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SW Minnesota historical society saving, sharing the stories of neighborhood grocery stores

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The Cherry Point store in Worthington, Minn.
The Cherry Point store was one of more than a dozen small, family-run, neighborhood grocery stores in Worthington, Minn., in the 20th century.
Courtesy Nobles County Historical Society

As the Nobles County Historical Society gathered photos and stories about local neighborhood stores in recent years, volunteers found the project tapped into a lot of interest and enthusiasm.

The neighborhoods and towns may be different, but for many people across Minnesota there's a shared memory of mom-and-pop stores that were at the heart of their communities. (And in some cases, still are.)

"There's something (about neighborhood stores) that really piques people's interests and kind of has them hearken back to those times," said Jerry Fiola, a board member with the historical society. 

On Sunday, Oct. 27, the society is giving a presentation on neighborhood stores of years past in Worthington. It takes place at 2 p.m. at the Worthington Area YMCA.

The research project has been underway for about five years and isn't yet complete, but Fiola said there was a recent surge in interest on social media — and a realization that they need to move more quickly to save and share stories from an aging generation.

"We just said, 'You know, if we don't do it now, when?'" he said. "The population continues to age. So whether it's trying to collect artifacts or collect photos or collect stories ... as well as to have a program where people appreciate it — if we don't do it now and this generation is gone, we'll have missed an opportunity."

The Hively Store in Worthington, Minn.
The Hively Store was one of more than a dozen small, family-run, neighborhood grocery stores in Worthington, Minn., in the 20th century.
Courtesy Nobles County Historical Society

In decades past there were more than a dozen neighborhood grocery stores in Worthington, each serving a slice of the community. A couple stores were a short hop from the high school and junior high school.

"So for years ... hundreds of kids were within two blocks of those stores during their noon hours. And so kids frequented those places," Fiola said.

He said the neighborhood stores carved out a niche by providing services not offered by the bigger chains.

"(Some) were open on Sunday. Some had charge accounts, which was probably unique in that I think the regular ... chain stores typically didn't do that," Fiola said. Others offered home delivery, or specialized in certain products.

One store in town — the Cherry Point store — rented boats and fishing poles, and even built a toboggan slide in winter. The owners let local kids use the store as a warming house — anything to keep potential customers coming back.

Eventually time caught up with those old stores; the last closed in 1998. But while the research project has been looking back in history, Fiola said family-run grocery stores aren't just a thing of the past. Worthington has seen a re-emergence of small, independent grocery stores in recent years, serving the city's immigrant communities.

The history project has been limited to just Worthington so far, but Fiola said they may broaden the scope to include family-run stores in other communities in Nobles County.

The common theme of Sunday's presentation will be sharing stories. Some owners and employees of those old stores will be on hand, and others attending the event will be invited to share their memories.

There are stories of small stores staying open in blizzards when all the chain stores were closed. When a customer groused about an increase in delivery charges, one store had their driver help her with household chores so she got her money's worth.

Another person told the researchers that "they'd always stop by on Sunday because the other grocery stores were closed on Sunday. So their parents would always send them down to get a loaf of bread or milk or get some fresh lunch meat.

"People are really interested in the subject," Fiola said. "And we've collected just some great stories."