Jefferson Monthly Feature
3:38 pm
Thu September 12, 2013

Both Sides of the Aisle

If a small town store is a reflection of a community, then looking around the Ruch Country Store, one gets the sense of the diverse set of people who live in the surrounding areas. On a small, recycled magazine rack, back issues of The New Yorker sit next to copies of American Rifleman. Pinned to the community board are various flyers. Housing needed for organic gardener one reads. Sagittarius, Ayurvedic dosha: vata. Enneagram personality type 3, vegan. Next to that: an advert for Medford BMX.

You can roughly break the groups into two broad stereotypes and gingerly label them what you want: “conservatives “and “liberals,” or “Christians” and “New-Agers.” Or you can just enlist the terms used by many of the locals: “rednecks” and “hippies.” If these terms seem inflammatory, most locals don’t think so, wearing the labels with pride and a sense of humor.

“I’m definitely one of the rednecks,” jests Rick Barclay while he eats chicken strips at his “official loafing spot”—a picnic bench outside the automatic doors. The bearded local grew up in the area and now manages Cantrall-Buckley campground three miles up the road.

He explains that while the redneck/hippie distinction was more a thing of the ‘70s, when “back-to-the-land-ers” moved into this ranching community to start communes, there are some lingering differences. “We disagree on resource issues,” says the former timber worker. Religion is also a difference: “Rednecks” more likely to embrace more mainstream Christian teachings, while “hippies” tend to subscribe to a collage of spiritual beliefs.

Although the environment and religion are fairly big-ticket items, nowhere do the differences show up in a more day-to-day way than inside the store itself, where the simple act of choosing what to eat and drink can sometimes feel like an expression of identity. Again, in crude stereotypical terms, a “hippy” would tend toward an organic micro-brew—or even a spirulina smoothie, while the so-called “redneck” might reach for a Coors. Store owner Craig Hamm can be found at the register, ringing up all the purchases—whether it be brown rice or pork sausages, organic or nonorganic—with equanimity.

He welcomes everyone. “You can be friends with both of these people,” he says.

Most area residents do the bulk of their shopping in Medford where they find cheaper prices at their store of choice. But whether they go to Wal-Mart, or the Medford Food Coop, they all share in something common when it comes to food: they depend on Hamm’s store for that forgotten carton of milk, that stick of butter.

How do these small, regional stores like Hamm’s meet the appetites of the diverse groups who depend on them? Most assume a niche in one camp or the other—usually in direct response to the requests of their customers.

“We are definitely a greasy spoon,” says MaryAnna Reynolds who owns The Applegate Store and Café seven miles down the road. Behind store shelves stocked with Ruffles, Pringles, and salted peanuts, her son turns out the creative burgers from the café kitchen. The customers love his “breakfast burger”—which comes with a fried egg, and his “no name burger“— a secret combo that he puts on special every week. She’s not apologetic for being a burger joint, but does commend Patrick for introducing some healthier choices.

Ruth Kealiher, who owns the Provolt store is similarly decisive. This is the redneck store,” she says of the bright historic building poised at the junction of Highway 238 and Williams Highway. She motions beyond a stack of sodas toward the town of Williams, a well-known epicenter for alternative lifestyles. “The Williams Store is the hippy store,” she explains.

While most of the stores feature a certain amount of products that cross the lines, what makes the Ruch Country Store unique is the way it manages to cut right down the middle. “We are like Switzerland,” Hamm says, “I don’t take sides.” Drawing on decades of experience in the grocery business, he listens to his customers, who have been the spirit of the operation since the time he and his wife, Amber, opened the store in 1998.

In those first weeks, Hamm taped pens and note cards along the empty shelves and asked shoppers to write down what they’d like to see—a more personal, analog version of box store computers that tally purchases and crank our spreadsheets of consumer buying patterns. If a customer shows up at the till with a certain product over and over again, Hamm is sure to order more.

And this is how he ended up with store shelves in which Tofu Pups share space with beef franks, Kettle Chips with Doritos, and Endangered Species bars with Hershey’s.

The Hamms’ happily cater to all tastes, but have no tolerance for judgment. It’s one thing to prefer conventional apples over organic ones, but if discussions in the store get combative—as can occasionally happen when the news broadcasts from the wall- mounted television, he might intervene. “If a guy reads the headlines and rants and raves and cusses, I tell them to go behind the store.”

They listen. Hamm is an imposing figure. Part of this is function of his size: he’s a bear-like 6’3”. But it’s also his voice, which is pleasant, but carries the deep authority of a referee. “They know I’m not going to take B.S. from them,” he laughs.

