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Grocery Stores: Present and Past


Rick Clow


The big shiny supermarkets of today have no resemblanceof the small grocery stores of the pioneer days.

Most of the early grocery stores in the Red River Valleywere started by the Post Masters. They began stocking food and farm suppliesto meet the needs of the pioneer farmers. When the customers needs increased,the grocer often moved into a larger building. The grocer and his familylived either at the back of the building or in the second story. The grocerwas then able to stock dry goods for the women, and other sewing needs. If this building was large enough, he ven stocked farm supplies, such as,horse harnesses, curry combs, clippers, etc. In the basement, he usuallyhad a barrel of kerosene to be used in lamps and stoves. These stores werecalled "General Stores" as there were few "just grocery"stores.

The groceries were on one side in the front of the storeand the Post Office on the other side, and the supplies in the back. Mostof the groceries were stored in open barrels such as the apples, navy beans,potatoes, crackers, etc. The cheaper and hard candy came in large boxesand was put in the glass showcase where they were sure to catch the eyesof the children. Sugar, which came in 100 lb. burlap sacks, had to be scoopedout and weighed, and bagged into brown bags.

The farmer brought in his butter in a crock, his eggs ina crate, and his cream in a can. He received credit on these items forhis purchases. The grocer would weigh out the butter by the pound, theeggs by the dozen, and the cream by the pints. Neither the butter nor thecream was pasteurized, nor were the eggs candled. The grocer stored thisbutter, eggs, and cream in the basement or in the coldest part of the store,as he had no refrigerator to keep them cool. But he seemed to sell themas fast as they came in so they always stayed fresh. Cheese, which wasshipped in, came in a roung wooden box. The cheese was about 20" by5" thick and covered with a cheesecloth, which was waxed. The cheesewas then cut on a large wooden cheeseboard, and weighed to be sold.

Dill and mixed pickles came in two large wooden 15 to 20gallon barrels and were dished out by a glass ladle with little holes inthe bottom for the juice to run back in the barrel. Peanut butter, whichcame in 30 pound tins, was cut by a wooden knife, and dished up into heavypaper containers.

The dry goods were displayed in open barrels. All cottonin one; all wool pieces in another. The larger boldts of material wereback on a shelf against the wall. When these bolts were down to a few yards,they were put in the scrap barrels so more room could be made for the newboldts that were shipped in. Spools of thread were either in trays in theshowcase or in drawers in a little wooden drawer.

All the hardware that he stocked, such as, nails, bolts,and irons were displayed in 3 gallon kegs. The smaller supplies, such as,screws and nuts were displayed in little wooden boxes.

The farm supplies, such as, harnesses were also a partof the proprietor's stock. Light harnesses, such as, reins, bridles, andhalters were hung up on a hook on the back wall. Heavy things, such as,saddles were thrown over beams.

These General Stores, whether they were small or large,had shelves along each wall from the floor to the ceiling. These shelveswere not only stocked full with groceries on the one side but also dry goodsand some of the other supplies in the back of the store.

When someone wanted to buy something that was on the topshelves, the grocer would climb the ladder, get the groceries, and try tomanage getting down without falling.

The store owner, his wife, and family waited on the customers. They seldom hired anybody to help in the store. It required a lot of hardwork as almost everything came in bulk and had to be weighed or measuredout in one way or another, and was all wrapped separately.

Besides the handling of the goods, they also had a lotof paper work on accounts. A list of goods each customer bought was listedon a daily sales slip by the grocer. He had to recopy each item in a largerledger for each charge account and carry them over each month until theywere paid. The customers were given thirty days or credit terms privilegesbut lots of times these would go unpaid for months. Some were never paid.

The grocer and his family worked very hard, and didn'tget rich despite the fact they put in long hours, as they were open fromseven in the morning until twelve at night.

People not only came to the grocery store for suppliesbut to pick up bits of news. Communications weren't in those days whatthey are today, and news traveled more mouth to mouth than any other wayexcept by telephone; if you had one.

On Saturday night, the store would be jammed full of peoplenot only to hear news and get their groceries but the women would swap recipeswhile the men swapped stories. The farmer's children would get to choosesome candy and see the other children in the town.

There was a warm atmosphere in the old stores of pioneerdays that yoou never found anyplace else.

The new supermarkets of today are large and shiny withbig front windows and florescent lighting. As you come into the store,the door automatically opens before you, a cart is waiting in the firstaisle for you to take and fill, as you walk down the straight and cleanaisles. Each aisle has different articles in order. The first aisle mayhave rows and rows of canned vegetables and fruit. The second aisle filledwith soap, detergents, and other laundry needs. The third aisle: tissues,paper towels, etc. The fourth aisle filled with fresh produce in cleanrefrigerated shelves. On the other side of that aisle would be frozen vegetables,orange juice, ice cream and T.V. dinners. In the showcase is your meats,such as, porks, roasts, sausage, ham, bacon, and steaks. You name it! There is always a meat cutter available to slice or cut your meat to anyweight or size.

All dairy products are in a see-thru walk in cooler.

When you have collected all your groceries, placed themon the counter, the cashier rings them up on an automatic cash registerwhich shows not only the amount you are to pay, but your correct change. The carryout boy will pack your groceries in strong paper bags and carrythem out through the automated doors to you car which is parked in a largeparking lot.

Most of these stores today are open from 8:00 a.m. until6:00 p.m.

These supermarket conveniences are a necessity for ourfast advancing world today as the old fashioned grocery stores served tomeet the needs of the pioneer in his day.



Markel, Dick, Interview, January 21, 1974

Fiftieth Anniversary Number, Kittson County Enterprise

Clow, Willie, Interview, January 19, 1974

+1>Fiftieth Anniversary Number, Kittson County Enterprise

Clow, Willie, Interview, January 19, 1974