by Genevieve O’Grady
The sociological significance of the General Merchandise store in town life in early America cannot be overstated. For all area persons who remember portrayals of these businesses in films or in television series such as “Little House on the Prairie” or “The Waltons,” the complex wholesomeness of those community experiences exists in investigation of the history of the Church Brothers Store in Minnesota City. Although there were previous and subsequent owners of the building, it is still commonly referred to as “Church Brothers Store.” The Church family immigrated from England to Virginia to Stockton Valley and Minnesota City. George and Elmer Church were store owners. Members of the Minnesota City Historical Association met on Sunday, June 18, to watch Linda Hutton, the current owner of the building, select the placing for the plaque that briefly commemorates history of the store.
Plaque marking historic Minnesota City store
Linda’s husband, Duane Hutton, operated Agra Advisory Services at the building, and additional space has been converted to apartments. Church family members, Maxine Spaag (daughter of “Church Brother George”), Leland Morris and Andrea Church, grandchildren of George, were in attendance. Longtime residents, as they were called in Old Wise Tales, a collection of interviews conducted by Minnesota City Riverway Learning Community students in 2002, nearly all recalled without prompting, the prominence of the General Merchandise store in Minnesota City. Gerald Cisewski remembered that “Lots of people were scratching to make a dollar,” as did his family. “We always had enough, but not to spare. Dad would send me to Church’s store — I’d get enough steak for five people for a dollar.” August Jilk told students, “I can remember when Church Brothers had the store. It was a store and post office combined … We never bought a lot of stuff. Our family was great for toothpicks. We’d get them at Church’s store.” Pearl (Lydia Leerkamp) Singer remembered, “There was a little store in town that had everything in one store. Even the post office. [Maxine Spaag worked in the store/post office]. The grocery store was a lot different compared to now. You went up to the counter, told the clerk what you wanted and they went and got it. If you didn’t have any money they would keep it all on a tab and you would pay it at the end of the month.”
Many attendees at St. Paul’s Sunday Mass in the church across the street would head for the store immediately following the service. Penny candy was a draw and often adults proffered nickels or dimes to bystanding children to secure these treasures. These children were the Minnesota City Laura Ingalls and Elizabeth Walton. Customers shopped, “smalltalked” and went on their way. When the store was later operated by the Witt family, the same neighborly, casual atmosphere prevailed.
When Riverway students interviewed Roger Church (son of George), he provided them with many details of the store’s owners and operators. “The store that my dad and my uncle ran was owned before by C.C. Smith. That was built when the town was built. Dad [George Church] and Elmer [George’s brother] started the store [took over operation] about l914. These two men ran the store. They sold coal. They had a big scale that weighed the straw and hay. They had everything pertaining to farm life for sale. For the women they had bolts of cloth. The post office was in there. Groceries and a meat market with a walk in cooler. They had an icehouse out back and used a horse to bring it up and used sawdust to insulate it. When you came to the store you didn’t have a cart. You had a list and George or Elmer would fill your list. If you wanted bananas, they would take a knife and cut them off a big stalk. They served ice cream that was out of this world. At one time they had a soda fountain there. There was a gasoline pump there in front of the store.“
Minnesota City Historical Association has received funds from Rollingstone Township for marking historical sites, and the association website is funded by Minnesota City City Council. Sites whose history and marking have been completed in a continuing development of a walking/driving tour of the city include The Oaks, The First Baptist Church, Oakland Cemetery, The Post Office, the Swinging Bridge, Ellsworth Mill, The Whetstone-Campbell homestead, and the Rollingstone Colony Establishment sign, Miller Hotel-City Nite Club. (Some data from O’Grady 2008 Winona Post article).