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JIM: Wheats, Williams families of Montpelier, KY store

A brief account of the Wheat and Williams families of the famed Montpelier General Store & Post Office, 1868-1917.
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By JD Gee

For many decades, the Montpelier General Store and Post Office served as the commercial and secular social center of that section of Russell and Adair counties In its heyday, it was the go-to place for brought-on merchandise -- dry goods to dippers, hosiery to housewares, underwear to undertaking supplies, pumpkin seed to plowshares, hatpins to harness, and the myriad other items carried by the Big Box community stores of the day.

During the dog days of August 1868, Cyrus Wheat, then in his early forties, became postmaster at Montpelier, a post office which had been re-established in the early days of the Civil War. He, the firstborn of Samuel and Anna Rippetoe Wheat's many children, had married fairly young to Sarah Murrah. They had one child, a daughter named Clementine J., better known as Clemmie, who joined the family a year or thereabout so after their marriage.

Almost certainly, Cyrus either immediately started a general store in connection with the post office, or, more likely, continued and grew the one already there. An elderly distant kinsman of Cyrus' told me that "Cy-baldie" -- as he called Cyrus -- got the inspiration to run a store one hot summer day while plowing corn, after expressing the heartfelt opinion there had to be an easier way to make a living.

Although details are sketchy and a bit of apparent conflict exists in different accounts of the following sequence of events, a known fact is that less than a fortnight past Valentine's Day, 1870, Clemmie J. Wheat happily became the wife of Z.T. Williams, a neighbor lad two or three years her junior, just two days after he reached his majority. It is my belief that about the time, and possibly a bit before Z.T. married into the family, he "handled the yard stick," parlance of the day for clerked, at the store, for Mr. Wheat, and that the following year (1871), Cyrus made him a partner in the firm, a partnership that would last until Cyrus Wheat's passing in the summer of 1898, thirty years almost to the day after his appointment as postmaster.

A biographical sketch of Mr. Williams published in 1886 stated
"In boyhood Z.T. Williams received a business education in the schools of Russell and Adair Counties, which he attended every winter--three months--until eighteen years of age, after which he taught two terms in the common schools of Russell County.

"He began the battle of life with no estate, and embarked in the general merchandise business in 1871, at Montpelier, Adair County, with Mr. Cyrus Wheat, which he has since continued. In addition to this Mr. Williams, in partnership with Mr. Wheat, carries on a farm of 400 acres. Messrs. Wheat & Williams carry a stock of general merchandise and drugs worth $3,000, and have a fine trade." (Sketch abstracted from Kentucky: A History of the State, W.H. Perrin, J.H. Battle and G.C. Kniffin, c. 1886:)
Cyrus Wheat, known as a good business man, accumulated a fair amount of worldly wealth before venturing into the great unknown. However, his nephew by marriage, the well-known Southern preacher, evangelist, and temperance speaker George W. Perryman, remembered him as the man who helped him (Perryman) as a struggling youth. Wrote the Rev. Perryman:
"[Cyrus Wheat] was one of the noblest and truest men I have ever known. He despised a little thing, he loved the right thing. He was one of the first citizens of the county; his standard of living was correct; his word was gold, his character was spotless. He was a great blessing to his country. "When the poor cried Cyrus Wheat wept. I know whereof I speak. When I was a boy he was my ideal of a man, so firm, so full of business; always on the right side of everything. He lived a life worthy of his profession. He died loved and honored by all who knew him. He lives still in the sweet memories of his friends. He has gone on higher to rest from his toil and to be ever with his Savior, who he loved so tenderly and served so faithfully while here."
After Cyrus' death, his widow, Ellen B. Wheat, assumed the role of silent partner until settlement of her husband's estate. The News then carried, on the last day of January 1900, this announcement:
"There has been a change in the dry goods establishment at Montpelier. Mrs. Ellen B. Wheat takes the interest owned by her late husband. No change is made in the style [name] of the firm -- Wheat & Williams. Mr. Luther Williams, who is an excellent businessman, is the manager, and Mr. Albert Epperson, a very popular gentleman, is the clerk. Financially there is not a stronger firm in the county than Wheat & Williams."
(Cyrus' first wife, Clemmie J.'s mother, died in the late 1870s. Two or three years later, he married Ellen B. Coffey, a member of the Page-Brawner family, the widow of Jos. S. Coffey, and some twenty-two years Cyrus' junior. Their only child, Samuel Reed, was born in 1884, about two years before Cyrus' sixtieth birthday.)

Z.T. Williams served one term in the Kentucky Legislature

In the 1880s, Z.T. Williams served one term in the Kentucky legislature as a state representative but otherwise continued as an active, working partner in the busy general store until around 1890, when he began an endeavor that would occupy the rest of his days, laboring in the vineyards of the Lord as an Elder (minister) of the Christian Church.

Even so, he held full if generally inactive partnership (at least in the day to day management) in the store until the opening days of 1903 when this announcement appeared in the January 14, 1903 edition of the paper:
"To All Whom It May Concern

"I have this day sold my interest in the store at Montpelier, Ky., to my son, Luther Williams, who will continue the business at the same old stand with Mrs. E.B. Wheat under the old firm name of Wheat & Williams.

