(This article was written by Jean Ruckert and appeared in the Centennial issue of Door County Advocate in 1962. The whole piece is Chapter 4, Early Business to Present or Termination: Ruckert’s Store from A Century in God’s Country 1866-1966.)
Without a doubt, one of the oldest landmarks and businesses in northern Door County is the Pioneer (Ruckert) Store.
This Ellison Bay landmark was built in 1900, with funds and under the joint supervision of Charles Ruckert and Hans Hanson. From the beginning this partnership was a bone of contention, because after it was ready to stock and to advertise its opening, there was much heated discussion as to its name – whether it should be “Ruckert and Hanson” or “Hanson and Ruckert”. The result was the termination of the partnership, when Charles Ruckert bought out Mr. Hanson’s share, and it became henceforth known as the “Ruckert Store” and is to this day. The purchase left Mr. Ruckert short on funds for stock, so he negotiated a loan of $120,000 from the Bank of Sturgeon Bay and was able to open for business on schedule. Mr. Ruckert almost at once instituted a charge account system, as records show that many fishermen and farmers purchased supplies on credit until the fishing season opened and good catches were made, or until the next good crop was raised on the farms.
The store did not make any outstanding progress, but it was very instrumental in making its services and money available to worthwhile community projects. Several local businessmen had their early start as clerks in the Ruckert Store.
Abigail Ruckert Kremers, shares some memories that go back to the early 1900s from the Ruckert’s Store. “There were no buses from Sturgeon Bay, so dry good salesmen came by boat from Marinette or Menominee. Someone would bring the big black trucks into the store. How I wanted to remain home from school to see all the wonders they contained. Nothing like that was permitted, but I think I ran all the way home to see what I had missed. Mama, Papa, or the clerk were sitting behind the counter, while the agent was displaying his wares on the counter. It was so much fun to see the beautiful dresses and bolt goods.”
Newspaper feature writers visiting our town found sufficient old-fashioned atmosphere to inspire them to write whimsical items about the store in their columns. We quote the following the following from an article by “Jamie” of the Milwaukee Sentinel and the late Mr. Lovelace of Evanston, in 1962.
“Charley Ruckert ran the place for 20 years and then sent an SOS for his son Walter, whose itchy feet had carried him to Seattle, Washington. Remembering the old kerosene lamps, the muddy roads, and the dependence upon boats for supplies, Walter wanted no part of it and wired, “Sell the place, I’m doing fine out here”. But when advised that they had installed electric lights in the store, and that a trucking business flourished over hard-surfaced roads all the way to Sturgeon Bay, he relented. That was nearly 25 years ago, and we doubt if Walter Ruckert ever regretted his decision to end his days in the charming village of his birth.
“Ruckert’s Store was and still is one of those memory disturbing emporiums of the past that tug at the heart-strings of all who are old enough to remember when wieners were not so much an article for sale as something to pass out to small boys, chin high to his counter, who stopped by for a pound of lard, 15 cents work of round steak or a spool of thread.
“Speaking of thread, Ruckert’s still has the old-fashioned oak thread cabinet that used to be a part of all dry goods and general stores – ‘Clark’s Mile-end Spool Cotton Thread.’ Spools of black thread on one side, white on another and colored on a third side. The spools are dispensed in size and color from little chutes, like vending machines, only you pay the clerk instead of dropping a coin in the slot.
“Ruckert’s General Store stocks groceries, paints, kitchenware, light hardware, nails, screws, mousetraps, and the like. The dress counter has not changed much through the years, even if materials have.
“We asked Walter when we were there why he didn’t take out the old-fashioned stools that more or less blocked the aisle in front of this yardage counter and he said, “It’ll never be old-fashioned to sit down. I notice that women like to sit down when they look at yard goods.”
“Well, Walter is gone now, but we can think of no more fitting monument to his memory than his general store where he visited as well as did business with his friends and neighbors for so many years.”
Today, Mrs. Jean Ruckert is still running the store, with part-time help in the summer. It still retains a great deal of its old-fashioned flavor, and as long as it is in existence will remain a memory stirring reminder of our Century in God’s Country.
