My Uncle Ralph, the Yankee storekeeper, did business in Anson, Maine, a small town in the Kennebec River Valley. But he considered his trading area to be all of Somerset County - mostly wilderness territory where people baked yeast bread and many pans of hot cream-tartar biscuits.
When in my teens, I'd visit Uncle Ralph most every summer, and I learned a bit from him about groceries. Uncle Ralph sold a lot of flour. Wholesalers shipped by rail freight, and the work train came up from Oakland Junction every weekday to pause in every town to put off and take on, all the way up to Bingham at the Canadian border.
Uncle Ralph had a spur track to his own platform, and an elevator he worked by pulling a rope, so he had easy access to three floors of storage space. It was a handy arrangement. He kept flour in good supply, in barrels, hundredweight cotton bags, and in paper sacks of 10 and 25 pounds.
Now, when Uncle Ralph had some flour coming, he would go down to Oakland Junction and put two signs on the car his flour was in, one on each side. These signs were painted on oilcloth with big letters that could be read a mile away. The signs said: "This car contains choice bread flour for R.E. Gould, Anson, Maine."
Then the railroad would pull the train up-county, pausing in every town to let people read the signs from both sides of the track, and people would say, "My, my! That Mr. Gould sells a lot of flour!"
The signs were truthful, but the same car had flour for other stores, too, and other storekeepers often said my Uncle Ralph was this and that and so on and so forth. But he did sell a great lot of flour, and each time he used the signs he retrieved them carefully and folded them for the next shipment.
An interesting thing happened about that time. My Uncle Ralph chanced to be in the right place at the right time with some idle funds, and he bought at a ridiculously low price a great quantity of warehouse-clearance flour.
This was top quality by either Pillsbury or Washburn-Crosby, but it was surplus so he didn't get the brand name to go with it. But now he had tons of good flour he could price far below any competition, and he anticipated one whale of a happy flour sale. When the first freight car of this happenstance was due, he broke out his oilcloth banners and hied down to Oakland Junction.
And it happened that the other storekeepers of Somerset County had tired of my Uncle Ralph's abuse of the bare truth about what was in the general freight car, and had asked the railroad to stop giving him free advertising by the inference that the car had nothing in it but flour for Gould.
A railroad agent looked into the matter the same morning the first full car of Uncle Ralph's bonanza arrived at Oakland Junction. The railroad agent found Uncle Ralph tacking up his oilcloth signs and told him he mustn't do that. But the entire lading in this car was, indeed, for R.E. Gould as the oilcloth signs obliquely suggested, but this time in truth. The railroad agent withdrew, shaking his head in wonder.
But all was not rosy.
From this substantial venture, Uncle Ralph learned that when flour is too cheap, the housewife suspects the quality is not there.
When Uncle Ralph had his big flour sale the response was sluggish, and he had to raise the price three times before customers felt that it was safe to buy.
But I wanted to say that my Uncle Ralph knew a great deal about flours and the grades of quality and the millers who had the different brands. And many, many times I heard him tell a lady customer how to make a good cream-tartar biscuit.
It would happen that a dissatisfied customer brought back half a bag of flour and said it was no good, that her biscuits were like lead, and so on, and she wanted her money back.
And now I'd like my Uncle Ralph, so many years later, to give his speech, once again, to the cooks in old folks' homes so we senior citizens can get a decent biscuit. If he knew the woman, he'd call her by name, or he'd use "madam," and he'd say just about this in a patronizing manner:
"Your problem is that you've never used a good flour before! Now, I'm going to tell you how to make a decent biscuit, and there are only two things you need to know, no matter what flour you use.
"The first one is, never roll the dough. Pat it to the right thickness to cut, but never use a rolling pin. Then, mix the dough so it will slide smoothly off the blade of a table knife. If the dough won't slide easily or sticks, you've got too much flour or not enough.
"Now, go home and do as I say, and you'll make good biscuits every time. Bring one in to show me!"
That's what he said, and I've been happy and hopeful to pass it along to whom it may concern. Vale!
• To hear recordings of John Gould telling stories, or to read a few of his essays that span his past 60 years of writing for the Monitor, click here