More than just a store

July 13, 2013
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Ray and Karen Stockdale hold a photo of Ray’s dad, Raymond (Jack) Stockdale. In his arms is the couple’s daughter, Thea. Both men were previous owners of Ruff Creek General Store, believed to be the oldest operating general store in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
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Walter Stout was one of the more than 70 young people whose first job was working at Ruff Creek General Store.
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Earl Shirk, one of the original owners of Ruff Creek General Store, stands outside the store in 1929.
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Tara Kinsell/Observer-Reporter
Ruff Creek General Store as it appears today Order a Print

RUFF CREEK – For Ray Stockdale Jr., former owner of Ruff Creek General Store, it was more than just a business. It was a home-away-from-home, his eye on the world, and a living family album. Stockdale grew up in the apartment above the store. In June he made the tough decision to sell.

His father, Raymond “Jack” Stockdale Sr., purchased the business in 1961, after managing it for several years. Eight years later Ray Jr. moved on to pursue a degree at West Virginia University, married his high school sweetheart, Karen (Main) Stockdale, and worked for Quaker State Oil Co. In 1974, Jack was diagnosed with colon cancer, and Ray and Karen came home.

“After he was diagnosed, he basically told me if I had any interest in running the business to decide one way or the other. He wasn’t sure physically what he would be able to do,” Ray said. “Karen’s dad was still alive and her grandparents. It was a pretty easy decision for us.”

“Nothing beats family,” Karen added.

The couple soon learned they were expecting their first child, a daughter, Thea, now 38. A son, Brad, would arrive four years later. The timing worked. Jack was with them until 1980.

“I had six really good years with him (his dad) working side-by-side,” Ray said, noting he learned a lot from his father in that time.

Jack was in his 40s when he bought the business. Ray said his dad had learned his management skills during World War II as a tech sergeant over a company of 80 men. When he got out of the Army he was a clerk in Behm’s Store at Bristoria, Ray said. Eventually, all of that experience landed Jack a job as the manager of Ruff Creek General Store.

That was back when they had a full-line store, according to Ray.

“It was a Clover Farms store, basically the forerunner of IGA,” Ray said.

Growing up on a farm in Rutan, Jack had experience butchering meat, which they did a lot of back then.

“That was an area I had no interest in. We used to cut by hand, and at the end were using a meat saw. I was not interested and not very good at it,” he said. The running joke was that Ray was truly a butcher, the way he hacked at it.

One of the perks of managing the store was Jack could live in the apartment above the establishment. It also was a plus for owner Guy Lemmon, since Jack served as a built-in security guard for the place. Guy was the second owner of the store, started by the Shirk brothers across the street and moved to its present-day location in 1925.

For many years it served as a full-service shopping destination in the area before Interstate 79 was built. Today it is more of a “Superette,” as Ray calls it.

The store had to evolve with the times, but not so much to make it unrecognizable. Stockdale said the changes in the petroleum industry affected a lot of that change.

“When we went with Coen Oil in 1961, it was a major turning point for the store. Gas was now a major product for it,” Stockdale said. “People could travel to stores and other supermarkets. We became more of a Superette. I wanted it to be that way. It suited our personality.”

It was Ray’s own health problems that helped him make the tough decision to sell the business to longtime associates Coen Oil Co. in June. It was a move he said he felt completely comfortable with after knowing the owners for such a long time.

Ray said they share his vision of what the store is about and will give the store the best opportunity to move into the future.

Karen said it takes a lot of commitment to operate a store like this one.

“You have to be everything from chief cook to bottle washer. You have to clean the bathrooms, write a dog license, cut two pounds of chipped ham and tell somebody where the restroom is while running for a bag of feed all at the same time,” she said laughing.

In a business that sold everything from feed for livestock to fresh sandwiches and boots, she hardly exaggerated the point.

Choking back tears, Ray said that he didn’t know selling it would be so hard. He continues to make an early-morning pilgrimage to the store from their home, about a mile away.

He said it is the people that he misses the most. Clientele have ranged from locals to people from all over the country hopping off of the Interstate to fill up their tanks and their stomachs. Some have come annually to the little store. He even had a visit from a former President’s daughter one day.

Sitting on the “talking bench,” located just inside the store, a group of guys Stockdale lovingly calls the AARP bunch, pointed her out. The bench, an old church pew, is their perch to recount the day’s happenings, swap fish tales and the like.

“They said, ‘That’s Chelsea Clinton.’ I didn’t believe them at first. Then the more I looked I thought they were right. I decided I had one chance so I started to think inside my head how I could find out,” Ray said. “When she came to the register I said, “Good morning Chelsea. How are you today?” She said, ‘Fine, thank you.’ I asked her, ‘Are you really Chelsea Clinton?’ and she said, ‘yes.’”

Ray learned that President Clinton was speaking at Waynesburg College that day. On her way back through Chelsea stopped again and Ray had pictures taken with her.

“She was a nice young lady, down to Earth. She could have been our own daughter,” he said.

Through power outages, snow storms, the assassination of a president, Vietnam, the falling of the twin towers and everything in between, the Ruff Creek General Store has been a gathering place to discuss, to argue, to commiserate, laugh and sometimes cry.

“We treated people the way we would like to be treated,” Ray said. “We probably hired 70 to 80 people in the 40 years we’ve owned the store. We gave many of the kids around here their first jobs and we were happy to have them help us. It was really more successful than I ever could have imagined.”

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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