James Howard McCommons was born in Penfield, Georgia on May 6, 1878. As a child he attended Penfield School and built the fires at the school. After he came to school in Greensboro he continued to build the fires at Greensboro High School. Charles Alfred Davis who owned the “Big Store” offered James Howard a job building the fires at the “Big Store”. Thus began a life changing friendship. Mr. Davis took James Howard under his wing and taught him about doing business. Mr. Davis died in 1893 but had left his mark on James Howard. In 1895 his father James Henry McCommons a Civil War Veteran, helped the young entrepreneur James Howard McCommons obtain a $2000.00 loan at the C&S Bank in Atlanta to start a small general store in Greshamville which sold everything from groceries and dry goods to caskets. J.H. McCommons Co. was located in a small brick building in the middle of Greshamville. James Howard used the money to make purchases in Atlanta that were shipped to his store by train. After a little over a year in business that was very successful, a corner lot with a green lapboard siding building became available across from the courthouse in Greensboro. J.H. moved his General Store to Greensboro in 1896. They continued to sell everything and were the modern day Walmart, thus the motto “We sell everything from the cradle to the grave”. They made caskets in the back of the building and had an embalmer that would go to the home when someone died. On the day of the funeral the horse drawn hearse would go to the home and take the deceased to the church or cemetery for funeral services. James Howard’s business was growing quickly and his father James Henry, a fixture at the store was great at public relations and enjoyed sitting around talking with friends and especially the youth.
In the year 1900 the “Big Store” which was built by Charles Alfred Davis, his mentor, came up for sale and some investors helped him purchase the property and expand the business again.
We would like to tell you a little about the history of one of the most interesting buldings in Greensboro, “The Big Store”, where McCommons Funeral Home was housed from 1900 to 1947. So if we can take a little of your time, this is how the legend of “The Big Store” begins. The McCommons building is one of the oldest commercial structures still in existence in Greene County. Originally erected in 1858 by Charles Alfred Davis, Sr., it was the largest store between Atlanta and Augusta at the time. The store also had a blacksmith shop and stable in the rear lot. The store was a result of a partnership between Mr. Davis, John Henry Wood, and Wiley G. Johnson. The store officially opened on October 10, 1860 and was the price setter for stores around the Greensboro area. Mr. Davis would set the prices on Monday and if a market bucked him and sold goods for a lower price, he would put the competitor out of business. He could do this because he had contacts all over the country and could absorb the small losses that occurred when he undercut his competitors. It was often said that Mr. Davis could swap you out of business. The store and Mr. Davis amassed a great fortune. Then came the War Between the States. Mr. Davis went to fight for the Confederacy. While he was gone, his store was being used as a hospital for confederate soldiers from the battles of Atlanta, Newnan, Sharpsburg, Jonesboro, and other battlefields. When Mr. Davis returned, his fortune was almost completely drained and his store goods were all used up. Seeing this, he contacted his friends in New York and was back in business again. Once in business, he again amassed a great fortune. When Mr. Davis decided to retire, he instituted the “five year plan”. The plan called for Mr. Davis to sell the company for five years, then after five years he would sell the store to another group of individuals. The store became Davis Brothers and Seals and later McCall, Copelan, Seals, and Armour. The five-year plan ended in 1900 when the store was sold to J.H. McCommons (William Howard “Bill” McCommons Father), Calvin Thompson (Sue Thompson Smith’s Father), and John Boswell (Nita Boswell Whitaker’s Father).
The resources of a funeral home were continued and a branch store was opened in Athens, Georgia. The company started delivering groceries by wagons. The store also had its own power generator. A spring-loaded mechanism would send purchase tickets or cash to the office where change could be made or invoices could be filed. The store at the time had a system of sending purchases to a central office. The slogan of the time was “We sell everything from the cradle to the grave”. The Big Store sold groceries, dry goods, farm supplies, funeral supplies, furniture, clothes, etc. The Big Store was still the largest store between Atlanta and Augusta. In 1928, The Big Store went bankrupt, but that did not stop J.H. McCommons. J.H. McCommons bought The Big Store in 1929, brought the store out of bankruptcy, and started another chapter in the history of The Big Store. With the Big Store out of bankruptcy, J.H. McCommons and company again started its business. In 1930, offices were added upstairs in the McCommons Building. In 1917 a two-story building was built adjacent to “The Big Store”. A coal fired boiler and a sprinkler system was add to the whole building at this time. The sprinkler system is still in use today. In 1933, Henson’s Furniture Company moved into the McCommons Building.
