© Jerry F. Couch 2020
IN 1915, COEBURN GROCERY COMPANY opened a new branch of its business on Russell Street in St. Paul. In March of 1909, the company had purchased the lots upon which to build this three-story brick structure, gambling on the economic growth the newly arrived CC&O Railway could bring to the town. Pictured below is an excerpt from the CC&O’s annual report for the fiscal year ending June, 1915.
The property shared a boundary with the N & W Railway – making it a prime location for any company doing business by rail freight. At its new St. Paul location and at the Coeburn location, Coeburn Grocery Company was one of Wise Count’s major marketers of wholesale groceries to large and small retail stores. A railroad siding behind the St. Paul location made for convenient shipping and receiving of merchandise.
Look closely at the early 1920’s photo of Coeburn Grocery Company (above) and you will see a boxcar on the rail siding behind the building. There is a stack of merchandise on the elevated wooden walkway that extended to the railroad depot. This walkway also served St. Paul Supply, the St. Paul Hardware Company, and Dickenson-McNeer Wholesale. In 2020, the former St. Paul Supply building is the lone survivor of these early commercial structures.
The photos above and below provide a better view of the elevated wooden walkway that extended from Coeburn Grocery Company to the St. Paul Union Depot. The day these pictures were taken, two trains had collided behind Coeburn Grocery Company and (apparently) every person in town had hurried to the scene to take a look.
In the 1920’s photo above, an unidentified man stands on the wooden walkway at the St. Paul Union Depot. Notice the SUPER heavy-duty hand truck he’s using – which probably weighs more than he does. Behind him, barrels and crates of merchandise await delivery.
For years, Coeburn Grocery Company’s St. Paul and Coeburn locations prospered – as evidenced by an article (above) that appeared in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in March of 1922.
Even though most of the US didn’t begin to experience the Great Depression until the late 1920’s, its preliminary effects were felt in Southwest Virginia at an earlier date. At that time, it was standard practice for retail merchants to transact their business with Coeburn Grocery through credit accounts. Many of these retail stores also offered credit accounts to their customers. When jobs began to dry up and the price of farm products began to plummet, retailers and wholesalers alike found themselves caught in the middle.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, local newspapers carried a troubling number of legal notices relative to bankruptcies and court-ordered foreclosure sales. By changing the way in which it did business, Coeburn Grocery managed to weather the economic storm. For example, in 1931 the company amended its charter to reflect a sizable reduction in its capital stock.
Another coping mechanism was the Wise County Credit Men’s Association – established in the 1920’s a pre-Internet credit reporting agency. The association provided a way for credit merchants to compare notes and share information – particularly about businesses that might have entered a downhill slide into bankruptcy.
Coeburn Grocery also joined with other wholesalers in encouraging local farmers to sell their produce directly to them, and provided guidelines on how to do so. Obviously, the principals of these companies were well aware of the domino effect bankruptcies among growers/producers, wholesalers/distributors, and retailers could have on the food supply chain.
In the mid-1930’s, it became expedient for Coeburn Grocery Company to close its St. Paul branch and consolidate its efforts at Coeburn.
Wise County’s wholesale merchants were not the executives of huge conglomerates engaged in billion dollar businesses far removed from their consumers. They weren’t just protecting their own interests. They were local people doing their best to make sure other local people didn’t go to bed hungry.
The story might have ended with the closure of the St. Paul branch of Coeburn Grocery Company, but it did NOT. The building was subsequently leased for use as a factory for the production of clothing, as explained in the following article from the January 9, 1936 edition of the Kingsport times.