Step through the screen doors of Vallentines general store in Cope, S.C. (pop. 107), and you’ll step back in time. Literally, that is, if you slip your feet into a pair of the 1940s shoes tucked neatly behind the counter.
And while you’re at Vallentines, which bills itself as “a peek into the past,” take a gander at a wooden sewing box from Singer, a cream can, kettles, baskets, mule shoes and hundreds of nuts and bolts—just a few of the thousands of items that line the shelves of this old-time store. But you can’t exactly purchase these products—they’re strictly for show.
“We don’t like to part with anything,” says proprietor Jo Helen Riley, whose grandfather, J.I. Vallentine, established the general store as well as a cotton gin in the early 1900s. “We cling to it all.”
“She has done a lot to preserve what’s left of our town’s history,” Mayor Janet Joye says of Riley. “Cope had one of the first banks, first post offices and first telephones in the state.”
The current store, built in 1940, is a neat, brick building located at 132 Cotton Ave., next to the family’s still operating cotton gin. Inside the long, narrow store, Riley shows off two original telephones from the Cope Telephone Co. She reminisces about Mrs. Adams, a telephone operator who happily kept up with everyone’s whereabouts in the 1940s and ’50s.
“I’d call her up and say, ‘Mrs. Adams, where’s my daddy?’” recalls Riley, who can still take incoming calls on one of the phones. “And she always knew.”
Riley’s father, Robert Vallentine, took over the store in 1937 and ran it with the help of his sister, Henry Ella Vallentine, until she died in 1980. When Robert died in 1987, Riley made sure the doors stayed open as long as she could.
In the past year, the 67-year-old Riley has stopped operating the store on a daily basis, but still loves to show it off to local school and senior citizen groups and tourists. “A lot of tourists are coming through that want to see it,” she says. “The postmaster is right across the street, and he’ll call me and say, ‘You got time? People want to see the store.’ And if they call, I’ll come down. Since the store has changed very little since it opened, people always say to me, ‘It looks just like it did.’”
It’s a place where visitors can see Little Sister and Little Brother Sealpax undersuits and thread on wooden spools, as well as Poll-Parrot leather shoes and cookie cutters advertising baking powder.
A long tradition of raising and ginning cotton also is a family affair for Riley, her husband Fletcher, and their two daughters, Roxane Cummings and Marlene Workman. Marlene’s husband, Will, works in the gin’s sales department, while Roxane’s husband, Skip, is involved in the physical aspect of ginning. During one of their best years, the family ginned 14,000 bales of cotton for 65 area farmers. “We’re hoping to do even better this year,” she says.
Riley’s roots in Cope run even deeper than the store and cotton gin. The town was named after her great-grandfather, Jacob Martin Cope, who in 1894 deeded 25 acres to the Manchester and Augusta Railroad so a town could be built around the new railroad station. Several years later, the town boasted churches, a school, a bank and a post office that offered one of the first rural deliveries in South Carolina. Many of the structures have been replaced, but the original train depot building still stands across the road from Vallentines, and in 2001, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Joye, who has served as mayor since 1992, describes the town as small and quiet, where residents enjoy the “simple life.” It’s the kind of place where, as she says, “If you want to step back in history a little bit, this is a great town.”