"I do this after 33 years connection in the mercantile business at the same place--Twenty-eight years with Cyrus Wheat, deceased, and four years or more with his widow, Mrs. E.B. Wheat. Twenty years of which, I was in active business myself...I cheerfully commend the new firm to those who have been so long our old customers and patrons, as efficient, honest and upright merchants and bespeak for them a large share of the trade of the community at large...I do this on my part more to fully relieve myself of the worldly encumbrances that I may more fully consecrate myself to the good work whereto I am called. This 5th day of January, 1903, /s/ Z.T. Williams."
By this time, Z.T.'s beloved wife Clemmie J. likely was in failing health, as she passed only five months later. Her death notice described her as "A kind and sympathetic neighbor, a devoted wife and a loving mother, a friend to the unfortunate, a God fearing and a God serving woman."

Also by this time, Z.T. and Clemmie's son Luther, the eldest of their six children, already had been serving both as postmaster since his grandfather's death and as the de facto managing partner of the firm for several years, so the change effected by the sale largely was one of a legal manner.

Ellen and Cyrus' son Sam R. apparently had no desire in carrying on the family business. In early 1906, he married Miss Zilpha Dunbar, also of Adair County, and they soon removed to near Dallas, Texas. (After they went their separate ways a few years later, Sam spent several years in the US. Army.) It isn't known with certainty when Ellen Wheat sold her share to her stepson Luther Williams, but a reasonable guess would place the transaction around the fall of 1906 at about the same time she removed from Montpelier to take rooms in the household of W.A. Coffey of Columbia, a nephew of her first husband.

(Four years later, Ellen sold the property at Montpelier known as the Cyrus Wheat farm and residence for just under $6,000. In December 1910, the new owner, Willis Grider, sold a boundary of timber off the farm, and a filler piece in the mid-September 1917 paper made mention of an English elm in the lawn of Willis Grider of Montpelier, stating, "It is a beautiful tree and [was] planted by the late Cyrus Wheat.")

Z.T. Williams remarried in 1904, moved to Columbia, KY as pastor of Columbia Christian

Z.T. Williams remarried in late 1904, and he and his second wife moved to Columbia a year or so later to be nearer the church he then served, the Columbia Christian. With Ellen leaving Montpelier as well, Luther Williams stayed to mind the store and post office as owner and postmaster, the last of the family to take an interest in so doing. Those who clerked for Mr. Williams during the first decade of the 20th century included O.A.. Taylor, Joe Calhoun, Albert "Bert" Epperson, and C.G. Jeffries. (O.A. Taylor's first wife and Luther were first cousins.)

Luther kept the store until the latter part of 1917 when an out-of-county opportunity presented itself, an opportunity requiring that he divest himself of Adair County business interests. In early November, 1917, the real estate firm of Tutt & Reed, of Columbia, advertised for sale the general store as well as Mr. Williams' farm. Under the heading of "A Rare Opportunity," the notice said of the Wheat & Williams store:
"The business consists of a stock of general merchandise which would invoice now from $2000 to $3000 but is being reduced. Will make special inducements on stock. Good storehouse, rent reasonable. This business has been established forty-seven years and is one of the best country stores in this section. It has always been a prosperous business. Reason for sell, Mr. Williams is going to engage in other business on another county."
Two weeks later, the News reporter for Montpelier (possibly Jan Vetter Dudley) noted in the newsletter that Mr. Williams intended to "remove to Cave City, where he will engage in the drug business."

Buyers quickly came forward, and an early January 1918 edition of the paper informed readers that
"Mr. Luther Williams has sold his farm to Eldridge Montgomery for $3,500. He has also sold his stock of goods to Eldridge Montgomery and Osborn Lawless, the purchasers will take possession about January 1st." (From the wording both of the advertisement and the notice of sale, the store building itself didn't change hands, only the business interest and the inventory.)

(An ad in some of the December 1917 papers, placed by Tutt & Reed, described the farm in part as "100 acres of lime stone land, nine miles south of Columbia, well watered and timbered, on the main Columbia and Creelsboro road... good neighborhood in 300 yards of school and church house" and that mail was delivered twice daily. Mr. Montgomery paid the full asking price.)

In that long ago January, 1918, Luther, along with his wife Juliette (a member of Columbia's Patteson family) and children set forth on the journey to their new home, and with their departure, the last tie of the Wheat and Williams families to the venerable old Montpelier general store were severed, a few months short of the 50th anniversary of Cyrus Wheat's appointment as the postmaster there.

Eld. Z.T. Williams died in 1923, and his obituary remarked that he was a "good man, who was loved by every body for his Christian character and many deeds of kindness." Ellen Page Coffey Wheat passed in 1930; Luther Williams in 1941; and Sam R. Wheat in 1955 in Dallas County, Texas. The last two postmasters and shopkeepers at the Montpelier general store were Dewey Collins, from early 1942 until his passing in 1957, and his wife "Miss" Willie, from 1957 until well into the 1980s.

- JD Gee, the author of this account, labor on the article for a long time, completing it near midnight, at 11:55pmET, Sun 07 Feb 2016

This story was posted on 2016-02-08 06:07:31
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