HUMPHREY – Lois Hilton bought the 19th-century general store in this small town 30 years ago, when she was a young mother of two teenage girls. She paid $22,000 and changed its name from Timmes Grocery to Tickletown Trade, reviving an old-fashioned nickname for this community of 700 outside Ellicottville.
She sold pizza made with local dough and secret spices, along with milk, candy and cigarettes. Over time, though, Tickletown became more of a gathering place than a store.
She invited people to stay, play pool and sit in the rockers by the wood stove. She took out the gas pumps and put in a water garden. People swapped seeds and held workshops on organic gardening and tree grafting.
Now she is ready to move on and sell it all. But if you want to buy this 151-year-old general store, you need more than money. You must pay $40 and write an essay explaining what kind of eco-friendly, community hub you would create. She calls the contest wintickletown.com.
“Obviously, I don’t want to see a Tim Horton’s come here,” said Hilton, now 66. “It sustained me. I became much more secure and assertive as a woman. I was able to fulfill a lot of goals and dreams. It was like a canvas. I was able to really create stuff.”
This Friday evening, one of her traditional full-moon, open-to-the-public potlucks starts at 6. Unless rain sends people inside, four bands are scheduled to play on the stage that friends built in the backyard and once again, she will try to get the word out about the competition.
And she will promote the contest again at next month’s full moon potluck concert May 21, when the reggae band Mosaic Foundation plays. ”They’re really into sustainable living,” she said of the band. “They use a lot of their proceeds to support an eco-village in Ghana.”
It’s been slow going. She won’t say exactly how many people submitted essays since she started three months ago.
“More than 10 and under 100,” she said.
In hopes of more than that, she dropped the March deadline and hasn’t picked a new one yet.
“Who knows? Probably until the end of summer,” she said.
Health troubles like bone cancer and a shoulder replacement slowed her down. The contest seemed like a good way to pass on the store and get something for the building that a realtor told her was worth $70,000.
From the essays, she is looking for some fundamental elements.
“You actually have to tell how you’re going to commit to empower the community … You have to stay here for four years … The way you live doesn’t use up the planet,” she said. “The winner doesn’t have to live there. They just have to keep it going as a community owned thing.”
What she’s read so far impressed her.
“A few of them are extraordinarily good,” she said, “and I’m ready to give it to them right now.”
More $40 entries would help. She’d like 2,400 entries, which would give her $96,000 and enough to keep some, pay taxes and give the winner $26,000 to make repairs.
“At this point, I don’t care how much I get … I want to see this continue more than I care,” she said. “I want someone to continue on with the legacy that I started with. I’m talking regeneration, sustainability. That kind of thing … What we’re talking about here is a community hub.”
The store with bedrooms upstairs and living space in the back was built in 1865 and has about three-quarters of an acre.
Inside, flowered wallpaper clings in fragments to the wood walls. A lot needs fixing. It hasn’t had running water since the well went dry a couple of years ago. The tin roof leaks when it rains, which relates to Hilton’s alternative water-supply idea.
Collecting rainwater might be better than spending thousands of dollars on a new well, she said.
“You can still drink it,” she said. “It’s no different.”
The property has its pluses, too.
“There are no back taxes. No liens,” she said. “The building is not worth a ton of money. … It needs a lot of repairs. No question.”
On an afternoon last week when she gave a tour, Hilton wore a loose cotton dress she bought at a thrift store and tie-dyed turquoise.
“I make all my own clothes out of old clothes,” she said.
The front door opens to a “barter board” with old notices about free rides to the Olean YMCA and someone wanting to babysit in trade for homemade wool socks. The walls in the sideroom with the rockers still have graffiti she let people draw in colored chalk. A flowering vine curves toward the ceiling near “Danny J. & Stacey A.”
In a big front room that used to be the store, a stack of full moon potluck posters were at the end of a long table with a “wintickletown.com” banner stretched out on one side.
And what about the name?
According to an 1879 Cattaraugus County history, Tickletown came from a time when “people were somewhat jubilant over a town meeting triumph.”
Hilton heard it when she was going to kindergarten and first grade in the one-room schoolhouse just down the road. When she was 2, her back-to-the-land parents bought 100 acres on a hillside and moved from Buffalo sometime in 1951.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “It was the best time of my life.”
Lately, she’s been walking through the rooms, cleaning up and feeling nostalgic about her Tickletown memories. Her favorite is one she can’t take with her. The kitchen counter where she chopped vegetables was made by a friend from pieces of cherry and oak trees that grew next to the cabin her parents built.
For her, Tickletown is still a good old place living up to the name she gave it, but she’s over it.
Now more than ever, she wants to move closer to the woods and build herself a small one-room house with straw bale and find a new name for a new home.
“I really, really want to see the contest work,” Hilton said. “When we hand over the deed and close the contest, I’m sure that’ll be a big party.” With a laugh, she added, “It might not be till fall.”