“Messers Hunter & Oates are working on the amusement hall they are having fitted up in the second story of their store. The stage has been erected. In rear of the stage, and on line of the floor of it, are green room and dressing rooms, the stage surface proper having a capacity for scenery and space for actors of about 18 by 25 feet, exclusive of wings. Besides this commodious stage and ample seating capacity, they also contemplate fitting up the stage with scenery appropriate for several plays.”
Yorkville Enquirer, Aug. 21, 1884
City Directories and History: In January 1876, two 32-year-old men, John F. Oates and John J. Hunter, established a retail business in Yorkville (now York) under the name Hunter & Oates General Merchandise. Recently, the Museum of Western York County received an account book for Hunter & Oates, covering the first three years of business, which was the motivation for this article.
By this time, after the Civil War, the Reconstruction years were in the past, and federal troops had left town. But the Republicans still maintained their stranglehold on the state, and the military occupied Columbia. Statewide elections were scheduled for the following November and, as in every election since 1868,
Democrats were hoping to oust the Republicans and take over the reins of government. In January, it wasn’t looking too hopeful — even the Democrat leaders were undecided about what to do. The Straight Outers believed a straight Democratic ticket would do, but the Fusionists were convinced that they must share a ticket with Republicans.
As an aside, John Hunter was born in the Bethel region of the county, and he entered the 18th Regiment of the Confederate Army in 1863 when he was 19. He was in several large battles, including Petersburg, where he witnessed the big “blow up.”
Even in those doubtful times after the Civil War and Reconstruction, Oates and Hunter were willing to take a chance in enlarging their fortune. They announced their intentions to the people of Yorkville and the surrounding area, moving into the vacant Avery storeroom. The store’s earliest account book showed that they opened their business with $4,500 in stock and an equal amount in cash.
The men began offering credit to their customers, but they soon realized this was tying up money they needed to pay their own creditors. After a review of the accounts, many were marked as “Suspensus,” which simply meant no more credit. Some of the other town merchants like W. H. and J. P. Herndon were doing business on a “cash only” basis. Williford’s in Rock Hill was demanding their customers pay under the threat of a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the Straight Outers forged their ticket with Wade Hampton III as the nominee for governor, the Democratic Party quickly unified, and in August the DNC accepted his nomination. Hampton soon began his Red Shirt campaign with grand rallies across the state. In October he and the Red Shirt campaigners came to Rock Hill and Yorkville.
In November, Hampton overwhelmingly won the election but was not allowed to take the office because Republicans refused to turn the government over to the Democrats. Hampton, unbeknownst to his party, made a backroom deal with Republican President-elect Rutherford B. Hayes, promising him to throw all the electoral votes to him if he would desert the Republicans in South Carolina and recall the federal troops. It was a deal, and Hampton took office during March 1877.
Hampton was re-elected in 1878 and, though he was popular with both blacks and whites, he was continually quarreling with the white supremacists of the Democratic Party. The advances he had made in racial harmony and civil rights were soon under attack after Hampton left Colombia for Washington and the United States Senate.
Sitting in the White House on the evening of November 12, 1878, President Hayes wrote the following entry in his journal. “In South Carolina and Louisiana, and perhaps in some of the other cotton states, grave changes are made that the constitutional provisions which guarantee equal citizenship have been practically nullified; that by fraud, or force or intimidation, colored citizens have been disfranchised.”
In Yorkville, the good fortune of Oates and Hunter continued for several years, and they decided to enlarge their business. In 1881 they signed a five-year partnership with another man and changed the business name to Hunter, Oates & Company — J. Robert Lindsay was the “company.” They hired a new salesman, and in November it was announced that Colcock & Miller had bought out the grocery department but would do business in the same building.
The men were doing so well that they began building a large, brick store. In March 1887 they announced they would move into the new building on West Liberty Street, directly behind the courthouse (in fact, it was only a few yards from the courthouse). The two-story building was so large, it was soon nicknamed “the Mammoth” — the store was located on the ground floor, and the second floor housed an opera house.
The mercantile business continued to be good, and the partnership seemed to have a good head for business. But the partnership made a cost-saving, short-sighted decision from which the effects would not appear for several years. The mammoth building cost $7,000, which was a huge investment for the times, and the inventory stock was valued at $12,000. Yet, they insured the building for $2,500 and their large inventory for $3,000. In combination, the insured value was less than 30% of the book value.
On the 21st day of November 1892, the custodian of attorney C. E. Spencer stepped into the attorney’s office (in a frame building) to start a fire in the heater, just as he had done so many times before. What he did not notice was that the heater’s flue had dangerously deteriorated. After accomplishing his fire-lighting duty, the custodian left to complete his rounds.
About a half-hour later, J. S. Brice happened by and noticed smoke creeping out from around the door and rushed inside. He noticed a small flame between the ceiling and roof and later said that he could have easily quenched the flame with a bucket of water, but there was none available. Brice gave the alarm, but by the time men arrived with buckets, the flames had made such a headway that the fire couldn’t be extinguished without ladders. And when the ladders arrived, the fire was so fierce that there was no need to fight the blaze.
With the brick courthouse no more than 15 feet away from Spencer’s office, and Hunter & Oates almost touching the courthouse, what was about to happen was predictable. When the County Commissioner’s office went ablaze in a small frame building next to the courthouse, the predictable became assured. As Yorkville Councilman McDow saw that they were in for desperate times, he telegraphed Rock Hill and Chester for help.
