by Dwane Powell
There were no cars in sight at the sleepy rural crossroads in Person County. Since the road was the most level spot around, it seemed a good place to set up a tripod for our subject: an old, closed country store.
Jim White, a photographer and sales representative for Peace Camera in Raleigh, had invited me to join him on a jaunt into the countryside to photograph it. This was the very same store featured in Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1939 Depression-era photo, and it was intriguing to speculate on how it had weathered the 76 years since. Carson Boone, a retired Raleigh engineer, amateur historian, and photographer, had assured us it was still standing.
Boone, an admirer of Lange’s work, embarked on a mission in 1998 to track down the store, and confirmed that it was one and the same after comparing his prints with Lange’s image. Later that year, his sleuthing was featured in a The Herald Sun story by Paul Bonner. The feature revealed many historic details about the store – estimated to have been built in the late 1800s, based on some of the period hardware and door styles – and some information about the people in the photo.
Just after White and I had our tripods set on the deserted roadway, a large, late-model maroon pickup truck pulled to a stop beside us. The fellow inside drawled, “this is about the most photographed spot in Person County.” He went on to tell us that the man standing in the doorway of Lange’s photo was his great-uncle. Relieved that we hadn’t been taken for interlopers or trespassers, we went about taking our photos.
Further research revealed that the man in the doorway was actually the owner of the store, Rainey Baynes. His niece, Sara Hester, is quoted in The Herald Sun article describing Baynes as easy-going and likeable; also perhaps a little fond of the bottle. “Likable” aptly fits the posture and body language Baynes conveys in the photo. He died in 1942, and the store closed soon after that.
Dorothea Lange captured the Baynes store scene while on a mission for a Farm Security Administration program created to document Depression-era struggles in rural America. Lange’s photographs became some of the most iconographic images of that time.
In comparing the old photo with the new one, contemporary builders might take note of the durability of 19th century rural construction. The store’s distinctive cedar posts are testimonials to that species’ ability to withstand rot and insects.
And there’s a lot to learn from side-by-side comparisons of the photos: the toll of time and weathering on the building’s siding; soil that has risen around the porch covering the first of its supporting stones; the replacement of two attic doors with faux bricks; the missing stage-right wing of the building; and of course, the missing signs.
Further scrutiny of the old photo invites speculation about what it felt like to live in 1939 Person County. The presence of an electric meter, barely visible over the man on the right in the photo, assures us that the fellow guzzling his soda pop was probably enjoying one that was refreshingly cold. This was when only about 11 percent of rural North Carolina had electricity.
But most compelling to me – and a testament to Lange’s skill as a photographer and student of the people she photographed – is the curiosity about her subjects that the image invokes.
Would the black men on the porch have been allowed inside the store at a time when Jim Crow dictated race relations? Rainey Baynes and the men seem to be engaged in easy banter and surely knew each other well. I grew up in rural Arkansas in the ’50s while Jim Crow still very much held sway, but the country store down the road let blacks freely enter and do business. In town they would have to go to a window around back. I think Baynes let them inside.
What day was the photo taken? The men aren’t dressed for field work. This question was answered by research confirming that it was taken on a Sunday (no blue laws in rural N.C.).
What would one see upon entering the store? I can envision basic food staples, canned goods, candy, soda pop, some hardware items, and a pot belly stove; old-timers would sit around in winter and swap lies.
What effect did a woman outsider with a huge, unwieldy camera have on these men? This was the second day Lange spent at the store, and that probably explains how at ease everyone appears.
As White and I were about to wrap things up, the couple living in the tidy little ranch house next door came over to chat. After informing us that they owned the store, they asked if we’d like to go inside. Used for storage, it had been largely stripped of its personality, though vestiges of old wallpaper were still visible here and there. An old broom leaned beside a ladder to the attic. At the back of the store, an attached outhouse still stood.
We took a few more photos, thanked them and headed for the car. “Just a moment!” the woman called out. “Would y’all like some garden-fresh broccoli to take back?” Wouldn’t you know, I left mine in White’s car on our return drive. I hope he enjoyed it.
For those interested in Dorothea Lange’s work, there are many books of her work in print, as well as a documentary on her life available at PBS.org. High-resolution versions of her images can be obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration at archives.gov.