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Woodworking column: Maybe the 'good old days' weren't so bad after all

Last month in the merry month of April, I headed through the arctic wastes of Main Street and at the edge of town stood a forlorn fellow shivering in his boots and holding a sign that explained his presence outside:

"FOR SALE, ALL FIXTURES AT SHOPKO"

Across the road in the middle distance was the low, flat roofed building with a banner appended: "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS"

Shopko closing? How depressing! Since my arrival in River Falls 20 years ago, Shopko has become my Dayton's. I bought shoes there. I bought appliances there. I bought assemble-yourself furniture there. Most of the stuff was pretty high quality, except for the four-holer Bella toaster, which toasts only the top halves of bread slices. But I put up with that because, as I said, "It was my Dayton's."

I spend a good deal of my time looking back to the old days when times were tough and thanking the good lord that life is so much easier than it used to be. But now Shopko is gone and I long for the good old days when Whitehall had its Farmer's Store, a general store chain that dotted our western Wisconsin landscape, when I was growing up. Farmer's Store was a huge brick building that occupied half a block on Main Street.

Imagine a warm summer Saturday night, back in the 40s. Outside, farmers, freshly bathed and clad in bib overalls, snapbrim hats, dress shirts and suit coats leaning against the store windows wondering if they might skip next door to Art Risberg's bar for a cold one now that their wives had entered the inner sanctum emporium for the week's shopping.

Once inside the structure with its 20-foot high ceilings, they passed the hardware department, which sold everything from Remington rifles to Bag Balm for their cows' chapped teats. Manure forks, too. And bridles and shotgun cans. And milk strainer pads.

Further on was the grocery department where bow-tied young clerks held court behind a long counter. Some greeted customers, others stood on high ladders which slid along the shelves that held boxes of Rinso, cans of Chef Boyardee, cakes of Fels Naptha laundry soap, and jars of "Pointer" peanut butter from faraway Stevens Point, the variety with the picture of a hunting dog hiding a thick slick of peanut oil atop the butter in those days before homogenization.

Other clerks headed for the walk-in cooler for a cream-top bottle of local Fair Oaks Dairy whole milk or a big hunk of dried beef to be sliced on a contraption that cut the meat so thin you could read a newspaper through it.

And for folks with a modern flair, Underwood Deviled Ham in tiny tins and Campbell's chicken noodle soup. Still others wrote the purchases on a little lined pad and sent them and the money by wire pulley to Miss Rasmussen. (More of that later.)

The farmer's wife then took a soft right and headed back to the front of the store, but not before she had examined the dry goods department's new bolts of fabric, Butterick's latest fashion patterns, men's work and women's dress shoes, Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls, ready-made dresses and men's suits, neck ties and suspenders. All the smells of drygoods mixed with the aroma of oiled wooden floors that wafted together to intoxicate shoppers in their flowered house dresses, who primly turned their heads as they passed by a naked female mannikin who needed dressing.

Overhead was a high mezzanine where were stored items from the past, high buttoned shoes, girdles, buggy whips, which were probably stocked back when old Ludwig Solsrud, who founded the store, still ran the whole shebang before he lost everything in the crash of '29.

One more stop for everyone. Perched on a wainscoted pedestal high above the masses at store's center, sat Miss Elsie Rasmussen, the cashier, the keeper of the exchequer, the nerve center of the Farmer's Store operation.

Wires led from all departments to Miss Elsie, a spinster of a certain age, who when she wasn't sending change by wire to the various departments, told little boys not to run in the aisles and blushed when the town's rascal undertaker told her naughty stories.

In this center people stopped and talked. Even the Reverend Olaf Birkeland, the town's spiritual leader, made an occasional appearance. One day, he bowed to the Widow Borreson and asked how her three sons were finding life. Gina Borreson replied. "Well, Knut, he's on the farm. Bjorn is a Lutheran Brotherhood salesman in Eau Claire."

"What about Julius?" asked the reverend.

"Oh, Julius is sort of dim, has no get up and go, so he's at the seminary in St. Paul."

Maybe the good old days weren't so bad after all.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.