Butch Asks If You Remember Your Local Grocer

(Photo courtesy of Butch Dale)
Kell’s Grocery in Darlington, c. 1940. Seated on a stool behind the counter is Bill Kell.

If you are like most people today, you likely buy your groceries at a large supermarket chain store, such as Kroger, or at a gigantic discount business like Wal-Mart, Meijer, or Target. People are looking to buy food where they can get it at the lowest price, especially with inflation creeping ever upward on other basic necessities. So let me ask you this…when you visit these stores, how many of the employees do you know personally?

There was a time in America when most grocery stores were family owned. The first “supermarket” type grocery stores did not appear until around the early 1930s, and those were located in large cities. In most cities and towns, the grocery was a “Mom and Pop” operation, with the couples’ children often helping out. There may have even been two or three of these independent groceries in each neighborhood or small town. Darlington, for instance, had as many as four family owned groceries in 1936, the year that the town celebrated its 100th birthday…Yount’s grocery, Appel’s grocery, Hitch’s grocery, and Kell’s grocery…not counting two creamery stations and a bakery. Not bad for a town of 800 people!

After World War II, the number of supermarkets boomed, and most of the family owned groceries just could not compete, with many of the former owners actually working for the large chains. However, a few small groceries survived. When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was only one grocery store left in town…Rentschler’s Regal Grocery, located at the intersection of Madison and Main streets. Don and Jean Rentschler had operated this business since the late 1940s, assisted by their two sons, Rick and John. They had survived because they sold quality items and offered personal service. They cared about the customers, and they were a part of this community. They knew everyone in town, and everyone knew them. They had time to talk to you about things other than groceries. When Rick died in military service during the Vietnam War, and Don passed away shortly thereafter, Jean sold the business to Clarence East and his family, who operated the grocery for several years until Mike and Dianna Kepner purchased the grocery in 1983. Mike had a degree in food science from Purdue and had experience in the meat industry, but decided to go into business for himself. The Rentschlers, the Easts, and the Kepners worked countless hours to sustain the local grocery. They knew that when a person owns their own business, there is more involved than money. But there comes a time when even the most dedicated business owners, especially those who have a family to support, must face the facts when the large box stores appear and profits dwindle. The Kepners, who would soon have two children wanting to attend college, made the decision to close the grocery in 1997.

Family owned groceries have faded into history. The same goes for the majority of other small town business establishments. In Darlington, at one time there were over seventy small businesses. All of the owners were local residents. Like the three families who I mentioned above, they were friendly and offered personal service. They knew you. You knew them. They were people…not just another face.

My wife and I often buy our groceries at the Wal-Mart located at the south edge of Lafayette. Sometimes we shop at Payless or Meijer. These stores have thousands of items, and although the employees are friendly if you ask for assistance, I don’t know any of them personally. We are just another couple going through the checkout aisle….”Do you want your check for the exact amount?….Thanks, and have a nice day.

– John “Butch” Dale is a retired teacher and County Sheriff. He has also been the librarian at Darlington the past 32 years, and is a well-known artist and author of local history.