The Rheatown Store has changed hands several times throughout its long history, but this time, its new owner has a unique familial connection to the old, country store.
Debra Ball Jones, who is now running the store alongside her daughter Beckie Pounders and husband Robert Jones, is the niece of George Elbert Ball, the store’s first owner.
Jones said she was young when her uncle sold the store and retired, but she has early memories of Sundays spent riding her bike with her brother to the store in the 1960s.
“I can remember when Uncle Eb had the store and we would ride our bikes here to get chewing gum or a Coke,” Jones said. “We used to ride our bikes all over Rheatown. This was the Rheatown Food Market then.“
Jones said her uncle built the store sometime in the 1950s, and that the basement was once a jail.
A book among the collections at the T. Elmer Cox Genealogical and Historical Library titled, “Rheatown, Tennessee,” which includes a chapter on merchants in the community since at least the 1830s, indicates there was an older store dating prior to 1888 adjacent to Rheatown Creek, which runs alongside the Rheatown Store now.
Addresses are not given, and it is unclear how many different stores have served Rheatown over the years, but the stone basement of that building was used “in the early days for a Calaboose,” or a jail. A date for when that structure was built or when it was used as a prison are not listed.
According to the book the store was vacant for a time before it housed the fraternal Order of the Odd Fellows Hall from 1888 until the 1920s, when it was remodeled into a new general store. That store had a pharmacy as well as Rheatown’s first gasoline pump, but it burned in the 1940s, and by the “Rheatown, Tennessee” book’s first publication in 1977, a modern market had been built on the site.
A date is not provided for when the modern market was built or who built it, although a George E. Ball is listed among the “later known merchants,” and Jones said an aunt recently confirmed to her that her Uncle Eb built the store over a former prison.
“She didn’t remember when, but she said he built it over top of the old jail,” Jones said.
Jones said her uncle ran the Rheatown Food Market for about 13 years before he sold it for health-related reasons.
“He was a real businessman, but he and Aunt Ollie didn’t have any kids, so he sold it when he got sick,” Jones said. “It has gone several different ways since then.”
One of those ways was with Patsy Pirozzoli, who ran the store for more than 30 years beginning in 1979. In the 1990s, Jones said, Pirozzoli started hosting bluegrass musicians for weekly jam sessions on Saturday nights.
The music at Rheatown has been a longstanding tradition since then, including under the store’s most recent owner Rob Rogers, who took over in 2018.
Jones said she aims to keep that tradition going, too.
“It wouldn’t be Rheatown without the music,” said Jones.
When Rogers moved and the store closed in December, Jones said Pirozzoli later stepped in to keep the music going and has helped Jones and her family and business partners settle in and prepare to run the store on their own.
Saturday was Jones’ and her family’s first Saturday bluegrass session without Pirozzoli.
“We had a good group Saturday. We probably had 25 people,” Jones said.
She said the music came from two different groups, one in the dedicated music room in the back of the store and the other forming a circle in the front of the store near the cash register.
“Sometimes they’ll go out front, or we’ll have another group outside,” Jones said. “Wherever they want to jam is fine.”
Jones and Pounders both said they hope more musicians will come by and join in.
“We’re hoping to get more and more as we go along,” Jones said.
She said her husband plays several stringed instruments and has been one of the regularly attending pickers.
Pounders said she is hoping to see more people spending time at the store in general.
“When I was a teenager, I can remember seeing some of the older generation sitting outside the store with their cup of coffee or a cigarette, just talking and watching the cars go by,” Pounders said. “I’d like for it to be that old hang out spot again. I like seeing the old farmers out there and hearing their stories.”
Jones said she would be happy to see younger people at the store, too.
In general, Jones and Pounder said they are keeping the store largely as-is.
“I don’t plan on changing much, but I definitely want to bring some of the old stuff back,” Jones said, like some antique farm equipment Jones said she remembers used to adorn the walls. Jones said she believes it is packed away somewhere, and she is hoping to come across it and use it to redecorate.
The food menu is also staying largely the same, but Jones said fried pickles have been added to it, and the cheddar rounds have become cheddar dots.
Biscuits and gravy are still made fresh first thing every morning, she said.
Breakfast is served 6-10:30 a.m., and lunch is 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
The store is not currently offering dinner, but Jones said customers can order their choice of snacks from the menu from breakfast onward throughout the afternoon.
For the store’s grand reopening on Saturday, Jones said there will be music all day.
“They can come and pick whenever they want to,” Jones said.
The special Saturday will be beans and cornbread, as per the musicians’ requests.
The Rheatown Store is open Monday through Friday, 6 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday from 6 a.m. until “whenever the music ends or we kick them out,” Pounders said.
The store is located at 385 Rheatown Rd.
For more information, call 423-257-5784.