Spring Issue 2010
Spearville Mercantile celebrates 100 years
By Charlene Scott
In December of 1877, the telegraph in Spearville received a message that 114 German families would arrive soon from Cincinnati to occupy lands they had purchased in Ford County.
Shortly afterwards, the Knoeber family, headed by Henry and Mary Elizabeth (Taphorn), arrived, accompanied by their six sons, Henry Jr., John, Joe, Ben, Will, and George, and their three daughters, Catherine, Elizabeth, and Mary. The family settled into the booming town of Spearville, and at first, they were farmers and ranchers.
The town boasted of a department store, bakery, barber shop, flour and feed store, tailor shop, dressmaking parlor, produce and poultry house, newspaper, restaurant, and two each of drug stores, lumber yards, banks, hotels, blacksmith shops, meat markets, livery stables; three each of general stores, ice stations, and elevators, plus four real estate firms.
The Knoeber family opened yet another store, merging with Joseph Habiger dry goods and grocery and A. J. Temaat hardware and implements. The Spearville Mercantile Co. was incorporated for $50,000 Jan. 17, 1910, with Henry Knoeber elected president and Henry Jr., manager.
“The first invoice was for 400 White Lily 48-pound flour bags at $1.25 a bag, 100 100-pound bags of bran at 98 cents per bag, and 500 pound bags of graham flour at two and a half cents per pound,” said Steve Knoeber.
“The most popular size for flour at that time was what was called 50-pound ‘pillow’ flour,” explained Steve, the grandson of Henry Jr. and manager of the “Merc” for the past 40 years.
In the early days of the store, people clomped or rode through thick mud – hitching their horses to the railings out front. “Customers had to contend with mud streets until 1927,” Steve said.
Once inside, shoppers handed their list of items to a clerk, who retrieved the items for them, “like they did in Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie,” his wife Julie explained.
“The store sold harnesses and buggies, furniture and rugs, tack for horses, farm implements, cloth, material, appliances, flour and coffee, but not much food,” Steve said. “In the early 1900s, nobody had ‘convenience foods.’ They didn’t sell them until 1949, when they also brought in carts.
“When I was in grade school, our potato chips came in wax paper bags from Wright’s Company, made in Dodge City. And we had three kinds of cake mixes: white, yellow, and devil’s food.”
The Merc handled the John Deere dealership for 39 years until October, 1949 when Duesing Motors took it over. By 1948, the store was a “cash and carry” operation, offering groceries and a meat market in one section, dry goods in the middle of the store, and a hardware and implement room on the other side.
“They offered ready-sliced cheese and all kinds of cake mixes by 1960,” Steve recalled. “The meat market became the biggest draw.”
From his dad, Bernard, Steve learned the advice “The customer is always right,” and the store’s motto: “We offer everything you need for your home.”
“My dad spent most of his work life at the store,” Steve recalled. “He started to work there when he was 10-years-old, and always said he only missed two days his entire life. He worked at the store part-time until he died in his eighties.
“I always say I began at the store when I was 13, but I was sacking potatoes before that, unloading 100-pound sacks into 10-pound sacks,” he added.
Steve and his wife were married in 1968 following their graduation from St. Mary’s of the Plains College in Dodge City. They are the parents of three children and grandparents of four. Julie went to work at the Merc in the seventies.
“The meat market still is the most popular thing about the store,” Julie said. “We also offer cards, wrapping paper, bows, costume jewelry, toys, paint, seasonal decorations, Spearville shirts, and lots of bolts in the hardware department.”
Steve and Julie will invite the entire community to the centennial anniversary celebration of the Spearville Mercantile Store on Sunday, May 30, from noon to 2 p.m. at the St. John the Baptist parish center.
“We will have a ‘come and go’ meal served by the Lions Club of Spearville,” Julie said. “We hope to have the whole town attend!”
The celebration also will be a farewell of sorts, as Steve announced: “We hope to retire and sell the store within the next year, so we can diversify.”