When the Pioneer Store fell a little less than a year ago, many feared a part of Ellison Bay’s soul was lost forever. It was just a grocery store, but it had carved out a very special place in the hearts of locals and visitors alike over the years.
In fact, so entwined was it with Ellison Bay lore that many speculated the town would die without it, as if the town’s heart had been cut out. Such ruminations were not merely hyperbole, as the store’s absence left a massive hole in Ellison Bay’s routine.
“In a very real sense the Pioneer Store has been, since 1900, the heart of Ellison Bay,” said Pastor Michael Brecke. “The rhythm of Ellison Bay has always been centered on the Pioneer Store.”
Built in 1900 by Charles Ruckert and Hans Hanson, the store had witnessed over a century of peninsula life, while serving as a lifeline to those in Northern Door who depended on its goods. In addition to groceries, the store housed the Post Office from 1903-1915.
So when it was destroyed by the propane explosions that also felled two cottages at the nearby Cedar Grove Resort July 10, 2006, the community took the loss to heart. It was unknown if Carol Newman, who had owned the store since 1968, would even be able to rebuild given current codes and setbacks. Some talked of raising money to help, others of petitioning the town. Newman was less concerned about the store at the time.
“I’m just happy to be alive,” she said. “And I’m really sad about the people killed and injured.”
Newman ultimately chose to rebuild, to the great satisfaction of the Northern Door community. Carlson Contracting, which has a long history with the Newmans, was given the task of recreating the store as similar as possible to the original.
“We’ve been doing work for the Newmans since the 1950s,” said Carl Carlson, the company’s owner. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to help Carol put back her store and to put a piece of our hometown back in place.”
Carlson said he had the Fourth of July in mind when they broke ground on the project and it looks like the store will be ready for the holiday. He said it’s been a great project to be a part of and Newman has been involved every step of the way.
“There’s a lot of support for us and Carol,” he said. “The whole town wants it back and the whole town needs it back.”
Just up the street from the store another historic renovation was recently completed. Michael and Janice Thomas have spent the last year restoring and renovating a home to house the Savory Spoon Cooking School and Marketplace. They bought the building about seven months before the explosions and weren’t sure about completing the renovation in the wake of the disaster.
“Janice asked me ‘Should we go forward? Is Ellison Bay going to make it?’” Michael Thomas recalled. “There were a lot of sleepless nights.”
Their building dates to 1879 and was home to the Ellison Bay school district Number 5 until 1927, where Thomas said Ruckert’s children went to school. Thomas bought the building because of its historic significance and is proud to be a part of the town’s historical resurgence.
“We’re thrilled to have the Pioneer Store back and to be another component to Ellison Bay making a comeback,” he said. “I’m hoping we can create something unique in Ellison Bay. We’re a quaint, laid-back community with some great businesses, basically an artist community.”
Such talk is a far cry from the fears of a year ago, when the future looked dim and a cloud hung over the town. Such optimism speaks to the perseverance of the community, a trait personified by the Pioneer Store.
In an age of supermarkets and technology, the store persevered, providing those little things whose loss is often lamented. Things like a familiar face, a little conversation, and the knowledge that this little piece of your hometown is distinctly yours, not found in the sprawling suburbs or urban centers.
Turns out not time, not competition, not even an explosion could bring an end to it. On July 1 there will be a dedication ceremony for the rebuilt Pioneer Store at 2:30 pm. At Newman’s request it will be kept simple.
For over a century the Pioneer Store was Ellison Bay. July 1, thanks to Carol Newman and a community full of support, it will be once again.