Morton’s Store in Pleasant: Serving a community one customer at a time

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Jean Morton wanders around the hay wagon and into the back section of the S&J Market at the intersection of State Roads 129 and 250 in Pleasant. She looks up among the boxes filled with plumbing supplies and hardware and wonders if she’ll ever be ready by the time her auction starts on Saturday.

She methodically moves small boxes outside and onto the hay wagon, and pauses to think about the more than 35 years that she and husband, Shorty Morton, owned and operated the store.

“We had way too much,” she says as she stares back into the building. “Our son said we probably should have stayed open longer so we could have gotten rid of some of this. We had everything in here, you know. If we didn’t have it and someone wanted it, Shorty would get it.”

A true general store in an era of specialization and consolidation, S&J Market was a piece in the long history of the Morton family serving the residents of the Pleasant community. For 100 years a member of the family had operated a store in Pleasant, but when Shorty Morton passed away last year, Jean Morton soon found that she just couldn’t continue the business alone.

“We ran the store for about two years while Shorty was sick and after he passed,” Jean Morton said. “It was just too much for us to keep up. We did real well through the years there. We are very thankful for all of our neighbors and friends who supported us.”

But this Saturday the store and it’s contents will go up for auction. Jean Morton says that there has been some interest expressed from potential buyers, and she’s hoping that someone will purchase the property and reopen the store. Although Pleasant is not an incorporated town, it is a large, farming area with a strong sense of community — and S&J Market was a big part of that.

“We had a lot of merchandise, but we also had a lot of characters who came through here,” Jean Morton smiles. “People came in to set for awhile and ‘hear the news’. There was a lot of politics and news — some Short didn’t agree with — that got solved in the store.”

The noon hour would find a varied collection of people who would stop for a cold cut sandwich and a cold soda and some time with Shorty Morton. They would stand along the aisle or sit on an overturned plastic bucket and join in the conversation of the day.

It was where information was along from family to family. Topics from local issues to worldwide events took their turn in the “hotseat” of discussion. Opinions differed, but everyone left friendly.

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The lineage of the family business began in the 1800s, when William Oatman operated a general store on the northwest corner of the intersection of the two highways. He was Oliver Perry Morton’s step-father, and oversaw a successful business.

Alongside the general store was a post office and a house that the Oatman family lived in. William Oatman operated that store and then gave way to O.P. Morton, who ran the store until 1929, when that facility was replaced by the cement block structure that stands on the corner today.

The construction of the new building was a community effort, and involved Everett Owings — grandfather of Bob Owings; and Ken Archer, who dug out the basement with a team of horses and a special scoop that was also used to creating ponds.

That building will now be demolished as part of the improvements to State Road 129.

Across the road from the store in what now is an empty field stood a Presbyterian Church; and a small house near that was where O.P. Morton and his family, including middle son Curtis Leon — whom the county knew as “Shorty” — lived.

O.P. and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Morton had five children: sons Kenny, Curtis, and Ralph; and two daughters: Mary Opal, who died at a young age; and Laverne.

“Shorty always said that he grew up in the store,” Jean Morton said. “He always said that his mom would put him in a big box to keep track of him. That’s how he spent time in the store when he was a baby.”

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Jean Furnish grew up in the big red brick house in Fairview, moving there when her parents purchased the farm in 1944. In 1952 she won the title of “Miss Red Cross Shoe”, and that honor caught the eye of Shorty Morton, who was halfway through a three-year stint in the Army. The young soldier began writing the beauty queen, and when Shorty Morton was discharged from the service in October of 1953, he wasted no time in proposing.

“We got married on November 6th, 1953,” Jean Morton said. “He didn’t mess around.”

The newlyweds went to work in O.P. Morton’s store, continuing to help with the operation for 15 years. Shorty’s brother, Kenny, also returned from the service and worked in the store.

Shorty and Jean had two children: son Donnie and daughter Karen, and the store continued to be a family business.

In 1968, Shorty and Jean Morton decided that they would strike out on their own, and began construction on their own general store near the southeast corner of the intersection. Again, it was a community project, involving friends and family members.

“Logan Fugate laid the block and brick, and Bob Liter and Lewis Martin and a bunch of others all chipped in and helped,” Jean Morton said. “We opened in March of 1969.”

But the opening was bittersweet. Lizzie Morton had been battling illness, and passed away prior to the opening of her son’s new store.

O.P. Morton would pass away in 1972, and with his passing the tradition of a general store in Pleasant fully passed to the next generation.

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Shorty and Jean Morton ran the operation by themselves, but Mary Lou Scudder came to work for the family in the mid 1980s. She continued her job with the store until it closed last year.

Along with her duties behind the counter, Jean Morton was also the “weekly” bookkeeper, keeping track and bills and invoices and other matters that came into the store on a daily basis. Shorty dealt with the accountants and taxes and other matters, and the couple kept a loving hand on the business.

“We had saved all of our store bills all the way back to when we started in 1969,” Jean Morton said. “I’ve found boxes and boxes. I’ve got most of them burned, but I’ve still got some left to go. We did a lot of business in 35 years.”

The couple also kept the business going through Shorty Morton’s illness. When he passed away on May 31st, 2003, one of the true characters of Switzerland County was lost.

Now all of the merchandise collected over that time will be up for auction this Saturday. Jean admits that she’s found items that Shorty had stuck here and there and then had forgotten about — “some things I could have sold if I’d known we had them”, Jean says. She and her children and others are methodically working through the items left in the store. So far they’ve filled eight hay wagons, and there’s more to go.

But Saturday’s sale is more than the disbursement of merchandise — it’s the closing of a chapter of community history that dates back over a century.

“I really hope that someone shows up this Saturday and buys all of this and just carries it right back into the building,” Jean Morton says. “It would be nice if someone reopens the store. There’s a lot of fine people out here who were always very good to us while we were in business. I’m sure that they’d support someone who wants this business now.”

— Pat Lanman