- 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
One day a friend came in with one of the localoption petitions that the Mansfield diys regularly and vainly circulated. (Mansfield had a large German population, and the good burghers had no intention of giving up their schnapps and beer. They didn t, until compelled to by the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. It is ironic that the first federal Prohibition commissioner should have been Honest John Cramer, a Mansfielder.)
“John,” my father’s friend said, “I don’t suppose you will want to sign this on account of the boys next door”—pointing to the saloon—“but I thought I’d give you a chance.” “Let me have it,” my father replied, and immediately affixed his fine bold signature. The Wolf brothers, be it recorded to their credit, continued to buy split peas and cabbage and tomatoes as if nothing had happened.
The Wolfs were only two of our rather incongruous customers. Three or four doors away stood Brunk’s tailor shop. There worked Mr. Mendlich—ten hours a day five days a week, and until nine at night on Saturdays. We could always count on Mr. Mendlich on Saturday night. His first stop, after work, was Wolf Brothers’, where he bought two bottles of beer. Next came Angle’s Grocery. Mr. Mendlich was an Austrian with a rudimentary knowledge of English.
“Da feesh,” he would say, and whoever was waiting on him would fetch a quarter-pound of dried herring, “blind robbins” in our parlance. “Brod,” “kase,” and two or three other standard items followed—the list never varied. Mr. Mendlich, obviously, was preparing for a Saturday night lunch, his one pleasure of the week. He was a very small man, no more than four and a half feet tall, and always neatly dressed in heavy, old-fashioned European woolens; he was always pleasant and deferential. Forty-five years ago I thought him funny. Today I look on him as an admirable citizen and a complete gentleman.
And there was Phoebe Wise. Phoebe was as much a part of Mansfield’s history as Johnny Appleseed, the Dowie Elders, and Senator John Sherman, and more romantic than any of them. She was a recluse who lived a short distance out of town and quite near the Ohio State Reformatory. The story was—whether true or not I never knew—that when Phoebe was a young woman she had a lover of whom her father disapproved violently. The young man could not call at the house, and had to see Phoebe surreptitiously. One night the reformatory siren wailed to announce the escape of a prisoner. Soon afterward there was a noise in the bushes near the Wise house. Phoebe’s father took his shotgun and fired in the direction of the sound. Later, when he investigated, he found the dead body of his daughter’s lover. Thereafter, Phoebe dressed only in the clothing she had assembled for a trousseau, and left the house only when need compelled her to.
One summer afternoon I stood in front of the store, disgustedly watching two country boys cut capers for the benefit of their girls. One had a bottle of evilsmelling medicine, which he insisted on poking under all noses. Phoebe Wise approached, dressed as always in her 1880 finery. “Hey, Phoebe!” the boy with the bottle called out. Phoebe, though slightly “touched,” had dignity, and everyone treated her with consideration. “Hey, Phoebe!” the boy repeated. “What does this smell like?” Phoebe sniffed the bottle gravely, and then commented with deliberation: “To me it smells just like horse-piss.” The boys and their girls retreated in red-faced confusion and Phoebe, unperturbed, made her purchases.
At the opposite end of the social and economic scale were two other customers, Mr. Leiter and Peter Scholl. Mr. Leiter was an aristocrat; at least he lived on Park Avenue, the fashionable street, and enjoyed an independent income. But the income was Mrs. Leiter’s, and she was not noted for her liberality. When she sent Mr. Leiter shopping, she gave him the exact change that he would need.
Now Mrs. Leiter was a vegetarian, and so, perforce, was her husband. Yet, in the store he always managed to sidle up to the meat slicer, eyes open for any nubbin of summer sausage or slice of boiled ham that might be lying there. He thought that he snitched these morsels and wolfed them without our knowledge. We pitied Mr. Leiter. Had we known when he was coming I think we would have been prepared with something more substantial than the usual scraps.
Peter Scholl was an aristocrat, but a real one. He owned the Independent Oil Company, a distributing firm; lived in one of Mansfield’s great Victorian houses; and was driven back and forth to work every day by a liveried coachman behind two of the finest bays I have ever seen. He was tall, portly, and florid, with waxed mustaches, and winter and summer he wore a Homburg and a Prince Albert coat. In appearance he resembled Bismarck, but not in manner. When he stopped at the store to buy French sardines packed in olive oil and vegetables—a delicacy that seems to have disappeared from American groceries—or greengage plums in heavy syrup, or peaches in brandy, he would deal only with my father, to whom he was as deferential as he would have been to Bismarck himself.
Peter Scholl knew, of course, that my father was his customer, although a very small one, but I wonder whether the owner of the Independent Oil Company ever knew the strength of John Angle’s loyalty. We had a kerosene tank from which we sold a few gallons a week. The kerosene came from Peter Scholl’s company. At intervals a Standard Oil salesman would try to get the business, small as it was. Whatever the inducement—a big discount, a new tank free—it was rejected with contempt.