Thursday, March 01, 2007

J. W. “Bill” Conrad

John William “Bill” Conrad came to Orlando around 1920 from the Knawl’s Creek area where he had operated a general store. He also retailed coal which he stocked by driving a wagon to Gilmer Station, loading it with several bushels of coal and selling it to Knawl’s Creek area customers. But business was slow in Knawl’s Creek and this period was Orlando ’s heyday.

Bill swapped his Knawl’s Creek property to Mike Moran for Moran’s lot on the Clover Fork Road, which consisted of 2400 square feet and a two story building, and adjoined Moran’s Wholesale Building on the Oil Creek side. Mike Moran had acquired this lot from P. F. Kennedy and his wife in 1901. In 1907 Mike bought the Wholesale Building which was better built than the building desired by Bill Conrad. Mike had previously moved his funeral business to the Wholesale Building so the building that Bill Conrad had his eye on was surplus to Moran’s needs. Bill and Mike consummated the transaction and Bill Conrad was in business in the bustling town of Orlando and ready to make some money.

Bill Conrad was the son of Sampson and Margaret Ann (Williams) Conrad and grew up in the Knawl’s Creek area. Born with one leg shorter than the other, Bill used a specially built crutch as a walking aid. The crutch had a steel extension a few inches from the bottom of the crutch on which to rest his short leg. Bill was a short, slightly built man. Bill’s handicap appeared to be no disability to Bill. Store customers were soon amazed at Bill’s agility in getting around the store with the crutch.

Bill never married. He lived with his sister Verna Conrad, known as “Vernie,” who also never married. Between the two of them, Bill never needed any help in running his store business. And besides, it saved money not to hire any help. Bill did not socialize a lot with his fellow townspeople and did not go out much. Perhaps as a result of not having many friends in Orlando, Bill developed a reputation as being tight- fisted and a sharp trader. Jokesters would say that when weighing out a pound of sugar or flour Bill would also weigh his thumb which he kept on the scale. Bill was also known as “old-grab-a-nickel”, owing to his practice of picking up the money from the counter before finding out what the customer had in mind to buy. One long ago resident of Orlando mentioned that Bill “would squeeze a buffalo nickel for the manure”. Whether this reputation was deserved or not depends on who you talk to. But, at any rate, Bill was a merchant in Orlando for over twenty- five years and could not have survived in business without repeat customers.

After a few years, the former Kennedy building had deteriorated and was prone to flooding. Bill decided to relocate.

The Orlando postmaster at this time was Francis Blake. Blake was also a merchant and had a one story store building opposite the Union Depot on the northern side of the Clover Fork Road. Between his postmaster job and his store business in booming Orlando, Blake was well on the road to prosperity until marital discord put his career on the skids. To compensate Blake’s wife Ollie for her marital share of the real estate, the divorce court ordered that their business real estate be sold by a Special Commissioner. Bill Conrad was the successful bidder for the Blake property for the sum of $2550.

Bill contracted with the Puffenbarger brothers of Bear Run to tear down the old Kennedy Building and the Blake Building, salvage the old lumber and all other building materials from both buildings that could be saved, and to build a new store building on the site of the old Blake Store. Onlookers observed that Bill was skimping on lumber for the second floor ceiling and thought it too low. But, they reckoned that Bill was simply trying to save a nickel, and besides that, he wasn’t very tall anyway. The new two story building was completed in 1929, short ceiling and all. It is the same building standing today in Orlando owned by the Burgett family.

Bill Conrad made a good living in Orlando despite the slow times that came later after the rail passenger business began to dwindle. Bill was not as generous with credit as his commercial rival Charlie Knight across the street. He had never given anything away, had made his money, so closing was not a financial necessity. And besides that, he could draw his social security.

Bill Conrad operated his general store in Orlando until 1946 when he decided it was time to sell out. Bill sold the building and business to Denver Pursley, a Georgia native, married to Edna Gregory, originally from Green Hill, and a sister to Lela Brown, wife of W. D. “Deck” Brown.

Bill moved to Burnsville to retire and bought a small white house trimmed in green just west of Burnsville on the Glenville Road on the banks of the Little Kanawha River . Bill’s niece Hallie Conrad, daughter of Bill’s brother Luther, took care of Bill in his latter days. Bill died at Hallie’s home on Riffle’s Run in 1950 at age 69. He was buried in the Underwood Cemetery on Chop Fork. His brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews shared in his ample estate.

Feb '07 Orlando General Store in the 1970s

comment 1 Dale Barnett
[Bill Conrad] built the store that was later owned by Deck Brown and then his son Ford. He lived there with his sister Hallie who was never married. Bought any thing he could in bulk such as one hundred pound sacks of flower, beans and salt. He would then pre-way into one or five pound bags. The bags were alleged to always be lighter than they were supposed to be. He had a radio he listened to. During WWII, he heard the pope had died on a news broadcast. He heard this and said “There will be hell to pay now. They done bumbed the poke” (bombed the pope)

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