He would be downright intimidating if he weren’t so caring. He doesn’t just track his customers’ purchases (he’s already pulled the correct brand of cigarettes before the customer even reaches the register), but also their lives. When a regular comes into the store, he didn’t bother much with how-was-your-day clichés, but inquires about her recent vacation. These tailored interactions are the charming hallmarks of Hamm’s approach to running a business.

If stores showcase the region’s cultural differences on their shelves, they also have the effect of erasing them. In a rural area with few social opportunities, the stores provide a forum for interaction. And where there is interaction, there is less stereotyping.

“Places like the store are where those differences fade,” remarks Barclay, finishing up a Gatorade.

The Provolt Store actively facilitates community with events like motorcycle swap meets and car shows. Most well-known is their annual “Apple Jam,” an event that attracts locals and non-locals with a diverse set of bands. “Apple Jam is a grass-roots, unpretentious sort of music festival,” says attendee and Applegate resident Page Logsdon. “The atmosphere is easy and friendly. You’ll find a real cross section of the folks who live around here.”

But even things as simple as the picnic benches placed outside the Williams Store, or the woodstove inside the Ruch Country Store encourage interaction.

“This is the only social spot in town,” says Russell Wilson sitting with his friends Moe Miller and Norman Godfrey. The trio has been meeting for coffee at the store every day for 15 years. “This is the news outlet,” says Wilson.

Which is exactly what owner Kathy Hazelton hoped to foster: “If you are feeling down, the store has a very social atmosphere and it picks you up. We play really good music, and everyone has their differences—their flair. It’s upbeat.”

That morning the group was leafing through Jeff Foxworthy’s 2013 calendar of redneck jokes—all which begin with the phrase You know you’re a redneck if… and end with punch lines like: you don’t need a clean shirt to go to work.

When asked if they considered themselves “rednecks” or “hippies,” they weren’t quick to answer. This proved something Barclay said when he was lunching outside the Ruch Country Store. “The polarization is more in the minds of people in town than in the people in the valley. The people in town don’t have social interaction with us.”

Many Applegate Valley residents feel they are somewhere in the middle—like Dillon Rogers who works a sawmill on Yale Creek Road. “I listen to reggae and country music—and rap, too. All kinds.”

“He’s one of the hybrids,” Barclay says of Rogers. “You may be one way or the other when you first move here, but over time you blend.”

With the back-to-the-land energy of the ’60s and ’70s faded and timber wars cooled, the difference between rednecks and hippies is increasingly getting relegated to the realm of jokes. In fact, the difference is now faint in the minds many of the area’s young people. “Old timers remember it, but young kids don’t remember,” says Brian Thibeault. Although the lifelong resident is aware that his dreadlocks and preference for organic strawberries puts him squarely on the “hippy” side of things, the distinction holds little charge. “Hippies are made fun of for diet or lifestyle or how they might smell,” he shrugs. “Outwardly, it might not seem friendly, but the bottom line is that there are nice people on both sides and they don’t really mean harm.”

If anything, the dominant distinction these days is less between “rednecks” and “hippies” and more between “in-towners” and “out-of-towners.” Most people who live in the Applegate treasure the rural setting, the quiet, and the slower pace.

“Most of us want to be left alone and live our lives. We don’t want the government meddling in our affairs,” says Barclay.

“I stay the hell out of town,” says Rogers.

This distaste for venturing into town makes the region’s small stores even more attractive. Reynolds at The Applegate Store even stocks specific items preferred by residents who can’t bear going into town.

Thibeault is happy to pay higher prices to stay put. “It saves the drive to town, so it’s worth it.”

This pride in place seems to be the common denominator for everyone in the Applegate Valley. All praise the beauty of the landscape, and most of the stores make at least some effort to stock regional products—whether it’s Patrick putting local tomatoes on his burgers at The Applegate Store, or Hamm stocking up on resident Caleb Hunter’s corn. A bumper sticker on the window of the Ruch Country Store reads BUY LOCAL: RUCH, APPLEGATE, WILLIAMS.

A community-minded spirit comes with this pride, and people like the Hamms do what they can to support local institutions. Ruch School T-Shirts are displayed on the store walls, as are the drawings of children. They donate to ACCESS, the Community Action Agency of Jackson County, bring their corn roaster to 4-H events, and regularly “bid up” the kids’ pigs at the auctions. And, like many in the surrounding community, are ready to help when individuals are in a time of need.

“When we have big fire—it burns everyone’s place,” says Barclay. “When there are floods, everyone is affected. This requires a certain level of societal response and we help whoever needs help—no matter who they are. The truth is we have more in common than either of us would like to admit.”

Christina Ammon can be reached at: christinaammonwriter@gmail.com