This Old Store

Rural groceries were once centers of small-town life

by Patty Williamson, PhD

They once dotted the countryside and villages of northern Door County: the little grocery stores that met so many needs. In the days when many families had no automobile – or women did not drive – homemakers depended on a store being within walking distance. They needed a shop where they could send a child for an item that was needed immediately, such as an ingredient for a cake that was already in process or extra pork chops when unexpected company arrived.

Many of the little stores started as butcher shops, so they generally had some method of refrigeration – even if it was just ice cut from the lake or bay and stored in sawdust – when few homes did. Store owners who did not butcher their own meat had it delivered regularly, and fresh meat was especially valued when the home-canned or salted supply ran out. Flour and sugar were sold by the pound out of barrels, and vinegar also came in a barrel with a pump for dispensing the desired amount.

Store shelves contained rows and rows of canned goods and staples such as crackers and cereal, and there was often a box of hard candy on the counter for children and cheese samples for adults. There were no shopping carts or baskets. Customers either handed their list to the grocer or recited the needed items, which were retrieved and boxed up. There were no paper bags and certainly no plastic ones.

Many little grocery stores also carried a multitude of nonfood items such as clothing, shoes, housewares, lanterns, chicken feed and – if they were near a harbor or campground – the many supplies that boaters and campers needed.

The stores served as community centers as well: repositories of news and places to find camaraderie. Most were heated by pot-belly stoves, which made them a convenient place for men to gather – usually with a spittoon nearby. For many farmers’ wives, the “butter and egg money” they earned each week was their only personal income, and it provided their chance to visit with other women while their orders were being filled. It may have been their only nonfamily social contact in weeks.

Travel from Northern Door to Sturgeon Bay during the early 1900s was not an everyday occurrence. Unless it was a necessity – acquiring a part for broken-down machinery at harvest time, for instance – shopping near home was much easier. Many of the little stores had a gas pump out front, which was a convenience for locals and tourists alike, but the pumps worked by gravity and weren’t dependable in hot weather.

People felt a connection to “their” store. Even if a small town had two or three, families usually shopped exclusively at one of them. Many of the grocers were available in emergencies, day or night, because it was common for their families to live behind or over the shops.

Those little old stores were blessings to their communities for so long. Often they had one of the first telephones in town, and it was not unusual to find a shelf or two of books in back – a sort of early lending library. And in the days when a family’s income depended mainly on a successful harvest, most grocers understood the need to buy food “on credit.”

So what happened to these old stores? They didn’t all disappear at once. Many were gone by the middle of the 20th century, but some hung on until the early 1990s, and a few even remain open today. In most cases, there were no longer family members who were willing to put in the long hours. Ten to 13 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, was not unusual, and some village stores opened on Sunday mornings for farm families whose only trip to town was for church services.

As roads improved and cars became more common, the lure of lower prices and a greater variety of merchandise in Sturgeon Bay stores drew people out of their neighborhoods. What was lost? The convenience of a store just down the road and a valuable part of the community.

What replaced those little stores? The Piggly Wiggly in Sister Bay, built in 1983; and Main Street Market in Egg Harbor, built in 1987. Gas stations such as Baileys 57 in Baileys Harbor and other BP stations near Carlsville and Fish Creek that have increased their grocery offerings far beyond the basic bread and milk. The morning coffee klatch at Baileys 57 is, in some ways, a politically correct version of the old Reinhard-Nippert Store’s “BS group” – a nickname so commonly used that there was even a sign directing travelers to the Ephraim Airport and the BS Store.

And then there are the historical little groceries that never left: the Fish Creek Market, established in 1895; the Pioneer Store in Ellison Bay, established in 1900; and Bley’s Grocery Store in Jacksonport, established in 1956.