During my first week on the island, July, 1975, I went to the Grenell Island Store/Post Office to mail postcards home to my family. It was the only time I was ever in the Grenell Island Store. I’m stymied to express the immense connection most had with the store. While my experience was fleeting, the memories of the Grenell Island Store looms large in the minds of most long-time Grenell residents.
It Began in 1891
The Grenell Island Park Store opened the summer of 1891 and closed in the fall of 1982. No one knows for sure when the building was built. It originally had been called Britton’s Store and had been in Fishers Landing. Sam Grenell had it moved over the ice to its current location. In the 92 years that it operated as Grenell’s summer store and post office, there were 11 operators. Mostly it was run as a family enterprise. The two longest operators being the first and the last—starting with Kilbourn and ending with Slomczweskis.
The Early Years: 1891 - 1910
Many are surprised to learn that “The Store” wasn’t the only store on Grenell. Around 1892, there were three stores operating simultaneously. The earliest store on Grenell was located on the opposite end of the island in a bay near the present day Gray Cottage, what would have been a short walk away from the 150-room Pullman Hotel. Pullman Island was connected to Grenell with a bridge and considered a part of Grenell back then. The store was run by E. A. Fox and later by H. M. Worden. Olivia Pratt in her book, The Story of Grenell, made it sound like the store had been there long before Sam brought over the Britton store on the ice. I found a notice in a 1892 paper that said E. A. Fox was operating a store on Grenell that year.
Also in 1892, was a third store located on South Boulevard right next door to Sam Grenell’s house. It belonged to George Grenell, Sam Grenell’s nephew who had come to help his cousin Herb (another Grenell nephew) in the store. The two had a disagreement so George built his own store, which was only open a few years. Without the post office and a dock, it couldn’t compete.
Oliva Pratt says in her book, The Story of Grenell:
A Clayton paper of the date September 4, 1929 tells of the rebuilding of the dock and the setting up of two new beacons upon it, as memorials to H. J. Kilbourn, postmaster, caretaker and owner of the store for thirty years. The old lights burned kerosene oil and Mr. Kilbourn kept them clean and burning, always sitting up until the searchlight trip returned. At that time they were known as the best dock lights on the river.”
From what I can tell, Herb Kilbourn never owned, but only operated the store maybe until his death in 1922. I do know that Herb was a founding member of the Grenell Island Improvement Association (GIIA) and lived year around on the island from 1891 until his death in 1922. At first the Kilbourns lived above the store and eventually built the little cottage next to the store. It was an Aladdin Kit house that reportedly could be put together in a day and cost around $180. His widow remarried and changed her name to Kepler. Mrs. Kepler continued to summer on Grenell living in several different cottages, but always near the store. Mrs. Kepler died in 1951. The last cottage she lived in was the blue cottage across from the Bees Nest Cottage.
1910s - 1920s
There is no one left on the island that was here between the 1910s and 1920s, but I have the diaries of my husband’s grandmother and Great-aunt Olivia to give me a sense of what life was like here on Grenell. There was no Community House then. The store was the social center of the island, where islanders got their mail twice a day. Only a few islanders owned motorboats, most only had skiffs or canoes. It’s a long row to Clayton and back, so having a store on the island was essential.
The Grenell Island Store was more than groceries. It was the transportation center, where the steamers stopped. It was where the people arrived and departed from the island.
Besides food, there was a need for ice. The store had an icehouse in back in the early years. Many a young lad worked at the store helping schlep ice from the icehouse to cottagers on the island. Electricity came to the island in 1929, but not everyone got electricity right away and not everyone with electricity got an electric refrigerator. Billy Hinds worked for the store in the 1940s, delivering ice to cottagers. The icehouse was torn down in 1967.
There was a phone in the store as early as 1916, brought by owner Albert Potter who reportedly had ties to Clayton Telephone. People could call out and get messages at the store. Kids would gladly run a message to someone in hopes of a nickel tip that they could use to buy candy or a soda. But the phone went away when Albert Potter sold the store to Orlie Gilbert, presumably because Orlie didn’t have the same influence with the telephone company. The phone didn’t return until 1959 when a public telephone was installed on the front porch, through the efforts of GIIA—most notably Morris Carley and William Salisbury.
