- Historic Sites
My Father’s Grocery Store
It was a lot of work, but somehow running a retail food store in the pre-cellophane era was rewarding
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
Tapping the barrel took both skill and muscle. A full barrel weighed well over two hundred pounds. The first step in the procedure was to swing it up on end, pry out the wooden stopper, and drive in the spigot, making sure that it was turned off. Then we had to work the barrel onto a low cradle, with the spigot at the bottom of the front end and the bung at the top of the barrel.
Next mine the turn of an ingenious tool. The bung starter, made of hard wood, had a head something like the head of an axe and a narrow, (hit haft with just the right amount of spring to it. One hammered on the barrel around the bung, which gradually loosened. It was then wrapped in a piece of burlap and fitted lightly into the bunghole. The burlap was porous enough to admit the air that was needed before the vinegar would How from the spigot, and yet dense enough to keep out flies and insects—or most of them.
Incidentally, in my youth the bung starter was the barkeeper’s favorite weapon. Most whiskey was sold from barrels, so at least one was to be found behind every bar. Time after time, when the unmistakable sounds of riot came from the saloon next door, I have looked on the scene from the safety of the rear entrance—our store and the saloon shared a back porch—and watched one of the Wolf brothers in magnificent action, conquering the field with a bung starter. Hy the time the police arrived, only an ambulance was needed.
One other lively memory centers on the next-door saloon. The local breweries sold beer on credit, but every Monday morning each saloon had to pay its bill in lull. A collector saw to that. By long-standing custom, he bought one for the house when the bill was paid. Bin here the rules were strict: the “house” meant only the customers who were present when the collector came through the swinging doors. There were live saloons around the public square on which our store was situated, and every Monday morning some artlul maneuvering took place.
About ten o’clock a dozen barflies would emerge from Schmutxler’s and head tentatively lor the Park Saloon. Julius Weber, the collector for Kenner & Weber’s Brewery, would tag along behind with great deliberation. When three-fourths of the distance had been covered Mr. Weber would veer sharply to the right and head at top speed for Wolf brothers’. Instantly the pack would change course, but Mr. Weber usually won. And so did Mr. Bricker, the collector for Mansfield’s other brewery.
To return to the scoops and balance-weight scales and paper bags. … Selling bulk goods, as I have indicated, was trade practice, but with my father it was also the result of a strong conviction. Bulk goods, he believed—and with reason—were just as good as those that came already packaged, and always cheaper. Why make the customer pay an unnecessary premium?
Take Argo starch as an example. Kor many years he refused to handle it. 1 can still hear him say: “I have bulk starch just as good as Argo, and 1 can sell it at half the price.” In time we came to stock Premium soda crackers and LJneeda biscuits in packages, but he always preferred to sell the Premium crackers from the lins iii which they came and the Uneeda biscuits from their characteristic cottonwoocl boxes, (I wonder what he would think today of radishes and green onions in cellophane bags. I know what he would think—and I can almost hear him snort.)
By the time I was gently but firmly led to work, my lather had been in the grocery business for almost thirty years. In his own boyhood, the same persuasion that he exercised on me had taken him into his lather’s grocery store, and the result was a determination to escape from it at whatever cost. The price was apprenticeship as a carriage painter.
After four years he became a master painter, armed with a certificate ot competence and good character. (The document is one of my most cherished possessions.) Finding no work at his home in southern Pennsylvania, he started west, making his way, after a few months, to Mansfield, Ohio, where he had relatives. There he found work at his trade, but he was injudicious enough to fall in love with the daughter of a prominent grocer. He married the daughter, started to work in the store, and in 1882, when his father-in-law decided to go into the wholesale business, bought it.
His first an was characteristic. The store, A. W. Remy & Son, was well known. My father immediately took down the sign. While the removal was in progress Louis Freundlich, Mansfield’s leading clothing merchant, walked up.
“John,” he said, “you’re making a mistake. Remy’s is a well-known, respected name. Operate under it.”
“Mr. Freundlich,” my father replied, “maybe I’ll succeed and maybe 111 fail, but whatever I do, I’ll do under my own name.”
John Angle had just that kind of quiet courage. He was a prohibitionist by strong conviction. The saloon next door served a light lunch—not free, but costing no more than ten or fifteen cents. It consisted of sandwiches and soup. Although the soup was made in a wash boiler, it was good—bean soup, split pea, or vegetable. (My father always maintained that it was purposely overseasoned so that it would lead to another beer.) Most of the ingredients for the lunch came from our store.