J.H. McCommons sold coffins and officiated at funerals as a sideline to his General store. This was the beginning of a service business that is now over a century old and presently being operated by the fourth (Steve McCommons) and fifth generations (Billy McCommons) of the McCommons Family. Typical of its day, it too was a small “store-front” general store from which the funeral business was conducted, while the wake and visitation period usually took place at the residence of the deceased as a very normal facet of family life. The Funeral goods and caskets were in the upstairs of the McCommons building and the embalming was done at the deceased’s house. Saddler Mapp was the black undertaker and Tom Wynn was the white undertaker for J. H. McCommons Co. Saddler Mapp worked for J.H. McCommons for more than 40 years. The coffins would be lowered to street level with the help of a manually operated elevator. The deceased were transported to the cemetery in a horse drawn hearse.
In 1936 William Howard “Bill” McCommons returned from Charleston where he had worked at J.M. Conley’s Funeral Home for six years. He put an embalming room upstairs in the McCommons Building. Following World War II, there was a movement away from holding wakes and visitations in private residences, and the demand grew for communities to have modern, professional facilities in which funerals could be conducted. Recognizing this community need, William Howard “Bill” McCommons bought the Jonas Fouche house across the street from the “Big Store” in 1947. After a yearlong restoration of the home, McCommons Funeral Home opened for business in November of 1948 at its new location. The Fouche House was erected in the year 1795 by Major Jonas Fouche, a Frenchman, who fought in the American Revolution. He was sent in 1787 to defend against the burning of Greensborough and the fierce Indian attacks that the city was experiencing. Fouche, Georgia’s second Adjuent General, killed a man named Burnside in one of the last duels fought in Greensboro for criticizing him on his vote on the Yazoo Fraud election. The Fouche House, which is on the national historical register and the oldest house in Greene County, is still used by McCommons Funeral Home today.
In 1937, the most interesting story in the history of the McCommons building took place. One hot August day in 1937, a vagrant was found collapsed on Highway 12, Madison Road outside Greensboro, Georgia. A few days later he died, still unidentified. He was taken to the Big Store and embalmed by Mr. W. H. McCommons, Coroner. Mr. McCommons named him Oscar and the local people started calling him Oscar. They took Oscar’s fingerprints to the FBI and the Red Cross. Still they could find no identification. Finally, they put stories in the paper with headlines like, “Have you seen Oscar?”. Many people came to view him thinking he might be a lost husband, brother, son, or friend, but no one could identify him. He was kept on a table in the Big Store and pilgrims from everywhere would take their trip to see Oscar. He was eventually put in a casket with a glass top so people could just walk by and see Oscar. By this time Oscar had become a legend. School kids would ring the doorbell and ask to see Oscar. The Big Store was open at Halloween so the local children could go in and see Oscar. The Health Department caught wind of Oscar and set out to investigate. The official asked, “Is it really true that you have a man that died 15 years ago?”. “No.” replied Mr. McCommons, “He died twenty five years ago.” The health department made the Funeral Home bury Oscar. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Greene County Convict Camp on the Madison Highway thus ending the story of the most famous unknown man in Greensboro history. Mr. McCommons was saddened at having to bury the best night watchman he ever had.
In 1948, a basement was dug in what was then called the McCommons Building. The basement was dug by mules pulling pans. The problem was that the basement was so shallow that the mules kept hitting their heads on the ceiling. When questioned about it, one observer said that they would learn not to pick up their heads if they hit it enough times. Sure enough after two or three days, the mules kept their heads down and kept working.
J.H. McCommons and Company has not changed much in appearance since the nineteen forties. The store sold shoes, clothing, and dry goods until 1995, and maintains funeral services to this day. A few changes have been made to keep up with the times. The grocery department has closed down even though the meat counter and butcher’s block still stand. Deliveries are no longer made. Bookkeeping is done by computer rather than filing cabinets and adding machines. Deceased are carried to the cemetery in motorized hearses instead of horse drawn carriages.