Francestown, N.H.—Bill Smith, a nonagenarian philanthropist from Nevada, had never set foot in New Hampshire when he decided to rescue a 203-year-old country store in the tiny community here.
He read about Francestown’s plight in The Wall Street Journal in July 2017: The townspeople had watched as a piece of their shared history was gaveled off to a bank. Mr. Smith stepped in to save it, and he enlisted the community to help him do it.
The W & E Smith Foundation, named for Bill and his wife Elaine, who died in 2011, bought the store in September 2017 and settled overdue bills for about $125,000—and then donated it to the Francestown Improvement & Historical Society to run it.
“I realized that it is such a community asset, and if I could help the community, I should,” says Mr. Smith, who lives in Boulder City, Nev. “It’s the heart of the town.”
When the community heard of the deal, said historical-society member Sarah Pyle, 63 years old, the reaction was, “Oh my God, this can’t be real.”
Soon afterward, locals set up a Store Committee, which started regular fundraisers from a casserole contest to a “Race for Our Store” 5K run. Not including Mr. Smith’s assistance, they have raised nearly $100,000 so far. Mr. Smith says he will donate $20,000 more if the community raises that amount or gets it from an outside donor.
Francestown—population 1,552—had seemed destined to become another community to lose its retail and social core. Small-town stores face significant economic pressures. Since 2010, rural areas’ populations have dwindled while cities’ have grown. Local proprietors are retiring. Competition from online shopping and chain dollar storesis intensifying.
General stores are fixtures that house everything from cafes to postal branches and libraries. They provide crucial interaction spots in rural communities where residents may live far apart.
Many residents “see the grocery store as critical to the survival of the town,” says David Procter, an associate professor at Kansas State University who studies rural communities.
In Francestown, N.H., a no-stoplight town in the rolling hills of the Merrimack River watershed, toward the state’s southern border with Massachusetts, a full-service grocery store is about a half-hour’s drive down winding roads. The yellow clapboard Francestown Village Store—formerly known as the Long Store—has anchored Main Street since 1814.
“That was the glue,” says Town Administrator Jamie Pike.
Its hundreds of offerings included meats, locally made foods and a dizzying array of products from hats and hardware to fishing tackle and fine cigars. Residents exchanged news and checked the bulletin board. Schoolchildren got off the bus there and waited for their parents to pick them up
The most recent proprietors said they struggled with the unexpected costs of needed upgrades. After the store closed in July 2017, locals gathered to see it sold off.
“It was just very sad,” recalls Jennifer Vadney, who is 41 and lives nearby. “We were all standing outside on the street when we would have rather been inside having coffee with our neighbors.”
The next day, from 2,700 miles away in Nevada, Mr. Smith called Mr. Pike with questions: Who had bought the store? How could he reach them?
Mr. Pike had questions, too: “Who is this crazy guy from Las Vegas calling about our little country store in Francestown?”
The enterprising Mr. Smith, now 92, ran an ice cream stand and hardware store in Pennsylvania after serving in the Army during World War II. He farmed citrus groves in California, invested in property and started a travel agency. At one point, Mr. Smith moved his family to Uruguay to serve in the Peace Corps.
His daughter Ruth Milam says her mother, Elaine Smith, put her foot down once—when Mr. Smith wanted to buy a hotel in Guam.
Her parents were savvy investors who followed their values, she says: “It wasn’t material things.”
The Smith family has given money to other causes, including for research into juvenile diabetes and to donate an event venue—now called the Elaine K. Smith Building—to Boulder City.
Renovations on the renewed Francestown Village Store began last summer, and the historical society is preparing to solicit proposals for an operator who will be offered a below-market lease.
In May, when Mr. Smith and his daughters visited Francestown for the first time, they found Town Hall packed for a potluck in his honor. Afterward, Mr. Smith put on an apron—beaming—and stayed to help clean up.
“You could see it in his eyes that he was a good person,” Mr. Pike says.
Francestown so touched Mr. Smith that he says he would live there if not for the snow. He watches the store’s progress from back home in Nevada, where he still gets the monthly Francestown News and follows the library’s reading suggestions. Mr. Smith recently called the book-club leader to say he was impressed with a selection.
“I’ve never been in a community that seemed more cohesive,” he says. “They all seem to respect and enjoy each other, and that doesn’t happen so much anymore.”