Lots of people visit the Topaz Mill and get a pleasant surprise when they look next door. Standing there, big and bold, the old general store looks as though someone like Sam Drucker (“Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction” fame) might step out onto the front porch at any time. It is the stereotypical, albeit grand, general store.
The site’s caretaker, Joe Bob O’Neal, retired from his job with the BNSF Railroad and moved to this site a few years ago, with his wife, Betsy. His relatives purchased the property in 1957, and so he spent his childhood kicking around the old buildings and exploring the woods nearby. Joe said he hated every minute that he had to live in Kansas City and looked forward to the day he could live at Topaz, and ride his dirt bike around the 400-acre property. Little did he envision that his retirement might include giving tours of the old mill and store.
The Topaz General Store and Post Office
Like many general stores from this time, Topaz also served as a post office. Joe Bob said he heard that the first postmaster, R. S. Hutcheson, chose the name Topaz from a list that someone in the federal postal system showed him. Hutcheson saw the town of Topaz, California, liked it and plucked it off the list for this place in Missouri. At one time, Joe Bob said, Douglas County had at least 90 post offices. Hutcheson acquired the mill and about 400 acres back in 1890.
History records that a small log cabin general store sat here when Hutcheson took ownership of the property, but this store is massive, especially when compared to rural general stores. It has about 2,000 square feet. It also has 2 stories, complete with a wrap-around interior balcony. O’Neal said they have never found out exactly when someone built the store, but he reckons it happened in either 1905 or 1913. He knows that Hutcheson opened the post office opened in 1893 and it closed in 1943. Hutcheson’s wife, Mary, served as the first and last postmaster.
Hutcheson died an early, untimely death in 1919 – before he realized his dream of opening a bank at Topaz. Joe Bob said that in the record books, you can see where Mary served as postmaster off and on throughout the years, until she moved to Mountain Grove in 1946. Joe Bob’s neighbor still talks about the big sale at Topaz in 1946.
Joe Bob said that general stores didn’t operate like modern day stores. You would hand off your list to an employee, more than likely a woman, and she’d fill your order while you waited. That order might include flour or grain from multiple bins on the end of the building, other dry goods, saddles, tools, fabric, pottery, and the list goes one. Joe Bob said it’s been said that you could get everything you needed at the old general store, and that he had been told that someone’s grandpa once bought a shotgun here.
The Tour of Topaz General Store
Betsy actually kicked off the tour of the general store. She pointed at an old Admiral television set sitting on a table near the double door entryway. Joe Bob said his aunt and uncle purchased this one, their first TV, back in 1955. “When his family moved down to Topaz, when they wanted to watch TV in the evening, they would take extension cords and run it to the top of the hill, and go up to the hill and watch TV,” said Betsy. “I think ‘The Price is Right’ and ‘I’ve Got a Secret’ were 2 of the shows they liked to watch.” Since the family couldn’t get any reception down at the old house, they would go to these great lengths to get reception. Betsy said they took an antennae along, too.
Inside the Store
Although there are some original attached items, such as counters and cabinets, most everything has found its way into the old store from the O’Neals. Betsy and her friend offer antiques and glassware for sale, and hundreds of pieces of glass adorn the line of shelves that almost run the length of the store. Joe Bob described the collection this way: “It’s just a bunch of old stuff, and nothing goes with anything.”
On one side of the store stands an old lathe, part of a collection of 3 lathes owned by Joe Bob’s uncle, who made hickory axe handles in here. “In about 1975, my uncle just ripped that counter out, put in 3 lathes and started his business,” said Joe Bob. Joe Bob’s uncle made between 400 to 600 axe handles a day. Joe Bob said, “One day they wanted to see if they could do it and they made 1,000.”
It’s Not a Murphy Bed
One of the most interesting items, though, left in the store is an old bed. Folded up like a Murphy bed in an ornate cabinet, the bed is not a Murphy bed, but a double-fold bed – which pre-dates Murphy beds. According to Joe Bob, Mr. Murphy didn’t patent technology for the fold-up bed sometime in the early 1900s. Back then, as Joe Bob told it, it was taboo for your girlfriend to come into your bedroom, so Murphy built a fold-up bed for his 1-room apartment in New York City. Joe Bob explained, “This is pre-Murphy, this piece that holds the mattress down says ‘Patented, ’86. And that’s not 1986.’”
The O’Neals found this old bed upstairs in the back of the store. “I would imagine that originally, it was either straw or feathers in the mattress,” added Joe Bob. The difference between this bed and Murphy’s invention is that the double fold is just that – the mattress folds in half and then, up into the case.
The Ultimate Incubator
Another interesting item stands near the doorway. It’s an automatic incubator, used by Joe Bob’s grandmother back in 1957. Joe Bob said, “People don’t realize how important chickens were for homesteaders and settlers. You can take 40 acres down in here and survive. You could clear the trees, build a cabin, grow a few crops – wheat or corn – bring it here to get it ground, have a few cows and some pigs, and lots of chickens. If you had chickens, you could survive. Chicken were very valuable. You could take them to town and trade them for something.”
He continued, “This was an incubator and they were sought after. It was automatic and it keep a constant temperature in there. The incubator had a water receptacle, complete with a thermostat, and a heater that kept the water warm.” Indeed, this deluxe contraption contains 4 slide-out trays that will hold hundreds of eggs.
Joe Bob added, “You used to hear about chicken thieves. They’d hang chicken thieves, just like horse thieves.”
A Visit to Topaz
Joe Bob’s story-telling abilities made the tour memorable, as he wove points of interest, local anecdotal tales and facts together throughout the 3-hour tour. I’d like to go back in a few months, because by then, Joe Bob probably will have discovered something else interesting about the general store, the community of Topaz or the mill next door.