Country Store Memories
Val Roy Berryman, Curator of History, Michigan State University Museum
I unlocked the front door of the old Rykala General Store and stepped into the hot, musty darkness of a business establishment that had greeted its last customers in 1945. It was July 23, 1963 and I had driven 175 miles from Michigan State University up to East Lake, a tiny community just east of Manistee. The large front windows of the old store had been boarded up for eighteen years. As the sunlight beamed in through the doorway and my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, I was taking the first steps in a project that would take a year and a half to complete.
I had recently joined the exhibit staff of the Michigan State University Museum and the reconstruction of a turn-of-the-century general store inside the museum was to be the first major exhibit that I would design and direct on my own. The owner of the store, Mrs. Kathryn Rykala, lived in East Lansing and had contacted the museum to offer us anything from the building that we could use.
The store had been built in 1880 by the Louisel brothers of East Lake. At that time, East Lake was enjoying a lumber boom of the Manistee region and had a population of 3,500 inhabitants and six stores to serve them. Mrs. Rykala and her husband John purchased the general merchandise store in 1917. Mr. Rykala served as postmaster of the town until his death in 1936. With the depression of the 1930’s the population dwindled to 300. Mrs. Rykala continued operating the store, now the only surviving retail establishment in East Lake.
“Our store was located across the street from the village hall,” Mrs. Rykala recalled. “In the early days, there was a pot-bellied stove where the townspeople gathered to talk about politics and the weather. I kept a coffee pot on the stove all the time.” Mrs. Rykala said the store had an ice house in the rear because those were the days before electric refrigeration. There also was a two-store barn for the storage of hay and animal feeds. With the growing popularity of the automobile, the Rykalas installed a gasoline pump. A small building attached to the side of the store held a doctor’s office for a number of years. The store truely [sic] served all the needs of the small community.
In 1945, with World War II winding down, Mrs. Rykala was looking forward to the return of her son Stanley, then serving in the Armed Forces. Tragically, he was killed just a few days before the Armistice was signed in Europe. Mrs. Rykala was heartbroken and could not face the task of running the store alone any longer. The store was closed, the windows boarded up and, for many years, the family continued to use the non-perishable stock such as soaps and dry goods that had not been sold. Mrs. Rykala eventually moved to East Lansing to live with her daughter and son-in-law but the old store building was never sold.
Stepping across the threshold of the store was, for me, the equivalent of stepping into King Tut’s tomb. It provided a close-up view of customs and equipment that were long obsolete from the commercial scene. Very little had changed in the layout or fixtures of the store from the time it was built in 1880 until it closed sixty-five years later. As was typical of all general stores of the nineteenth century, almost all of the merchandise was located on shelves behind counters that ran along each side of the store. The customer did not pick up his or her own selections but told the clerk what was desired. The clerk ran back and forth behind the counter assembling the items, sometimes using a long stick with a clamp at the end that could be used to grab a box of cereal or a can of baking powder from the highest shelves.
The Rykala store had foodstuffs on shelves along the right side wall and counters in front. Crates of produce leaned against the counter. Also in front of the counters stood a barrel of Calumet Baking Powder and a wooden pail of lard with a large spoon for dispensing it into a container. The cracker barrel, Mrs. Rykala told me, had to be placed behind the counter to keep the store loungers from emptying it, one cracker at a time. The shelves on this side of the store held such things as drugs, cough medicine, razor blades, canned desserts, ketchup, pork and beans, canned milk, spices, baking soda, soaps, canning jars and lids.
Beneath the shelves were built-in wooden bins with slanted lids that slid back to reveal bulk dried foods. I later learned what many of the bins had held as I was disassembling them to take them back to the museum. There were numerous tin patches inside the bins to cover holes gnawed through by mice. Beneath the bins, I found the remains of what had poured through the holes into the small space between the bottom of the bin and the floor. I found dried beans, wheat hulls, peanut shells and crushed oyster shell. The latter, used as a feed supplement for laying chickens, was probably a major disappointment for the mice who tunneled into that bind.
