WEST COLUMBIA — “What would I do?”
This was the answer 98-year old Josephine Kirby gave when asked “Why don’t you retire?”
Kirby has been working at her family’s business, Fowler’s Grocery Store, in West Columbia her entire life and that business has been there for over 100 years, though it used to be on the “old road.” For those who don’t know “the old road” it was the former path of W.Va. 62 which used to sit closer to the Ohio River. Kirby tells the story of how the business was literally moved (building and all) in the 1940’s to follow the new path of W.Va. 62. In order to move Fowler’s Grocery Store, it had to cross the railroad tracks, with the family being threatened to be charged $100 per minute if it held up a train. Kirby laughs when saying they had just got it across the tracks when a train came through that day.
Many days since, Fowler’s Grocery Store has sat in its spot, wedged between Tin Can Hollow Road and Lieving Road, selling everything from toilet paper to Reese’s Cups. Years ago, the store was also home to the West Columbia Post Office, where Kirby’s mother, May Fowler was the postmaster. Eventually, the need for more room would cause the post office to move out of the corner of the store to its own location.
Kirby said her family came to West Columbia to be by “the road” and though “the road” still goes through West Columbia, times have changed.
“This was a thriving town at one time…the population was over 3,000…I have the history,” Kirby said, explaining it was called the “best town” from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh in one of her history books.
She remembers being young and walking to nearby Lakin to see variety shows put on by young men at the “Lakin Industrial School for Colored Boys,” and she recalled “boy, they put on good ones, too,” she said. She recalled those performances being a big community event and like most events, big or small, you walked to everything back then, including to school. Kirby is herself a graduate of Wahama High School.
Kirby seems to be both a businesswoman and the keeper of the history of West Columbia, talking about another bygone era when the town was home to a mansion called “King’s Hill” owned then by a wealthy man from Pittsburgh. The home could be accessed by going up Tin Can Hollow Road. She said the man had a vineyard and inside a “big dance floor.”
“People from New York, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, all came here in the summer for vacation,” she said, demonstrating that even the smallest of towns can have a big history, especially when there’s someone around like Kirby to keep it alive.
Of course, just as the mansion and industrial school demonstrate, change comes to everything. She said customers used to be lined up in the mornings outside her grocery store, causing her family to open by 6 a.m. and the shelves were full, including a full meat case with people from Point Pleasant and New Haven driving to buy merchandise. The way people shop and where they shop can be fickle.
Kirby talked about a conversation she had with her late sister concerning that very subject and the store that has become intertwined with her life.
“I was complaining about business falling off..of course it would, because there’s a Walmart right up the road here, and she said, ‘Josephine, don’t quit, because if you do, what would you do? You’d go in the house and die. You don’t like to go no place and you don’t travel…have it for friendship.’ And that’s about all it is,” Kirby said, summing up the fellowship her store now brings to her, simply by keeping it open.
Having a small town grocery store will likely not result in someone getting rich these days, financially, but it makes Kirby rich in other ways. Her store is also practical for those in her community and it has anything someone could need to survive if they didn’t feel like driving out of West Columbia to get it.
When asked if she has any favorite customers, she said: “I like them all. I love everybody and you know, I tell them I do.”
Kirby greets her customers with a smile and a sincere disposition and says the “help of the Lord” keeps her going and “well, we (she and the Lord) just talk.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without Him,” she continued. “When I go to bed, I say, Lord, help remind me what I done wrong today and He’ll tell me and (I realized) I owed a penny to a boy that lives on the old road. Next morning (I gave it back to him) and he said, ‘what’s this for?’ And I said, I owe it to you. I don’t want Saint Peter to say ‘oh no, we don’t want you to come in today because you owe somebody.’”
Given her honesty regarding paying back the penny she owed, there’s no reason to doubt her when she says she reads her Bible every night, with her favorite passage being John 3:16.
With “the Lord” and her customers who bring the world to her, Kirby seems to have what she needs.
“I like to work” she said, even as she was using a cane to walk due to a hip replacement. “What do they (people who don’t work) do with their lives?” She wondered.
That is something she has never had to know.
Fowler’s Grocery Store is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Closed on Sunday.
Reach Beth Sergent at email@example.com or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.