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By Miranda Fraley-Rhodes
Local merchants in towns throughout Tennessee provided important services to their communities. John S. Fielder operated a store in Lexington, Henderson County, Tennessee from the late 1840s until his death in the 1880s.
Fielder established this business with the help of his father L.L. Fielder of Gibson County. For many years, he provided his West Tennessee neighbors with products they needed from medicines to farm wagons. Thanks to the generosity of a donor, some of Fielder’s extensive business records are in the Tennessee State Museum Collection. These materials provide information about Fielder and his store and also how residents of Henderson County lived during the mid-1800s. The merchandise Fielder offered for sale in his store changed somewhat over time. In the beginning, his wares consisted largely of books, stationery items, products related to paint, household goods like candles, tobacco, pharmaceuticals including both patent medicines and chemical components used to make medicines, and alcoholic beverages. As time passed, he increasingly added items such as garden seeds. However, only after the Civil War, did his store become what modern readers would consider a “general store” selling farm equipment, clothing, household furniture, etc.
John S. Fielder, by Thuss of Nashville, mid-19th century (Tennessee State Museum collection, 1996.20.276)
During the Civil War, Fielder proved to be a tenacious businessman. He carefully recorded items taken from his store and other properties by Union soldiers occupying West Tennessee. The most severe loss to Fielder from federal soldiers’ looting came on February 6, 1864, when part of the 6th Tennessee Cavalry, U.S.A. commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Jay Smith raided and burned Fielder’s store. In his business records for this period, Fielder estimated losses from this incident at $5,295.00, including $2,000 for the buildings. In his list, he noted some items as being “taken off” and others as being “burnt.” He lost goods such as tobacco, corn, hides, bacon, lard, paint pigments, vials, window glass, grass seed, vinegar, white lead, one soda fountain and syrups, dyestuffs, glassware, paints, garden seeds, paper, lamps, and lamp shades. He also lost $1,500 worth of medicines that were burned. After the destruction of his store during the Civil War, Fielder quickly rebuilt his business, and by the 1870s, expanded into products like farm wagons and cotton gins. Although documents among his business papers indicate that Fielder considered filing a report with the federal Southern Claims Commission, no evidence in his records suggests he received reimbursement for losses caused by Union soldiers.
Fielder’s papers help tell stories of the transition from slavery to freedom. His records include some documents related to enslaved persons. In the 1856 and 1859 ledger, there are more than twenty entries in which individuals receiving items from the store are identified as African American. In many cases, these individuals appeared to be enslaved persons collecting items charged to the accounts of others. However, in the store accounts ledger which has entries beginning in 1852, an African American named Wiley is listed as purchasing an accordion costing $4.00 in December 1854. This account is clearly listed in Wiley’s name, though it indicates he was enslaved.
Fielder’s records also help document part of the community’s Reconstruction story as freedpeople established accounts with Fielder. For example, Fielder recorded purchases charged to the account of an African American man named Abram on January 3, 1865, May 20, 1865, July 26, 1865, and March 8, 1866. Abram’s purchases included items such as potatoes, tobacco, calico, thread and one pair of ladies’ shoes. An African American woman named Lucy Moore had an account. She charged a bottle of snuff in February 1866, and on March 5, 1866, she purchased another bottle of snuff and a pair of shoes. During the year 1866, Moore and her three children were employed by Fielder through a labor contract negotiated under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau. They were to receive board and fifty dollars for their work, with no deductions to be taken for time off necessitated by the birth of Lucy’s expected fourth child.
One of Fielder’s business ledgers focuses on correspondence from the years 1878 to 1882. In addition to the handwritten file copies of letters on the ledger’s pages, numerous loose documents like receipts, advertisements, and notes were placed between the ledger’s pages, making this a particularly rich source of information.