At the back of the store was a six foot wide oak ice box with a mirrored center door that held a large block of ice. The other four doors had glass windows. Meats, eggs and dairy products were kept there. “Farmers would bring in their butter, eggs and berries to exchange for clothing and other goods,” Mrs. Rykala said. “The farmers’ wives would have individual molds to brand the butter they churned. Our town customers got to know which women made the best butter and would look for the distinctive marks made by the molds.”
Also at the rear of the store near the ice box was a hand-cranked bologna slicer and a huge meat cutting block made of three sections of tree limb stripped of their bark. On the counter was a barrel-shaped glass jar that once held pickled herring.
An old nickel-plated National Cash Register stood on the counter at the rear of the store next to an oak and black tin McCaskey account register. The account register has ten hinged metal panels that stand upright. The panels can be dropped down to reveal a series of numbered springed clips on each one to hold the accounts of customers who traded on credit. It was common in rural areas to be in debt to the storekeeper all year until the crops came in.
At the very back of the store, because it smelled so bad, was a square black metal tank that held kerosene for lamps. It had a hand-operated pump on top which could measure out and dispense a quart or a gallon into the kerosene can that the customer brought in. To keep the kerosene from splashing out of the can’s spout on the trip home, a small potato was impaled on the end of the spout.
Continuing up the left side of the store was another series of pine shelves with counters in front. These shelves held Dr. LeGear’s Horse Medicine, shoes, blue denim overalls, gloves, work socks and mantles for Coleman lanterns. On the tops of the shelves, according to Mrs. Rykala, were displayed wash boards, galvanized wash tubs, lanterns and Goodrich tires. Beneath the shelves on this side, instead of bins, were large wooden drawers that held additional hardware and dry goods.
Near the front of the store, just to the left of the doors, was the post office. In any small town that had more than one general store, there was fierce competition to get the post office concession. It meant extra work for the storekeeper but it bestowed upon him the prestigious title of Postmaster and, more importantly, it drew in extra customers. In the days before Rural Free Delivery, persons from the surrounding community had to come to the store to pick up their mail. While there, they might remember that they needed a sack of Bull Durham smoking tobacco or a box of Gold Dust soap powder.
The Rykala store still had a framed print of George Washington and large map of Postal Delivery Zones of the United States hanging on the wall where they had always hung behind the post office boxes. However, the postal boxes were not there. I found them later in a shed buried under a pike of old screen doors and storm windows. The post office unit had a small barred window in the center with a brass-trimmed mail slot beneath. On either side are a total of 144 mail boxes covered by glass panes. The customer could look in to see if he had mail but he couldn’t get it out by himself. He had to call the postmaster. Among the items still in the store was a cancellation stamp for East Lake, Mich. with a center section that held the metal type for the current date. Just below the front window, on the outside of the store, was another metal mail slot where letters could be left when the store was not open.
One of the items that I didn’t bring back to the museum was the original cast-iron safe made by the Detroit Safe Company. It had “Louisel Bros,.”, the original store owners, lettered in gold above the door and a moonlit river scene painted on the door along with fancy gold scrollwork on the corners. Unfortunately, it was in very poor condition and much too heavy to consider moving. Luckily, we already had a smaller safe in excellent condition that we were able to use.
I spent four days alone in the store, working by the light of a Coleman lantern, disassembling and removing shelves and bins. From the store and an attached building, a garage and the storekeepers’ house, I gathered together useable crates, bottles, boxes, signs and fixtures as well as some unused merchandise which was still on the shelves. On the last day, a truck arrived from MSU and the driver and I managed to get everything on it including the huge icebox which we pushed and dragged the length of the store.
To see how these items were used to recreate a typical general store of the period 1880 to 1920, please come to the MSU Museum. Our store is not as large as the Rykala store but it certainly has the flavor and clutter of a store of that era. You can still find all the necessities from a good five-cent Marsh-Wheeling cigar to a box of Lima Bean Rice Flakes, a basic breakfast food for twelve cents. Museum houses are 9 to 5 on weekdays, 1 to 5 on weekends and 9 to 9 on Thursdays.