Tuesday, May 4, 2010

History of the Cooksville Store by Larry Reed

The Cooksville General store has a record of over 160 years as a fixture in the village – and may be the oldest general store still in operation in Wisconsin. The present Cooksville Store dates from about 1847. In that year, Charles Smith acquired from John Cook, founder of the village, a corner of a corner lot, 26 feet by 66 feet, at Main and Spring streets, its present location. Smith’s relatives were carpenters, and it can be assumed that a frame building was put up in short order.

Yankees, often from Vermont, like Earle Woodbury, operated the Store in the early years. In 1864, the store building itself (which often had different owners than the business within) was sold to the second floor tenant, Waucoma Masonic Lodge No. 90. The lodge had been chartered in 1858 and had been leasing the second floor of the building from Woodbury since January of 1859. Thus began the long association of the Lodge with the Store.

Old diaries provide some details of the Store’s business dealings - purchases of raisins, cream of tartar, a barrel of Spitzenburg apples, fifty pounds of flour, delivery to the store of 19½ pounds of cheese – and records of luxury goods for those times such as a shipment of oysters in November 1872, most probably destines for an oyster supper at the Lodge (oysters were actually a frequent component of a special supper), and in June 1874 the arrival of rare lemons.
The masons continued to make improvements to the building and the General Store owner improved the looks of the Store. In 1879 shutter blinds were hung on the building’s windows and the Masonic hall on the second floor acquired new chairs, hanging lamps, carpets, and wallpaper. In 1882 the large glass front windows were installed and new paint was applied. The “store looks very nobby,” reported The Evansville Review at the time.

In 1890 the Masons bought 18 feet of land west of the building and built an 18 x 24 foot addition to the store building.

The Cooksville General Store was, like most early stores, a basic dry goods, grocery and produce store. In the early days there were cracker and pickle and flour barrels, and cookies and tea in bulk tins. At times, the Store also included fuels and building materials and hardware. Eventually, the store sold such widely assorted things as Cornish game hens, lag bolts, wash pans, clothesline, bone meal, garden seeds, drill bits, underwear, anchovies, overshoes, lamp chimneys, paint, tobacco cloth and kitchen utensils, as well as dairy, meat products, hot sandwiches, and newspapers.

The position of Postmaster was traditional with storekeepers in Cooksville, and the General Store was the last post office before it moved to Evansville in 1903.

The Store survived the 20th century, and even though that most famous of county store institution, the hot stove league, was weakened by many factors of modern life such as television, it was still there as the 20th century progressed. The Store has been a clearing-house for local information, written and oral, and provided such services for the community as receiving and mailing packages, charging goods to personal accounts and serving as a place to turn to for minor emergency assistance. And it still is the home of the Masonic Lodge on the second floor.

By the beginning of the 21st century, having been in business in the same location since the mid- 19th century, the Cooksville General Store has achieved the status as the oldest operating general store in Wisconsin. At least no one has disputed the title.


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