Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 28, 2018

Memories of my hometown grocers

Cutting a Christmas tree is one of the big holiday season events in our family, and it always makes me think about Cliff and Ruth Bolen. I grew up on a farm outside of Burns, Kansas, and my family occasionally cut cedars from our pasture. But we also bought a few from the Bolens, who had them leaning against the outside brick walls of their grocery store in Burns. I don’t know what kind they were, but I know they were a lot softer and smelled better than those cedars.

Thinking of the Bolen store caused me to recall how the wood floors creaked and how the bologna-cutting machine intrigued sister Gaila and me. We and older brother Dave always checked out the comic books near the front window during any visit. Dave remembered our folks charged their groceries.

... When I shopped for them, Ruth or Cliff wrote ALL items down on a small invoice and then the folks would pay monthly, I think. Ruth and Cliff were very, very friendly. As I recall, we seldom bought very many items at one time.

We and other farmers stored our meat and poultry at Lefert’s grocery store because they had a large meat locker. Across the street from Lefert’s was Miller’s Produce, where Mark Miller bought our eggs and sold them and other items to locals.

I asked several others from my hometown about their memories. Tom, who still lives in Burns, recalled that Bolen’s “was a great place to go.”

We did a little more of our shopping there than Lefert’s, but went to both and the locker in Lefert’s was fascinating. Bolen’s had a meat department, too, until Cliff passed away. To the side by the west window there was a kind of a counter where you could sit and visit with him. The phone was on the wall there, too. I think they had a Sunbeam bread sign somewhere. That’s the kind of bread mom bought, although I always thought Wonder Bread would be good because it “builds strong bodies 12 ways” or something like that! [Brother] Charlie and I got our “Saturday pop” there. That was the one day of the week mom and dad would let us buy soda pop, so we’d reach into the big metal cooler and pull one out. Probably cost a dime a bottle, but we town kids preferred to go to Miller’s Produce on the other rare occasions we were allowed to buy a bottle of pop, because he had it in his refrigerator back in the work area and you could get it for a nickel.

Jim, whose parents eventually bought Lefert’s, said he and his brother David would buy frozen popsicles at Bolen’s after junior high track practice. He also remembered the creaky wood floors and “the warm atmosphere of a mom-and-pop store.”

Bruce said he used to get 2 cents for a returned pop bottle.

Bolen’s started paying 2 cents apiece or 2 bottles for a NICKEL! Bob Phillips and I had some extra successful bottle hunting one day and were determined to get the better rate. We proceeded to bring these in 2 bottles at a time. We took our stash around back and Bob would go in with 2 bottles and upon his return to the alley I would immediately go in with two bottles. Cliff was demanding to know what we were doing and of course wanted all the bottles at once. He made sure we got the better rate.

Tom said his clearest memory of Bolen’s isn’t a very pleasant one.

When I was about 10, I decided it was time to graduate from picking up cigarette butts off the street and sticking them into my mouth ... to trying the real thing. So one of my good friends and I came up with a plan. We’d go into Bolen’s sometime when Ed Harms was the only one tending to the store. My pal would distract Mr. Harms, and I’d slip behind the cash register and lift a pack. Well, our plan worked! ... We smoked one or two, then made the mistake of telling my brother, Charlie. For some reason, he didn’t think that was a road I ought to be going down, so he told mom. She didn’t even take the time to consult with dad. She marched me down to Bolen’s and stood with me there at that counter ... I had to call Cliff over, hand over the nearly full pack of cigarettes, pay him the quarter or whatever a pack cost, and apologize. Cliff handled it well, told me sternly that what I did was wrong, but managed to be gentle enough in the end so that the shame wouldn’t linger.

Tim had a similar experience.

I am not sure how old I was, but once I got a candy bar from Bolen’s without paying for it. Just as I was about to open it, Mom or Dad, I don’t remember which, asked where it came from ... and when I confessed, they marched me right back to the store and I had to give it back and tell what I had done. Not sure if it was Carl Riggs or maybe Ruth Bolen I gave it back to, but no lecture or scolding; of course, I ran out without giving them much of a chance. So ended my life of crime and I did learn a valuable lesson.

Burns no longer has a grocery. People there shop in the large stores in nearby cities, just as I do in Manhattan. I like the larger selection of goods these big stores offer. Still, I have a hunch the others would join me in being thankful for the memories created in their small hometown stores.

Tom’s recollection of the Wonder Bread claim is a testament to what a catchy advertising slogan can do. The number of ways the bread could “build a strong body” is related to the number of ingredients used to enrich the bread. The ad on the left is from the 1950s and the one on the right from the 1960s. Several ingredients, such as calcium, were in the original grain, but lost during processing. Most other breads were also enriched. Wonder was one of the first to sell sliced bread and is often given credit for the phrase “greatest thing since sliced bread.”

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