The town’s volunteers (many of them women — young, unmarried girls and children) were quick to see the worst that could happen and immediately rescued all the books and papers from both Spencer’s and the County Commissioner’s offices. By the time their work was accomplished, the roofs of the courthouse and Hunter & Oates were smoking. When the crowd saw that both the courthouse and store would soon go up in flames, they responded and saved the books and papers from the courthouse and much of the stock in the store, all in less than an hour.
Across the street from Hunter & Oates were the law offices of W. B. McCaw and Finley & Brice, and both were frame buildings. It was determined that if these buildings caught fire, the next to go would be the Bratton Building and then probably the entire business district. The law offices and the Bratton Building were covered with water-soaked blankets — water was continually passed to the roofs, and men re-saturated the blankets. More than 1,000 buckets of water were used in the course of two hours.
Later, it was estimated that Hunter & Oates was the big loser in the fire, with an estimated $12,000 to $14,000 in stock damaged or destroyed. Yet, their total coverage by insurance was a maximum of $5,500. The fire and the shortage of insurance would be the death knell for the partnership.
The Hunter & Oates building is totally destroyed, with an estimated loss of $7,000 for the building and $12,000 in stock. The damage to the courthouse is estimated at between $12,000 and $15,000. The lower floor is still intact. The Spencer office and county commissioner’s office are both destroyed. The law offices of McCaw, Finley & Brice, and Hart & Hart all suffered damage, but not severe.
On December 21, 1892 Hunter & Oates announced that it was reopening the stock to the public in the Allison Building — holding what we would call a “Fire Sale.” The ad read that goods were for sale at 75 cents on the dollar, as much of the stock had only “part of the new knocked off” in the fire. On other goods the customer could set his or her own price. At the bottom of the ad was a plea — “Those who owe us will please take notice that we need our money and need it badly. Let us see or hear from you.”
In January the partnership was dissolved by mutual consent, with Mr. Hunter buying out Mr. Oates and conducting business under the firm’s name until everything could be settled. Oates went to work in an insurance company under the employment of J. R. Lindsay, his former partner.
Though there is no proof, there is reason to believe that Lindsay left Hunter & Oates in about 1886 when his contract was completed. In 1991 he returned to Yorkville from North Carolina, where he had been working in the life insurance business. He used space above the W. M. Huston & Company to create handsome offices.
After the mercantile business of Hunter & Oates was settled, Hunter worked as a bookkeeper for several firms until 1905, when he was elected York County’s auditor. He held the position for three successive terms, ending in 1911. Hunter & Oates never returned as a business.
Editor’s Note — The “blow up” occurred when 8,000 pounds of gunpowder was exploded by the Union under Confederate fortifications (on July 30, 1864) during the so-called Siege of Petersburg (Virginia). Union troops dug a long horizontal mine shaft from their trenches to the Confederate trenches, filled the T-shaped end with four tons of gunpowder, and exploded the cache about 20 feet underground. The tremendous explosion killed 250-350 Confederates outright, along with horses and mules, hurtling bodies and earth high into the air and resulting in a huge, deep hole. This led to the Battle of the Crater, where Union troops spilled into the new crater during the ensuing attack in an effort to exploit the perceived breach in Confederate lines. Unable to climb out of the death pit and simply stacking up inside it as more Union troops cascaded down the sides, they were confronted by massing Confederates positioned above the crater rim and literally devastated in what was called a “turkey shoot” of gunfire and artillery.) [My thanks to Nancy Sambets, archivist at the Historical Center of York County at the McCelvey Center in York, for her research. This story could not have been written without her assistance.]
J.L. West – Author
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
HUNTER AND OATES STORE: The elegant two story brick store house of Hunter and Oates is rapidly approaching completion, only now awaiting the strokes of Nelson Davies’ cunning brushes. This is probably the best arranged store house in the upper part of the State. It is large, well-. lighted and ventilated and two stories above ground with a basement. The house is of excellent architectual design, and finished with all modern improvements, including an elevator. It is hoped by many citizens that this enterprising firm will be sufficiently prompted by a pro bono publico spirit to finish the second story of their house for a town hall – something much needed here___
(On March 15, 1883, the Enquirer followed up its story on the Hunter and Oates building.) Altogether elegant… .The storeroom is 110 feet by 35, and as the building from basement to roof was designed by Mr. Hunter – an architectural feat in which he may justly take pride – so was the arrangement of the store room planned by him. The house can be entered from the street by three doors, the middle one, however, landing you upon an elevator, which is ready to take you to the second story or lower you to the basement. But as the proprietors vaguely promise to fit up the second story for a town hall – Yorkville does not aspire to an opera house – we will not go up at present, but wait until the next play session opens, by which time we trust it will be ready, and sufficiently inviting to induce some good companies to visit us. Going downward, we are soon landed on the floor of the basement, well-lighted and ventilated, neatly plastered and as inviting as any store room on the ground. This is fitted up in the best style for the grocery department of their business and here everything in the family and fancy grocery line is temptingly displayed. Having gone through this capacious room, and wishing to return above, we can either take the elevator and ascend without exertion, an easy flight of stairs will take us up to the floor above, landing us near the centre of the room. Here we find a bewilderment of dry goods, clothing, notions, etc. which goes to make up the stock they will carry on this floor, all of which is displayed on shelves and counters or packed in drawers…. Having feasted our eyes on the display of goods, we return to the street, and casting our eye at the well proportioned front, and the massive walls of hard brick, we are charmed with the pleasing combination of beauty, strength, and durability.
The brickwork and plastering were done under the supervision of Mr. A. Cody, the wood work under contract by Mr. George M. Ford, and the painting, upon which so much of the interior appearance depends, by Nelson Davies. Where white is not used the work is in imitation of rosewood, maple and mahogany,…….. (Information courtesy of and from: YCGHS – The Quarterly Magazine)
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