This ledger shows Fielder as an enterprising entrepreneur who paid attention to the needs and wants of his customers. Fielder recognized that local residents were interested in a wide range of products and corresponded with wholesale merchants throughout the eastern United States in order to stock his store with goods. He often instructed suppliers to offer him their “lowest cash price.” At this time, many southern storeowners and their customers had to pay for items on credit based on the future sale of staple crops like cotton. However, people like Fielder who were able to pay cash could sometimes secure discounted prices. Fielder dealt with the difficulties of shipping items to Lexington. He often had products sent by boat on the Tennessee River to J.P. Veal & Company located in Perryville, Decatur County. Fielder would then send someone in a wagon to Perryville to collect the goods. He also would dispatch persons to drive wagons to the railroad depot at Jackson, TN.
His correspondence in December 1878 suggests the kinds of treats enjoyed by people in Henderson County during the Christmas season. He ordered items like candy, oranges, lemons, coconuts, raisins, and red apples “for Christmas.” He also stocked his store with dishes, wash pans, saddles, gloves, boots, bows and strings for violins, shawls, different kinds of cloth, and buttons for dresses.
Fielder recognized that his customers cared about maintaining their appearance. He stocked a variety of personal items like combs and mirrors. His store also offered health and beauty products. For example, his business records contain a handbill advertising Hall’s Hair Renewer that was “SOLD BY J. S. FIELDER, LEXINGTON, TENN.” A similar handbill for Ayer’s Hair Vigor and Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, which supposedly purified the blood and improved a variety of skin problems and other ailments, also is present in his papers.
John S. Fielder's Ledger, John Fielder’s Correspondence Ledger, 1878 to 1882 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2008.310.3)
Fielder’s records show that in March 1879 he helped grieving family members who lost loved ones obtain mourning clothing. He wrote to a supplier for “1 Dress mourning hat and veil for a lady of 32 years of Age Latest stial [style] to cost $4.00 to $4.50” and “1 mourning hat or bonnet for…lady of 35 or 36 years of Age with a little white mixed with the flowers for a nice widow has very black hair the latest stial and best hat you can get up for $4 to $4.50.” When placing special orders with suppliers for specific customers, Fielder would have needed to ensure that the wholesale merchants provided goods that he could retail at a cost acceptable to these individuals to avoid a situation in which a customer refused to pay for the item ordered.
On February 27, 1880, Fielder wrote to a supplier about a medicine offered to treat consumption, or tuberculosis. He explained “If it proves to be good in the case that I wish to try it in I think th[ere] are several Patients near me that will give it a trial. This patients throat seems to be some what affected perhaps a bron[chi]al infection also something like catarrh pleas[e] send medicine right away and oblige.”
Mary Patience McHaney Fielder, by Thuss of Nashville, mid-19th century, (Tennessee State Museum collection, 1996.20.275). Mary McHaney Fielder was John S. Fielder’s wife. She was a member of a prominent Henderson County family, and their marriage likely helped secure his social status in the community.
Fielder maintained extensive business contacts related to his store and agricultural land holdings. He often received bales of cotton, animal hides, and other products in payment for debts. He also seems to have leased some land to tenants. In a letter to J.C. Taylor, dated October 6, 1879, Fielder complained about the behavior of a tenant named A.J. Parigen. Fielder wrote that Parigen “has violated his contract in sel[l]ing that cotton you had best have his [w]hole crop fodder corn cotton oats wheat if any peas or anything and every thing that you can get holt of attached immediately and have it taken care of as best you can or have an off[i]cer to sel[l] it if you can get it ar[r]anged.”
Fielder’s business records help tell stories about a remarkable West Tennessee businessman and his community. Fielder and his contemporaries experienced times of war, great struggle, and immense change. Throughout these years, he continued to help supply his neighbors with material items they needed and some goods like books and violins that helped enrich their lives. Sources like Fielder’s business ledgers and papers provide important information about the daily lives of Tennesseans and enhance our understanding of individuals’ perspectives and experiences.
Miranda Fraley-Rhodes, Ph.D. is the Assistant Chief Curator of the Tennessee State Museum. She was the curator of the Museum exhibition, Ratified: Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote and online exhibition, Ratified! Statewide! Every County Has a Suffrage Story. She previously wrote for the Thousands of Stories blog about poll taxes.