The world is changing, like it or not

John Oncken
Barney Lambert and Jackie Sperle in front of Barney’s Utica Store in the early 2000s. The husband and wife team owned the store for 30 years.

The photo of a laughing man wearing a Christmas-y red Santa stocking cap on the obituary page of the Sunday newspaper stopped me cold. Barney Lambert had died on Nov. 23 – "peacefully," the obit said. He was the longtime owner of the Utica Store with his wife Jackie Sperle, an iconic establishment at the junction of two country roads between Stoughton, Cambridge and Deerfield in southeastern Dane County.

Barney Lambert was not world- or state-wide famous, but everyone in a 5-10 mile radius of Utica knew them, and Barney and Jackie knew them too, and their children and family, their dogs and cats and dairy cows.

It’s the people

Barney Lambert was born in Mt. Zion, Ill. and raised in Sheboygan. He married a Stoughton farm girl, Jackie Sperle, in 1972, and they owned the Cooksville Store for seven years and the Utica Store for over 30 years. Barney was a true people person – a good talker and listener who knew everything about everybody and everything happening everywhere. He and Jackie lived on the upper floor of the old building that dates from who knows when. The store featured a little bit of lots of things: milk, canned goods, soft drinks, tobacco spears, axes, paper and twine, the things that dairy and tobacco farmers buy in a hurry when they need it.

Barney and Jackie looking at historic photos of Utica.

A visit to Barney’s Utica Store could hardly be a fast event, what with family happenings and world events to be discussed. Then there was the weather, crops and the Utica Home Talent baseball team’s last game to dissect and suggest what should have been, or maybe will be. The Utica Store was a place to unload your troubles, brag about your accomplishments and just slow your life down a bit.

The first visit

My dad made fairly often visits to the then-Volla Brothers welding and repair shop to get something or other fixed, and I’d tag along. For decades, I never had a reason to visit the tiny crossroads farming community. That is, until I got seriously involved in long-distance bicycling, and Utica was on several routes to places like Edgerton, Milton and Janesville. At some time, I don’t remember when, a group of us bicyclists made a stop at the Utica Store and met Barney and Jackie. From then on, over a couple of decades we made stops at the store for a soft drink, candy bar and to talk with Barney and Jackie whenever our bike rides took us into the area.

Barney's Utica Store in its good times.

One or both of the store owners was always there, and we did a lot of talking. I always admired the couple's ability to work together so many hours a day – 7 am to 9 pm, six days a week (closed on Thursday). I guess Jackie gave the floor to Barney, who loved to meet customers and talk and laugh with them, but when she was alone running the counter, Jackie was equally a great talker and listener. 

Barney and Jackie sold the store in 2008, and as I wrote at the time, I didn’t think the new owners would "make it" – and they didn’t. They didn’t have the compassion and  love for people, especially for rural farm folks, and the patience to fill the shoes of Barney and Jackie. Barney and Jackie retired to her home farm on County Highway A, west of Stoughton, and the couple worked for O’Brien Farms, Bellbrook Berry Farm,  Hann’s Christmas Farm and also did some volunteer projects. Jackie still remains on the Sperle farm.

The Utica Store has been empty and decaying for over a dozen years.

Why write about it?

Why spend time writing about the owners of a small rural general store that closed over a dozen years ago? Because it's something the world and local communities are losing during this pandemic era, and social media increasingly keeps people apart. For decades, retired farmers have drunk coffee together daily or weekly, as have retirees of Oscar Mayer and many other organizations. Farmers seldom talk to each other at the hundreds of meetings that are not being held. Even family gatherings are limited (by law or choice). I know – my daughters both live in California, and for us to get together means airports, airplanes, masks – all travel no-nos.

Will the days of getting together to talk and share worries and joys at places and events return? Probably, but not in the same way as before. As computer use expands and the quarantine continues, the path is leading to the thought, "Why do we need to meet at places and events? We can do it all by Zoom and FaceTime and we don’t need those expensive schools, fairgrounds and arenas." Already the old feed mills, general stores and country cafés, where farmers once gathered, are fewer and farther in between.

Barney and Jackie understood how to run a store, but also how to provide the time and place for people to talk, listen, learn and enjoy. Now, Barney is gone, the old store is decaying and it will, one day, fall down. The community misses both, as do I.

The Schneider/Thompson farmstead as it was a month ago. The buildings were unused, but farm-like and stately. They have since been torn down.

The farm is gone

Another sign of the changing times was the recent demolition of what was known as the Schneider/Thompson farmstead. It was the last set of farm buildings remaining on the north side of Highway 151 between Sun Prairie and Madison, a stretch that was lined with dairy farms when our family moved here decades ago. There is still one set of farm buildings on the other side of the highway, but they too will be gone when the city  develops the remainder of the McCoy farm, which the family has already committed to doing.

The buildings on the farm, which date back to the Civil War, were knocked down two weeks ago (while I was writing my column, so I missed seeing it happen) and the site is now filled with construction equipment, piles of dirt and downed trees. 

I don’t think the farmstead was famous for anything other than for being a farm, but a group of Sun Prairie citizens, led by former mayor Joe Chase, worked for several years to save the farmstead as a historical reminder of Sun Prairie’s beginnings as a farming community. But there turned out to be little interest by the city administration in such history. Rather, their current interest centers on building more and bigger stores and more and bigger apartments for more people. A new $165 million high school is being built, and the site of the former Handley Implement (at one time the biggest Gehl dealer anywhere) is now the site of a multistory apartment, as is the former Tuschen milk reload site. The now-gone farm will be the site of a new shopping area with a grocery store (HyVee, maybe) to join the Woodman's, Pick 'n Save, Aldi, Target, Costco, Kwik Trip and Walmart nearby.

The house on the Schneider/Thompson farmstead was the last building to be demolished, and the farm is no more.

I don’t live in Sun Prairie, but I well remember its history as a small rural town with a high school that played sports in the same conference that my own Oregon high school with a student body of 128 played in. Now Sun Prairie will have two high schools with maybe 2,000 students each.

It won’t be long before Sun Prairie will be a true Madison suburb, and I don’t suppose anyone will really care. And if one wants to know about the rural history of the area, they can look it up on Google.

John F. Oncken, owner of Oncken Communications, can be reached at 608-837-7406 or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.