Kentucky

Historic Penn's Store on the rise, hopefully in time for outhouse races

Jeanne Penn Lane is the current owner of Penn's Store in Gravel Switch. The Penn family ownership dates to 1850. The May 2010 flood knocked the store off its foundation. Workers are restoring it and hope to finish by Oct. 8, in time for the store's annual "Great Outhouse Blowout" festival.
Jeanne Penn Lane is the current owner of Penn's Store in Gravel Switch. The Penn family ownership dates to 1850. The May 2010 flood knocked the store off its foundation. Workers are restoring it and hope to finish by Oct. 8, in time for the store's annual "Great Outhouse Blowout" festival.

GRAVEL SWITCH — Penn's Store, billed as Kentucky's oldest continuously operating country store, has experienced flooding more than once.

Which is to be expected, because the store that straddles the Boyle-Casey County line sits near the confluence of the North Rolling Fork River and Little South Creek.

Still, owner Haskell "Hack" Penn, whose family has operated the business since 1850, was unfazed when water got up 27 inches into the store in the early 1990s.

When a customer remarked to Penn that the flood had "just about wiped you out," Penn acted as if nothing had happened.

"At least it killed them mice," he said.

Penn died in 1993 at age 84, but had he seen what the May 2010 flood did to his little store — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — it might have prompted a more emotional response. Penn's niece, Jeanne Penn Lane, 67, said the North Rolling Fork "came like a locomotive straight for the store."

"It was so, so old anyway and not in great shape," Lane said. "It just disintegrated. ... It is amazing that it wasn't washed away."

But for the past month, workers have been restoring the structural integrity of the store that was nearly knocked off its stone supports. They hope to be finished by the Oct. 8 "Great Outhouse Blowout," an annual festival that includes outhouse races, a "parade of privies," a car-truck-and-motorcycle show, an "ugly legs" contest for men, plus music and food.

One of the workers on the project, Jeremiah Eisenbeis, 34, remembers riding his bike as a child to Penn's Store for a snack.

"We would come down here and get Cokes and candy bars and pickled bologna," Eisenbeis said. Because of a sagging floor, "when you came in the front door, you always went downhill. And Hack always had the display counters scotched up to keep 'em level, and it seemed like the stacks got taller and taller every year."

Bill Faulconer, owner of Chaplin Hills Timberwrights, the Perryville company doing the restoration work, also frequented the store in his younger days.

Working to save it is "an opportunity to do a good thing for a landmark that we've all kind of grown up with," Faulconer said.

Penn's Store is significant because of the story it tells, said Amy Potts, rural heritage programs manager for Preservation Kentucky, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving historic buildings.

"It represents the commerce of rural areas and the small country store that is quickly vanishing from our landscape," Potts said. "Being the oldest country store still operated by the same family preserves the history of that area and gives people a chance to visit and learn more about past traditions."

Preservation Kentucky secured a $5,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the work. The project will cost about $20,000 to put the store on more secure footing and replace its flooring and exterior wood, Lane said.

Faulconer's company specializes in new timber-frame construction, but has done restoration work to the Old Mud Meeting House, a pioneer building erected in 1800 in Mercer County, and to Merchant's Row, a line of shops in Perryville dating to the 1840s.

The floor at Penn's Store had sagged for years, but after the 2010 flood the back end was 2 feet lower than the front. The store, built more like a barn than a framed house, was knocked off some of its stone supports. It was in danger of collapse, Faulconer said.

Using hydraulic jacks, "We had to raise the building 18 inches at the lowest corner first, just to catch it up and level it with the highest corner," Faulconer said. "And then we raised the entire building, after it was level, another six inches."

"It's going to be very unusual to have a level floor," Lane said.

Which begs the question: Will the restoration take away some of the store's charm? Faulconer says no, it restores the builders' original intentions. He said he gains new respect for those builders, who "weren't able to run to Lowe's to buy what they needed."

"We learn how the original builders did what they did by doing what we do," he said. "And sometimes for us, the thrill is to push on the sagging spot and see all the joints in the building suddenly come back together. And you go, 'Hey, this is what they were thinking.'"

Lane said her family has viewed the store differently than the public.

"You know, it's considered historic and it's on the National Register and all, but to us it's just always been a working business," she said. "We never perceived it in the way of 'something that used to be.' It was just continuing on."

And with a little help from its friends and restoration workers, it will.

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