Country store. Post office. Military mustering in station. Stagecoach way station. The store at Dunbar was all of these things and more. Its origins can be traced back to well before the Civil War, when it is said to have been called the “Hermitage.”
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The store is a simple log structure located conspicuously in the heart of the community. The roads at Dunbar form a “T” where Dunbar Road butts into Tenn. Highway 114 (also known as Old Stage Road). That is where the store sits--at the top of the “T.” In its earlier days, folks came in wagons and on horseback to swap their butter and eggs and chickens for staples such as sugar, coffee, dry goods and coal oil. For a time, it was also the official post office with an appointed postmaster, a place to receive and send mail. Even today, the slot can still be seen in the door where letters were dropped inside 150 years ago.
Dunbar was a stopping point for stagecoaches passing through. After crossing the Tennessee River at Clifton, pioneers traveling westward in covered wagons on the Old Stage Road apparently found the Dunbar community to be a good place to stop over, perform maintenance on their equipment, and rest before continuing on their journey. It has been reported that some of the pioneers stayed as much as a week or two before moving on.
During the War Between the States, local recruits were ordered to report for duty at Dunbar, after which they were sworn in and marched off for assignment. General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his troops traveled between Lexington and Clifton on the Old Stage Road in 1863 and stopped to rest under the huge oak trees across the road in front of the store, where the neighborhood ladies prepared and served a meal to the hungry soldiers.
Other famous people who stopped at Dunbar include Bob and Alf Taylor when they campaigned for governor of Tennessee. Robert Love Taylor was Governor of Tennessee 1887-1891 and 1897-1899. Alfred A. Taylor served as Tennessee Governor 1921-1923. For many years, Dunbar Store was an official polling place where voters gathered and cast their ballots on election days. The store seemed at times to have been a magnet for heated political rhetoric.
Small as the store was, it had room for a bar where, in the very early days, whiskey was available by-the-drink. That was a popular place for men to congregate and catch up on the news, especially on Saturday nights, after a hard week of working in the fields. It is said that Dunbar got its name from hard economic times after the Civil War when the bar business no longer was profitable and the owner declared “Done bar” and closed the bar forever.
Proprietorship of the store has been dominated by the Keeton family. It is not known who actually built the log structure or when it was built. The land on which the store building sits is included in one of the several parcels granted to the pioneering Dr. Robert Keeton between 1851 and 1859. One of the first Keetons to own and manage the store was Robert Forrester, grandson of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Keeton and son of Dr. and Mrs. John Lawson Keeton. Robert Forrester slept in the store during the Civil War—perhaps to deter looting--while the rest of the family lived in the Keeton home down on Turnbo Creek, across from the Keeton Cemetery.
On two occasions Robert Forester Keeton was also appointed Postmaster of the Dunbar post office. He was first appointed on May 2, 1879 and served until April 15, 1881. He was appointed again on February 14, 1889 and served until December 26, 1893. As the population of the community grew and volume of mail increased, service to the Dunbar community was changed to Rural Free Delivery from the Bath Springs post office. Years later, about 1980, the Bath Springs post office relocated to Dunbar and remains there today—as the Bath Springs post office--in the new store building across the road from the old log store.
Decatur County courthouse records show that Robert Forrester Keeton was also a banker of sorts for the local farmers. He entered into numerous trust deeds and provided credit to tide the farmers over until crop harvest time. No evidence has been found that any of the farmers defaulted on their loans.
Sometime around the 1890s, Robert Forrester Keeton sold half interest in the store to his neighbor on Turnbo Creek, W. D. (Billy) Johnson, Jr., and they called the business Keeton & Johnson. A little later, Mr. Johnson bought the other half interest and ran the store by himself for several years before selling out to Hence Ray.
Mr. Ray had run the store for only a short time and about 1925, Robert Forrester Keeton’s youngest son, Bedford Keeton, bought it. After that, except for about two years when Walter H. Lafferty and J. Leonard Magers owned and ran it, the store has been in the Keeton family and is now referred to alternately as Keeton Store and Dunbar. Bedford and his family ran the store until 1957 when he sold it to his youngest son, Bryan. In 2001, Bryan turned the business over to his youngest son, Joel, and wife, Amy, but, due to declining business, they were forced to close the doors in early 2005.
B. B. Keeton, Dunbar Store - 1949
There were add-ons to the old log building over the years: an enclosed shed on the west side to receive incoming merchandise and another shed on the east side that housed a grist mill (that shed has been torn down). When automobiles became more plentiful, there was a demand for gasoline. The store accommodated that need with a large hand-cranked pump tank inside the store building from which gasoline was pumped through a hose to cars outside. Later, an underground tank was added and gasoline was dispensed from an Esso pump located in front of the store.
For most of the years the old log building was active--until after World War II--there was no electricity in the store, or, for that matter, the whole community. Light was provided by kerosene lamps or lanterns, heat came from a wood stove in the center of the building, gasoline was pumped manually from an underground storage tank into a measured glass bowl at the top of the pump, then, by gravity through a hose and nozzle into vehicles. The grist mill was powered by a belt pulled by a farm tractor. When ice delivery became available to the community, a large ice box drink cooler was conveniently placed near the center of the store and kept well stocked with bottles of ice-cold soft drinks. Some old timers will tell you that drinks tasted better back then when they were sold in glass bottles and chilled on big blocks of ice.
After World War II, Bedford Keeton built a new cinder block structure and moved the business across the road from the old log store building. The log structure remains intact in 2005 but would need extensive repairs to return it to the way it was in its heyday.
Tales of Old Days are Recalled in Colorful History Of Dunbar, by Mrs. A. H. Taylor
Restoration of Dunbar Store - 2009