Remember when every town had a grocer like Pierce's IGA?

Justin Isherwood
Before food stores became megamarkets, each little town had a small independent grocer that fit seamlessly into the fabric of the community.

To plainly admit, going into any modern grocery seems less as a grocery than a consumer museum. The current expanse of food choice is an amazement against what was the previous generation’s experience of “the grocery.”  Pierce’s corner IGA of Plover comes to mind, and like small groceries in every town and village – Bancroft, Auburndale, Junction City, Alban, Nelsonville, Arnott. To remember when every town had a grocery.

The Pierce grocery is a parking lot now, if beneath that pavement is the ghost of Pierce’s, coincidentally the Greyhound bus stop. The grocery had two aisles on a footprint the size of an average house, 30-foot aisles of Cheerios and Wheaties in the early corner, at the far end the meat counter and refrigerated locker. 

A rail hung from the ceiling with fierce-looking hooks that curved into the mysterious room behind; bacon in slabs, pork in loins, quarters of beef the size of engine blocks to be cut up, the whole pig, whole chickens. Not the neatly packaged meat of the modern grocery that does not betray it was ever attached to a living creature. 

At Pierce’s the meat was cut to instruction on an experienced-looking butcher block with motions as practiced as they were swift.

At Pierce’s the meat was cut to instruction on an experienced-looking butcher block with motions as practiced as they were swift. Meat cutting was an art form and his name was Chet who had a hair-lip and walked with a hunch but could disassemble a chicken to tinker toy parts with a knife keen as any light saber; chops and steaks fast as that.

The hardwood floor of Pierce’s creaked as you walked the aisles – oak is known to do that. The shelves were stacked to the second story, belaying what then passed as an acute sense of plenty. In strategic locations were the elongated pliers and hooks to take down that box of cereal by neatly tipping it from its shelf to catch it on the way down. 

If you missed the catch, the expectation was you’d buy the box. It was an excitable kind of shopping.

Flour came in 50-pound bags made of cloth, ever after their duty was to dry dishes.  Kitchens then had a flour bin, holding a capacity 70 lbs. of flour. The bin was tin-lined, on rollers, and had a close fitting cover. Less a flour bin than a treasure chest, given twice weekly devotion to baking bread: the treasure of that kitchen, that house, that family.

Leo Thomasgard was proprietor of Pierce’s. Seems he married the Pierce. A tall slender man, abundantly bald, be-spectacled, always with an apron, he knew every customer and every item in the store and where. Raisins? Next to the oranges. Lipton tea? Next to the coffee. Everything was next to something. 

Pierce’s it seemed at the time had one of everything. The vegetables and fruit bins; oranges, lemons, bananas, apples, pears in season. Pierce’s didn’t bother with strawberries, you were expected to grow your own.  As for vegetables it was the basics: potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions. Vegetables and fruit had a season, no fresh asparagus in January. That was what the Mason jar was for. The rest was up to you and your garden. It was a different kind of citizen who shopped Pierce’s.

You could buy a broom at Pierce’s, a fly swatter, fly tape, a bus ticket. If you were old enough, cigarettes but no beer, no wine, no bourbon. Pierce’s was a Methodist grocery.  Lila’s across the road sold beer and wine, it was the Catholic grocery, and anybody could buy cigarettes. 

Pierce’s had four shopping carts, chrome-plated zephyrs stationed beside the front doors. As a kid that shopping cart seemed half Porsche, so race-able, Leo T. would give a look over his glasses and the kid quickly returned to the proper dance. 

Pierce’s bought potatoes from our farm, also chickens and eggs, the extra rhubarb, strawberries, currants, blueberries in season, same for apples, washed and presentable. Cucumbers, string beans, peas in the pod. On consignment, paid cash. No one had yet imagined plastic money.

Downtown Plover was once famous for its long line of low-roofed, fraternal orders, to reference the taverns. Where they not only know your name but the name of your dog, both sides of the road; taverns were a different place than bars.

Plover’s main street had a barber shop, a firehouse, a feed mill, the Cash and Carry Lumber, two grocery stores, a sport shop, O’Brien’s filling station down at the corner where red-haired Dorr would fix anything and make you happy to wait. If not so easily repairable he’d take you home. 

The Copps grocery of Plover has officially changed its name to Metro Market, to wonder what a name like that means? To suspect there are corporate execs who don’t know that place matters. Metro Market doesn’t carry a sense of the native, of belonging, just another meaningless corporate label. 

Copps of Stevens Point had history, it was neighbors, it was local money, local control, where place matters, and its economy.  Some will call it Copps for the rest of their lives.  The Copps Brothers bought my mama’s iced flats of chicken killed by the hand of a kid I once was, scalded and plucked. My hands stunk of chicken feathers for days.

Does it matter?  Maybe, maybe not.  The modern grocery is a universe of choice, unimaginable 70 years ago as Chet Gilman wiped his hands at the butcher block, asking if you want the bacon thick or thin?

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.