1930s and 1940s
By the 1930s, steamers had stopped running. More islanders had their own boats, but many still depended on ferry services from the mainland to get to and from the island. For those who were here in the 1930s and 1940s, the store was a dire necessity. Families would come for the season, the husband commuting on weekends. Doris Rasmussen, who’s first season on the island was 1947, recalls that at first she stayed in a cottage with no electricity. With only a tiny icebox, they didn’t keep much food on hand. She made the walk to the store twice a day. Once before noon to buy what she needed for lunch and then again in the afternoon to buy what she needed for dinner. Everything was on a tab and accounts settled at the end of the season. For the kids of that era the big draw was rootbeer foam. A huge barrel sat on the end of the counter. Dave Nims remembers anytime he had a nickel he would make his way to the store for a rootbeer foam.
1950s and 1960s
In the 1950s and 1960s the store had slipped from being a dire necessity to more of a convenience, for the adults at least. Islanders for the most part had their own boats. For kids, the store seemed to be a symbol of their budding independence. Most remember the first time they were old enough to go to the store and back on their own. They loved being sent to the store on errands to pick up a pound of butter or a quart of milk. Better than that, they loved going to the store for candy or after dinner ice cream.
By the quick turnover of ownership in the 1950s, it seems apparent that it was harder and harder to make the store a going enterprise. In the 1950s there were five different owners. The Calhouns had been on the island for more than a decade before they bought the store in 1956. Before they owned the store, Mel had been caretaker for Glimpses, and eventually became the winter caretaker for the entire island for the GIIA and Grace took in laundry. They owned the store for 3 years and eventually sold to Ed and Ruth Slomczweski, who also owned other cottages on the island.
Ed became mail carrier for the Round Island, Murray Island and Grenell Island. Ruth took on the role as postmaster. Mail was still delivered twice a day, morning and afternoon. Islanders could hitch a ride on the morning mail boat to Clayton and come back in the afternoon. It was possible to call ahead and place an order for a chuck steak or 6 pork chops. Ed would make the grocery run and you could pick up your order in the afternoon.
The Slomczweskis were related to lots of people at the head of the island. Tina Baker remembers that they would call ahead from home and Uncle Ed would have their cottage open, fully stocked with food in the refrigerator and on the shelves by the time they arrived on the island. He would always have one more pork chop, one more of everything they’d asked for because he would be coming over for dinner.
Ed and Ruth treated most of the children on the island like they were all their nieces and nephews. Diane Cordes tells a cute story about her brother and cousin who would go to the store together, one with a quarter for candy and the other nothing but a sad face. The sad face would always get a piece of candy, too. Ed and Ruth also catered to the older people on the island, many of them single women with no boat, like Mrs. Mather. Besides delivering food and necessities, Ed would check in on her daily and help her with cottage maintenance.
In the 1960s, many cottagers still didn’t have phones in their cottages. The Slomczweskis would answer the pay phone and put the messages in islanders’ mailboxes. If it were an urgent message, Ed would enlist the help of some youngster to run the message to the cottage, who would be assured of a reasonable tip for this service---25 cents.
1970s and 1980s
By the mid-seventies, the store was reduced to a convenience store: milk, beer, cigarettes, candy and ice cream. The pay phone was gone by then as most everyone had a phone in their cottage. For kids, the store meant candy and ice cream. For adults, it was an information center. Besides picking up the mail, there was a blackboard for messages and a bulletin board for notices.
But for many islanders, it was so much more. If you were having a bad day, all you had to do was go to the store. Ed was a robust, barrel-chested guy who would slap you on the back and tell you the latest joke he’d picked up at the American Legion. Ruth, quiet and demure, would be behind the counter with a welcoming smile. They knew everyone’s name and how to make you feel special the minute you walked through the door.
By the early 1980s, Ruth’s health was failing and the decision was made to move the post office to the Community House. The Slomczweskis sold a set of the post office boxes to the association for $250 and the little cottage on Lot 28 became just a summer cottage for the first time since it had been moved across the ice in 1891. Ed and Ruth continued to summer on Grenell, their cottage much quieter without people coming and going for mail, candy and ice cream. In 1993 the Slomczweskis sold the cottage to Mike and Mirian McMahon and left the island. The McMahons have lovingly renovated the cottage and proudly display pictures of the store. Installed into their living room wall is a row of P. O. Boxes honoring the cottage’s history as the island store/post office.
The closing of the store marked an end of an era. The Community House has mail, books and Ping Pong, but no Uncle Ed and Aunt Ruth. No ice cream. No candy counter. The memories of that era live on in countless hearts. I look forward to reading more stories and memories of the store. Please leave your comments.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees. Currently she is helping to compile the history of Grenell for its 100th Birthday coming up this summer. Click here to see all 38 of Lynn’s contributions!