sold his cotton crop, he bought fourteen barrels of flour. That was enough to last until the next year's crop came in."

There were other reasons for buying large sizes: "Flour also came in forty-eight pound sacks, half-barrels, and in twenty-four pound sacks, quarter-barrels. The sacks were a pretty, printed gingham material; the women made dresses out of 'em," notes Mr. Girlinghouse.

Business boomed for Carl Girlinghouse and the rolling store. Carl purchased a used school bus body from the LaSalle Parish School Board and replaced the wooden body of the rolling store. He expanded the business by building a combination store and warehouse beside his home in Nebo. His wife and two daughters ran the Nebo store, the girls doing their homework between customers. Every morning before daylight, his three sons helped him load the rolling store. One of those sons worked as a mechanic and kept the store running. The rolling store, a genuine family business, provided a good living for Carl's family until the bottom fell out.

In the mid-1950s, the government started the commodity program. In other words, the government gave free food to Mr. Girlinghouse's customers. Almost overnight, Carl Girlinghouse went from making a good living to barely making ends meet. His voice contained no bitterness, only sadness, as he related the following story: "One day a pickup truck loaded with people passed me. [They had been to Jonesville to pick up commodities.] Somebody held up a sack [of free food] and laughed at me." Mr. Girlinghouse quietly added, "And they owed me money."

Carl Girlinghouse struggled against heavy odds until 1961. Near the end of December of that year, he told Mattie, "When I come home Saturday night, that will be all. We're going out of the grocery truck business." He remembers that day well because it was near Christmas, and he spent his last day on the rolling store delivering presents to his good customers: boxes of chocolate covered cherries.

But his struggle continued: "They were good people and they owed me about seven or eight hundred dollars; I owed my suppliers about eight or nine hundred dollars. I told Mattie not to worry; the people would pay me, and I could pay the suppliers." His "good people" paid him not one penny.

Fifty-four years old, in debt, and owner of a dead grocery truck business, Carl Girlinghouse still survived. He worked in the oil fields, attended trade school, learned how to weld, and eventually spent fifteen years as a security guard at the Belden plant in Jena. He repaid every penny he owed to his suppliers.

Carl Girlinghouse deserves a place of honor among those who played parts in the history of LaSalle and Catahoula Parishes. He and the Blue Goose are both tangible parts of the history of those two parishes and the state of Louisiana.

The demise of the rolling store cannot be blamed on one thing, such as the commodity program. Part of the blame lies in Carl Girlinghouse's generosity and the fact that he never intended to get rich; he only wanted to make a living for his family. His mark-up was only twenty percent, which is very low, especially considering the maintenance costs of the rolling store. He daily drove a heavily loaded truck over many miles of gravel roads; he must have spent a small fortune on tires alone.

Most of the blame for the demise of the rolling store lies with changing times. Highways and side-roads improved. Transportation improved, bringing rural people closer to the towns of Jena and Jonesville. Also, the people changed. Subsistence farming died, and Carl Girlinghouse's customers sold their land to large farmers and agricultural corporations.

Like the rolling store, the Breithaupt farm of my youth is no more. However, like the rusty school bus in Carl Girlinghouse's back yard, there are touchable memories at that place on the bank of French Fork beside that still-gravel road. My aunt's house is gone; the plum trees died. My uncle's barn is a pile of rotted boards. But the fence still stands in a thicket beside the road, and the gate still swings.

If you stand beside that gate on a hot afternoon in the Louisiana Delta summer, you may see a cloud of dust around the bend of the road. Listen carefully; you may hear the Blue Goose honk and a child yell, "Rollin' store! Rollin' store!"


1. Personal interview with C. J. Girlinghouse on October 12, 1991. All direct quotes are taken from this interview.

John L. Doughty, Jr. is an independent researcher and writer in Tullos, Louisiana. This article was originally published in the 1991 Louisiana Folklife Journal.