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The Lively Lady Who Runs Ghost Town General Store

Charles Hillinger's America

March 09, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

CARTER, S.D. — Scrawled in red letters next to the front door of the country general store are the words: "We Open at the Crack of Dawn! We Close When the Last Dog Is Hung!"

Ruby McCollam, 80, has owned and operated the store for the last 30 years. The 20x20-foot establishment in the middle of nowhere is called Carter Mall because it is jammed floor to ceiling with products including canned goods, huge racks of candy, light bulbs, auto parts, purses, billfolds, brooms, mops, paper goods, fresh fruit and greeting cards. There's even a meat counter.

"If I ain't got it, you don't need it," said McCollam, a feisty 5-foot-2-inch widow.

The country store is 25 miles east of Mission, S.D., and 18 miles west of Winner, S.D., on a lonely two-lane rural road. A lonely gas pump marks the spot. There is nothing between Mission and Winner except endless prairie and the ghost town of Carter, population six.

Before World War I, 300 people lived here. Now all that's left is McCollam's store, a one-room school with four students and a teacher, a church, two houses and the weathered remains of the two-story Carter Bank and the two-story Home Hotel and Cafe.

McCollam has been held up twice, the first time 10 years ago.

"He held a tire iron over my head and told me to give him the money. He kept lifting the tire iron higher and higher," the shopkeeper recalled.

"I asked him how much money he wanted. He said $250. I told him, 'Git. Git out of here.'

"Just then a car drove up. He hightailed it out of the back door without getting a dime."

The second attempted robbery she said happened three years ago when a man pulled a gun on her and snarled: " 'Don't move. This is a stickup. Give me all your money.' "

McCollam said she placed her hand over her heart and collapsed to the floor.

"I wanted him to think this little old lady was having a heart attack and maybe dying. I wanted him to think the cops would arrest him for murder if they found me dead," she said with a sly grin.

"I fooled him. He ran out of the place not getting a cent."

Asked to explain the meaning of the scrawled message outside her front door, "We Close When the Last Dog Is Hung," McCollam replied: "That was a popular saying when I was young, meaning until everyone was gone."

Her country store opens at 6 a.m. and stays open until 8 p.m., seven days a week. McCollam, who lives in the back of the store, is almost always there. No one else works in the store.

"I took a vacation once," she said. "That was three years ago. I went with my son to Yellowstone Park.

"A year ago I missed two weeks in the store. I went to the hospital. I had a kidney removed."

The coffee pot is always on at Ruby's; it costs 10 cents a cup. Her cash register and scale are older than she is.

She pumped gas for her customers until two years ago when the pump was converted to self-service.

Her regular customers are Indians from the Rosebud Reservation to the west and farmers from all around. Truckers and people driving by also stop in.

"My regulars come from a radius of 30 miles in all directions. This is where everybody out here in this lonely country get all the gossip," she said. "I tell them everything I know."

Five years ago McCollam had a party marking her 25 years running the country store. The event attracted the biggest crowd the old ghost town had seen in years. McCollam served 237 dinners--ham, chicken, baked beans, scalloped potatoes and four different salads she prepared.

She has lived here all her life. Her late husband, Andy, was a farmer. She has five children, 14 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren "scattered all over God's creation, none close by."

But the mistress of Carter Mall is never alone. She has a dog, Reggie, named after Reggie Jackson, and three cats, Fred, Rose and Rosie.

Would she ever like to live anywhere else?

"No. I have lived here all my life. I don't know what it would be like living anyplace else. I don't want to know," she said.

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