In 1963, MSU Museum Curator of History Val Roy Berryman acquired the interior furnishings, fixtures, and goods from the Rykala General Store in Eastlake, Manistee County, Michigan. The store building had been constructed in 1880 by the Louisel brothers of Eastlake. In 1917, husband and wife John and Kathryn Rykala purchased the store, operating it through the years of the Great Depression. John Rykala died in 1936. Son Stanley was expected to take over the family business, but he was killed in action at the very end of World War II. In 1945 Kathryn Rykala boarded up the store building and moved to East Lansing. Sometime in the early 1960s, Kathryn Rykala contacted the MSU Museum and offered, according to Berryman, “anything from the building.”
A smaller version of the Rykala’s store, now called “Stanley’s General Store,” stands in the Museum’s Heritage Hall. Filled with objects dating between 1880 and 1920, the installation is intended to offer an interpretation of the daily workings of a general (or country) store. After 50-plus years, it is time for a reassessment of the exhibition’s interpretation, especially in light of recent scholarship on general stores, business history, rural life, consumers and consumption, and museum studies.
Current debates about historic house museums focus on the necessity to revitalize visitors’ experience. Perhaps the same criticisms of “static” displays and “canned” tours, and emphases on a historic period as a time capsule in which change does not occur, may also be applied to general store installations. As exhibited in museums and historical societies and as freestanding museums, general stores are, more often than not, offered as nostalgic or quaint portrayals of a simpler past or serve as “theatrical” spaces for living history programs.
On the same “cluttered” shelves of these exhibitions and buildings are the goods of mass production and the products of modern advertising, all brought to the sophisticated consumer by national transportation and communication networks. As historian Thomas J. Schlereth observed in 1989, “Paeans are sung to [the general store’s] front porch, its inspirational cracker barrel, and its hospitable pot-belly stove rather than its innovative merchandise displays, special bargain packaging, or widespread use of national brand advertising.”* The general store was, in a word, modern. It introduced new brands and goods into Americans’ homes. The modern post office was housed under its roof. Conveniences, in the forms of telephones, cold foods, and gasoline pumps were found at the general store.
In addition, a number of modern businesses have adapted “country store” charm to encourage and keep patronage. How may we distinguish in interpretation the historic general store and the modern commercialization of certain aspects of the general store?
This site chronicles the MSU Museum’s reassessment of the exhibition, beginning with an inventory of the objects on display. Throughout 2015-2017 we will assess access and space, explore alternative strategies in interpretation and education, engaging along the way museum staff and docents, students and teachers, visitors and scholars.
We hope that you will join us.
Shirley Wajda, Curator of History
*”Country Stores, County Fairs, and Mail Order Catalogs: Consumerism in Rural America,” in The Consumer Culture and the American Home, 1890-1930, ed. Glenda Dyer and Martha Reed (Beaumont, TX: McFaddin-Ward House, 1989), p. 30.