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Watson & Alford Oil Wagon: A Piece of Kenly History

By Beth Nevarez

The Tobacco Farm Life Museum recently received a generous donation of an early 1900s oil wagon. The oil wagon, which was used by Watson and Alford Hardware, a store and oil company in Kenly, had previously been on display at the Kenly Historical Society, but it was still owned by the Watson family. When the Kenly Historical Society began looking for a new home, the Watson family also began the process of deciding where to move the wagon. Ultimately, they chose to keep this piece of local history in Kenly, and it was moved to the Tobacco Farm Life Museum as it would have been transported in its heyday – by horses.

Thank you to Southern Charm Carriages for their assistance in moving the oil wagon. Their horses Buttons and Bow brought the oil wagon to its new home in historical style.

The Watson and Alford hardware store was a longstanding business in Kenly. The business was started around 1903 by Henry Graham Watson and James (Jim) Alford. The two were brothers-in-law and ran the business together in a building on Main Street that was built with bricks made on site. Beginning as just a hardware store, the business expanded over the years, eventually offering everything from hardware to furniture, radios, building supplies, and more in addition to serving as wholesale distributors for Standard Oil Company and Esso products.

In the first picture at the bottom left the first fuel pump at the location can be seen. Also pictured are Jim Alford, Wiley Watson, and Henry Watson. In the second picture the Esso pump can be seen behind the Burgess Battery truck. Photos and caption information from Betty Pope and the Kenly Historical Society.

By 1941 the business was well-established and received the below high praise from The Johnstonian-Sun for its product inventory and “great service that they extend to the public [which] makes it of great economic value to the community and thus they are rendering the public the highest type of mercantile service.” The store was “a recognized meeting place for shoppers from all the surrounding territory” and provided a “homelike atmosphere.”

“1941 Review of Leading Neighboring Firms,” The Johnstonian-Sun, February 13, 1941.

The oil wagon was how the store distributed oil products to farms and households in the area. Oil wagons like the one used by Watson & Alford were common in the early 1900s in both rural and urban areas and were used into the 1930s in some places. The tank on the wagon was divided into compartments to haul separately products including kerosene, lubricating oil, or gasoline, depending on local needs. The Watson & Alford Standard Oil tank holds 500 gallons in three compartments – two can hold 200 gallons and the third 100 gallons. Watson & Alford eventually moved the tank to a model-T truck frame and continued to use the tank for distribution of products even after horse-drawn transportation became inefficient.

Watson & Alford Hardware Co., advertisement for Gainey Tobacco Oil Curers in a 1945 edition of The Johnstonian-Sun.

The Watson & Alford store remained in business for nearly 100 years though changes in the business structure were made along the way. In 1952 the company name became Watson Hardware and Oil Company. The original Esso pump outside the store was replaced with a reproduction in the 1970s. And in 1995 the store closed.

Photo believed to show the original Watson & Alford oil wagon.

The Watson family stored the wagon tank until Charlie Watson, grandson of the original Watson founder, had the oil wagon restored in 2005 by Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop, a well-known shop in South Dakota. The tank is original while the chassis is now a reproduction.

The wagon is now positioned in its new home inside the Tobacco Farm Life Museum where staff will soon be undertaking special museum-quality cleaning and conservation steps as well as conducting more historical research about the Watson and Alford Store as well as the use of oil wagons. Donated with the wagon were several oil containers and Watson & Alford receipt books which will also be carefully cataloged.

The Watson & Alford oil wagon is now on display. You can view it with regular admission to the museum. Plan your visit here.

For more information about oil wagons see the links below:

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