Old Tyme Christmas at the Wilson Store in Clear Spring
The scents of pine and homemade soup waft through the air. Christmas music plays, and just past the toasty pot-belly stove, playfully named “Big Bertha” by a local, is a wooden counter lined end to end with rows of nostalgic candy jars. It feels like an 1850s Christmas.
This is the ambiance visitors will encounter at Old Tyme Christmas at the Wilson Store on Saturday, Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Santa Claus will spend the day mingling with little ones.
Downstairs in the general store, there will be sales of candy, specialty cheese and bologna, and homemade potato chips. Up on the second level at BitterSweet Memories, shoppers will find primitive, colonial and country home furnishings and accents, and Christmas décor.
Bonnie Mills, 63, and her sister Patty Barnhart, 67, both born and raised in Clear Spring, own the businesses. They ran BitterSweet Memories from another of their sister’s homes until 2007 when the Horsts, the family who owned the Wilson Store building at the time, invited them to rent the upstairs area. They not only did that, but eventually went on to purchase the downstairs business as well.
The general store was not thriving when Mills and Barnhart bought it.
“We were scared at that time. The Wilson Store had no business. That lady that ran the store had a customer a day,” Mills said.
The new proprietors sent notifications to their BitterSweet Memories customers, 2,500 of them, revamped the general store and brought in some different products.
“We’ve been doing pretty good ever since,” she said.
At Old Tyme Christmas, the upstairs will feature prints, furniture, linens, and seasonal candles and florals. Downstairs, the general store will be stocked with its go-to specialties.
“We sell an extra sharp cheddar cheese that the Wilson Store has been known for back to the 1800s,” Mills said. “Everybody came here for it. We still carry Wisconsin, which they did back then, and we added Lancaster (Pa.) cheddar two years ago. We go with whatever is extra sharp. We let the people judge it.”
The hot-selling potato chips also come from Lancaster.
“They are still made in an iron kettle outside with your hog lard,” she said.
At the seasonal event, the sisters will offer samples of cheese, bologna and chips. They will also share coffee and cookies with visitors.
“We make a homemade country ham and bean soup with rivels. It’s not for sale, it’s to sample. Chicken salad sandwiches too. We have a jar. People can give a donation,” Mills said. “If somebody doesn’t have it, that’s OK too.”
Perhaps most enticing for many customers are the 100-plus varieties of jarred candies.
“We give them out by the hands full or the quarter-pound or whatever,” Mills said. “Mostly the people who grew up with that come here for that.”
Top sellers at Christmas time are bonbons and chocolate cream drops.
“You can’t believe the candy people buy at Christmas,” she said. “We have a regular who always came her herself and spent at least $300. She sent her son last year with $300 and told him all she wanted. They ended up spending $307. That’s just Christmas candy, nothing else.”
Clear, hard candies in the shapes of toys also are popular.
“Kids used to get that in their stockings,” Mills said. “It’s the nostalgia, the memories that people like. It’s like walking back in time. Older people are passing it on to the new generation.”
Having Santa come by for the day to kick off the season with Old Tyme Christmas is a decade-long tradition. He will stop by two more times before Christmas, Mills said. He comes from Flintstone, Md., along with Mrs. Claus.
“He is the most real Santa you will ever meet. He is so genuine. He tells the kids he is 1,800-some years old. He knows how to deal with the children, how to answer all their questions,” she said. “We have children who’ve been coming to see him here since they were babies up to 13 years old. They come back year after year to get a picture with him.”
Last year, about 100 children visited the jolly elf.
“We play Christmas music in every room,” Mills said. “Our families come – sisters, nieces, our kids, helping us because you got two floors to cover, plus helping Santa.”
Mills said she is excited to welcome people in the front door and see them warm their hands at Big Bertha.
“You will love it. It helps get you in the mood for Christmas, even if it’s early in November. It’s just a good feeling.”
Local businesses need to kick off the season early to compete with large corporations.
“We need a longer selling period,” she said. “We can’t compete with Walmart, with other places, their prices. We need a longer selling period.”
Celebrating the season is important to the sisters, they said, “because our hearts are here.”
“We have a lot of great Christmas decorations. The community looks forward to it,” Mills said. “We have a lot of great customers. They come and support us. They are like family to us.”
Top photo: Santa visits the 2018 Old Tyme Christmas at Wilson Store. (Submitted photo)