Village Character: The Pioneer Store
(In Memory of a Small Shopkeeper, Lester Newman), An Excerpt – by Norbert Blei, from Winter Book (2002)
Fast forward some years ahead to Lester Newman, small town shopkeeper, teacher, proprietor, along with his wife, Carol and family, of the Pioneer Store in Ellison Bay.
The Pioneer Store is Ellison Bay is a General Store, true to its original design. The fact that it still exists and is still “operational” in the oldest and present sense, is a wonderful preservation of history. A genuine wooden storefront, posts and gingerbread in need of periodic coats of white paint, with large windows that reflect all the truth and beauty of small-town life passing by.
Preservation in place, in the here and now, and functioning very well as is, thank you, without perverting its location or the character of the town. History in the now. Door County as it once was and is. Open – whenever you need it.
There are a handful of businesses and people still here, still holding down the fort in downtown Ellison Bay: Kenny Gobel’s gas station, Danny Peterson’s Viking Restaurant, Kubie Luchterhand’s used bookstore, Larry (Lighthouse) Thoreson’s pottery shop, the remains of Gust Klenke’s gas station, and Lester’s Pioneer Store.
Lester Newman would stand behind the worn, wooden counter of the Pioneer, his gaze always lowered to the counter, destined to remain forever, it seemed, just minding the old store. Lester of the serious disposition, the boyish demeanor, the puckish smile, the slow, staccato conversation – a bit of the trickster about him:
“Weeelll [pause], at least the Packers can’t lose today,” he might say, waiting for you to take the bait.
“Why’s that, Lester?” Long pause.
“It’s a bye week. The Packers…do…not…play…today.” Followed by that Lester Newman I-gotcha-smile.
To have overheard a Pioneer Store conversation between Lester and Gust Klenke, beekeeper, mechanic, all around handyman of fewer words than Lester on any given day, was to have been part of local color, local history.
“You got any honey, Gust?” asked Lester.
Long, long pause. “Yeeeeeeeep,” the characteristic Gust Klenke response as he dug deep into the pockets of his frayed bib overalls, looking for some change to put on the counter for the loaf of bread he’s buying.
Outside the store it was spring, or it was summer, or fall, but almost always winter, as I remember it. The quiet time. The lights on in the old store. The dusty grotesque looking plants struggling for warmth in the front windows, the old-fashioned stove in the center of the store radiating waves of warmth, the antiques high up on the shelves near the old ceiling looking even more antique, cans and boxes and bags and crates and cartons and bottles and packages and freezers and display cases of food everywhere from floor to ceiling, front to back, yet all in a very small space. You could get everything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, so that ’60s song went, but you could get all that and more at Newman’s Pioneer Store.
It was morning, afternoon, or night. But mostly night. Mostly winter. Snow was falling outside the big windows. There were almost no cars on the road. Gust was down to picking pennies out of his hand and laying them down on the counter to pay Lester. “I could use a few jars, if you got ‘em.”
A long pause. You could hear the fire crackle in the stove, the wind picking up outside and blowing fresh snow across the big front windows of the Pioneer. What a perfect moment to recall the taste of honey on fresh bread, a dollop of honey in a cup of hot tea. Gust Klenke’s honey. How sweet a time it is, it was. “Yeeeeep.”
Village character. Community. An unspoken love of place and people-in-place. The very soul of a county lost in time in a way that both redeems and honors that within us which needs a place to be, rather than diminish, replace, or destroy all that speaks of local culture, local life, putting in momentary place a fast-talking, quick-dollar culture that speaks only the language of “want” but never “need” or “be.”
Gust walks out of the store with a loaf of bread under his arm, pulls his cap down firmer on his forehead, unties his dog, Tragedy, leashed to the post outside, and makes his way home in the dark, snowy evening with nothing but bread and honey on his mind. While inside the Pioneer Store, Lester opens the daily paper on the wooden counter and waits for whoever may need something next, only pretending to read the news which is elsewhere, far away from Ellison Bay.
The Pioneer still stands today, running as it was originally built – Ellison Bay’s general store.