A Visit to the Merc

Tonight I am thinking of a family connection to Kenton, Oklahoma.

The town of Kenton is so small that if you blink you can miss it. The population today is less than 20 people, but at one time it was a bustling little town that served the ranchers of the area.

Kenton is all the way at the end of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Since it served mainly the ranchers from New Mexico and Colorado who were on Mountain Time they also observed Mountain Time. Some older maps show a little jog in the time-line around Kenton, but officially the time-line follows the Oklahoma/New Mexico border.

The Merc, Mercantile, Kenton, Oklahoma, John DuncanOn Main Street in Kenton there was a little store called The Mercantile. My 2nd Great Uncle John Duncan ran this store for 36 years before he passed away at the age of 102 in 1983. Before John Duncan took over the store he was a rancher in Colorado and there are some very interesting stories about his life.

The Mercantile, Kenton, Oklahoma, Main StreetI visited Kenton along with John’s  granddaughter back in the summer of 2000.

Mammoth Bones, Mammoth Tusk, Kenton, OklahomaAlso on display in the store are some Mammoth tusks and bones that were excavated near Kenton.

kenton, oklahoma, mercantile, bones, mastadonLook at the size of this lower jaw.

mercantile, kenton, oklahoma, panhandle, country storeAlso interesting were the shelves of items that were for sale.

My cousin had many memories of visiting the store when she was growing up. Perhaps because of all the candy.

mercantile, kenton, oklahoma, panhandle, country storeHere you can see that there were a lot of common food items for sale.

Having grown up in a smaller town I know the importance of a local grocery.

Black Mesa, Kenton, Oklahoma, Virtual HikeI have great memories of visiting Kenton, including an overnight stay with my Grandma’s cousin who was in her 90’s. She had me go out and walk around that night to experience the clear skies of Kenton. Due to Black Mesa which is just north of Kenton there is an updraft that clears out the sky. Along with minimal light pollution Kenton has some of the darkest skies in America. That night was moonless, but I was still able to see my shadow just from the light of the Milky Way. It was the most majestic night sky that I have ever seen.

Steven

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2 Responses to A Visit to the Merc

  1. chapmanca says:

    Love this!

  2. Morris Jacobs says:

    Lovely piece. Thanks for sharing. I also have many fond memories of the Kenton store and my grandfather, John W. Duncan. He lived across the street, first down the block a little and then right across the road. His commute consisted of a quick U-turn and a drive of maybe 75 yards.
    He drove a big Chrysler sedan, and he was behind the wheel as long as he was physically able. As I recall, they just mailed him his last Oklahoma driver’s license — not sure he had a vision test or anything — even though he probably should not have been driving.

    At home he kept a shotgun next to the window looking out on the store and its two gas pumps, because a couple of folks in the dark of night had broken the locks on the pumps and helped themselves. He did not like that, although the store operated on the honor system. If he was unavailable, customers left cash for their purchases in a King Edward cigar box (King Edward cigars and Old Sunnybrook whiskey were staples of his existence) he kept on the counter for that purpose. When he was still butchering, he did that in a room added to the back of the store, where there were freezers large enough to hold the meat. So he was often in the back when customers came, and the cigar box got plenty of use.

    The Black Mesa drew geologists and other scientists (including one ornithologist I remember), from all over the world, and probably still does. Many returned every year, and a visit to the store was a feature of their research trips, both for provisions and conversation with Grandpa. I don’t recall any of their names, but Grandpa would introduce us to them and explain they were there to explore “Black Mesa country.” I think these folks mostly camped, but now of course they would have the option of staying in one of the B&B’s that have been established in the area for tourists.

    As kids, we ranged all over Kenton, which even then was pretty much a ghost town — maybe 50 souls called it home. About the only thing we worried about when exploring was rattlesnakes. We made it a point, though, to pop into the store, where we would usually find Grandpa sitting behind the counter. “You kids want a pop?” was his usual greeting, and I always took him up on the offer, hoisting a cold grape soda out of the cooler next to the counter.

    In 1978 I brought a couple of Soviet officials, who were touring the US with a cultural exchange exhibition for which I was the US escort, to Kenton. The senior official, Zoya Zarubina, was a senior member of the Communist Party, a magazine editor, former KGB officer, and daughter of one of Stalin’s deputy foreign ministers during WWII. She had even met FDR at Yalta, where she was a young captain in the security detail for the Yalta Conference. She took to Grandpa — and he to her — instantly, and we shared more than one bottle of vodka during their visit, much to the displeasure of my aunts. He regaled his visitors with stories of the “Rooshians” he had known in the twenties and thirties in Southeastern Colorado. “They were damn fine farmers,” he said more than once. Our Russian guests loved it. A few years later over dinner in Moscow, Zoya told me that after that trip she understood that her country was not going to win the competition with the United States, and I believe her chats with my grandfather played an important role in helping her reach that conclusion.

    Grandpa and Zoya are gone now. But memories of Kenton and my grandpa’s artifact-filled store live on, and I often ponder them and their meaning.

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