Another season goes by in our shire town. Familiar buttery Christmas lights lace snow-lined streets, yes, even in February, as I am writing this. A sweet-smelling spring will soon awaken our senses as daylight hours linger a bit longer. A playful, nostalgic summer is on our minds and in our hearts. A golden autumn will peek through and shift our pace into a colorful frenzy of leaves wistfully falling to the ground, and tourists marveling at their majestic color. Wavering through the knowing windows of F.H. Gillingham & Sons, as it does predictably and unpredictably, another year has come and gone in Woodstock, Vermont.
The store is certainly familiar with the passage of time, having been in business for over a century. And, wow, if these ol’ floorboards could talk, they would have more than a few tales to tell.
Tales that the owners, a family who has maintained the business since it opened in 1886, are always warmly quick to share.
The building that houses Gilingham’s, as we are called locally, was originally built in 1810 for partners Titus Hutchinson and Sylvester Edson. They shared the space to run half as Edison’s general store and half as Hutchinson’s law office. Talk about compromise!
If you had walked through the doors back then, you probably wouldn’t recognize this establishment compared to how it stands today. Knowing its history, though, you can fill your senses of a bygone era – perhaps even smell an aroma of yesteryear.
Edson’s store was not the self-service establishment that we are accustomed to today. There was no front register. In its place, in those days, a ledger was used to manually record inventory and purchases in the back. Orders for patrons of the store would be taken in longhand. Later in the 1880s, delivery service was offered locally – by horse and carriage, with Clarence Coffin and others holding the reins.
In 1860, a man named Alvin Hatch purchased the building. You may recognize the name from the sign that now hangs above the coffee aisle, to the right as you walk in the store. It’s original, much like Alvin – the character himself.
After working closely with Hatch for years, Frank Henry (F.H.) Gillingham, another name you will recognize, purchased the store, and eventually took possession of the building itself.
The area that now houses our fine wines was formerly a modern office space for bookkeeping by F.H.’s sister-in-law, and Ada’s sister, Ellen A. Fairbanks (Aunt Nellie), and later (Aunt) Clara Richardson’s office, who was affectionately known to us as “Lala”.
Current owners, Frank and Jireh Billings, great-grandsons of Frank Henry, recall looking down from a vent on the second floor at this special place, and giddily playing pranks on those below. Today, they both still possess a mischievous twinkle that cannot be denied.
The brothers remember working at their family’s general store as youngsters, as well as through their high school days. They would perform the very important tasks of stocking the box bin for outgoing deliveries, cutting glass and mixing paint.
As the concept of the general store evolved, so, too, did Gillingham’s. Woodstock became more and more a population of second home owners and stores were forced to adapt.
Jireh and Frank recall stocking inventory, unloading trucks, pricing with a grease pencil and eventually with the simple pricing gun we still use today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Getting the Billings boys to invite you into their world, as they recline into a state of happy nostalgia is never a difficult task. Jireh fondly recalls that in the early days “It didn’t matter what we did, it was that we were working together”.
One of their favorite aspects of the job back in the day was making deliveries. The freedom and independence of driving a car while on the clock was something they both remember as being a highly coveted job.
Their favorite stop was at their grandmother “Nana” Gillingham’s house. She would entice them to “come in and stay awhile” by offering them donuts and Sanka coffee. Nana was in fact, Sarah Elizabeth Gillingham, one of the three Richardson sisters - the other two being: Clara Richardson (pictured below with Jireh) and Maud Richardson Walker.
The business truly became a family affair with two of the three Richardson sisters making contributions to the store throughout their lives.
Maud Walker’s husband Bob Walker, or Uncle Bob (pictured below) as the boys knew him (really their great-uncle), was also a fixture of the general store and community for many years.
Jireh recalls as Uncle Bob became elderly, he would greet the customers with the same hospitality he demonstrated his entire life, and would always respond, “first rate” when customers inquired about how his day was going.
As the tourism industry started booming in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s people from all over and all walks of life yearned to escape the city and visited us to have the chance to experience that rural Vermont general store experience.
Now, we move to the family’s fifth generation growing up in the 1990’s at F.H. Gillingham & Sons. Jireh remembers when his oldest son Jireh, Jr., one of three sons, would stand as a youngster on his designated stool by the register and bag groceries. He wore a tie and had a charming youthful energy that endlessly entertained both those working and the customers who came in. Not much has changed – Jireh, Jr. still charms us with each frequent visit “to check things out.”
While happily changing with the times, the store today remains very much as it always has been: nostalgic, traditional, steadfast and a “home” to many.
Yes, we have Instagram and Facebook now, but you can also see artifacts from the original store placed about to enhance the visitor’s experience and showcase our history. We truly are a unique general store experience.
It’s a priority at F.H. Gillingham & Sons to keep the history alive. We accomplish this while hosting longtime customers and those who may only have the chance to visit once. We know full well though, that they will return.
Since my recent employment here at “Gillie’s”, as we call it, I have heard one phrase uttered more than any other by patrons of the store. They say some variation of, “This store has everything. If they don’t have it, then we don’t need it”.
And I think it’s true. If there’s a specific gadget you need for your kitchen, it’s likely, no matter how obscure, that we have it in multiple sizes and colors. Do you yearn for a favorite food you remember in your lunchbox? A favorite toy or puzzle that was passed down from your parents to your siblings, and finally to you?
In fact, we start selling many of our best products based on customer suggestions.
As F.H. Gillingham would say, “This isn’t you [the customer] coming in and buying something from us, this is a two-way partnership. By working together, the business succeeds and you keep more money in your pocket”.
Seeing the diversity of the inventory, now knowing some of the history, it’s no wonder that Gillingham’s has endured for all these years.
From the celebrity to the locally-celebrated - teachers, lawyers, school children, people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe have creaked across these well-worn floorboards. F.H. Gillingham & Sons is happy to still have its arms outstretched to welcome any and all to a beloved Woodstock original.
Stop by for a visit and become a part of the past, present and future of F. H. Gillingham and Sons.
I graduated from Keene State College in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a Minor in Theater. The following year, I completed a year of national service with AmeriCorps NCCC, where I worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on disaster relief. Currently, I am a graduate student attending Georgetown University online working towards a Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communications for Nonprofits.