Finding gold down the hole
A fifth-generation rural country store owner is privy to the secret of generating great publicity.
When the Penn family opened their Kentucky country store more than 150 years ago, they bartered in hides, chickens and eggs and sold clothing, crackers and horehound candy. Penn's Store survived the Civil War, two World Wars and the Great Depression, but the region's recent shift away from an agrarian society may be its most difficult economic challenge to date. What has fifth-generation owner Jeanne Penn Lane done to keep the store alive? She built its first outhouse, of course!
Penn's Store is a portal to rural Kentucky's past. It claims to be the oldest country store owned and operated continuously by one family west of the Appalachian Mountains. The store, located in its original building near the town of Gravel Switch, is unrestored from its weathered wood exterior to the tin-clad plank floor. Customers gather by the coal stove to take the chill off their bones.
When tobacco was king, Penn's was the heart of the community—a place where people gathered to discuss local and national events. Now the population of surrounding Marion County, about 18,500, is among the lowest Lane has ever seen. The population decline began after World War II when industrialization took men into the city for factory work. The '70s brought new customers (“we called them hippies,” says Lane), but by the mid-'80s many of the landowners had become absentee, living most of the year in Florida or New York.
Tobacco once was “the largest cash crop off the land in Kentucky,” says Lane. Now, she laments, “basically there's very little farming in this area.” Lane co-owns the store with her daughter but is solely responsible for the daily operations.
Locals today treat the store like a “convenient mart,” buying most of their groceries in town, while tourist business accounts for 60% of Penn's Store receipts.
Until 1992, the old store had never had a restroom facility, and female shoppers “didn't want to go to the bushes,” Lane explains. A new breed of customer—visiting the store out of curiosity—necessitated a restroom.
Lane spoke to a local lumberyard about building some type of outhouse. “Then this divine thing happened,” she recalls. “I knew we needed to dedicate it and have a party. I knew who to invite. It just kind of grew.” When the press caught wind of it, the story spread. Lane discovered a world of outhouse enthusiasts.
The Outhouse Blowout, featuring outhouse racing, was so successful that she decided to make it an annual event. Teams of four people push or pull an enclosed structure down a 350-foot course while a fifth team member rides the “throne” inside. “Even a Port-a-John was used once,” says Lane, who describes the event as a “poor man's NASCAR race.”
Attendance averages between 2,000 and 2,500, exceeding 4,000 when “the weather is absolutely gorgeous,” she says. Sales of commemorative T-shirts and outhouse memorabilia boost Penn's bottom line on the day of the race.
Penn's maintains an inventory of staples, but its specialty is memories—ensuring that this country store will remain flush for another generation.
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Topeka, Kan.