Building has interesting history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 6, 2001

For a full century the large brick structure on East Pearl Street has been known as the Western Grocer (or Grocery) Building.

Saturday, October 06, 2001

For a full century the large brick structure on East Pearl Street has been known as the Western Grocer (or Grocery) Building. A sign still visible across the front of the building certainly confirms this name. Yet, for the last 55 years three other names could have rightly been used to label this edifice – Consolidated, Drug Supply and Stevens Hardware.

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Records are somewhat vague as to when the basic building was originally constructed. A May 10, 1984, Tribune article by Editor Jim Oliver gives this date as 1892. Three years later Robert G. and C. Willis Ransom, local grocery store owners, purchased the structure. Their firm, Ransom Brothers Co., adapted and expanded the building for use as their offices and as a wholesale grocery warehouse.

Customers for the Ransom Brothers firm were the family-owned neighborhood grocery stores, plus the small town and rural general stores in Freeborn County and several adjoining counties in south central Minnesota.

The connection with one of the structure’s names during the past century came came about April 1901 when the Ransom firm and its large building was purchased by the Western Grocer Co. of Marshalltown, Iowa.

This Iowa firm by 1912 had wholesale offices and warehouses based in Marshalltown, Mason City, Oskaloosa, Dubuque and Clinton, Iowa, Kansas City and St. Joseph, Mo., and Albert Lea and Owatonna.

An article in the May 21, 1912, issue of the Tribune described the layout of the six-floor Western Grocer building with:

&uot;The building occupied by the company is located on Pearl Street, opposite the courthouse, and it is one that was especially designed and erected for a business of this character, having been built by the Ransom Brothers Company in 1895. It is a brick structure, six stories in height(on the south side) with basement and sub-basement, 66 feet wide by 160 feet long.

&uot;The sub-basement is used for perishable goods, wrapping paper and stoneware. The basement is used to store sugar, flour and salt. The large cold storage rooms are

also built as an addition to these floors. The first floor Is utilized for offices, shipping and receiving room, plug tobacco, soap, candles and numerous small items. On the second floor is the packing room, where less than original packages are packed as well as the fruit and labeling room, where fruits are packed and labeled. Smoking tobaccos, soda fountain supplies, and various other items are likewise stored on this floor. The immense peanut roaster is also on the second floor and an average of 1,000 pounds of the nuts are roasted each week day.

&uot;On the third floor are the canned fruits, canned vegetables, canned meats, cereals, coffee, tea and starch. The fourth floor is used for storing wooden ware. and other light and bulky lines.

&uot;The building is supplied with a large electric elevator, a hand power elevator and an elaborate protection system, which consists of an immense 4,600 gallon reserve (water) tank on the top floor and a system of pipes throughout each floor.

&uot;Some idea of the magnitude of the business can be gained from the fact that an average of six (railroad) cars of merchandise are received and shipped out to the customers each day. To deliver to the different freight depots and to the local merchants the goods sold In less than carload lots, requires the constant service of six horses.

&uot;The cigar room, located in the packing room on the second floor, is especially fitted up to care for the immense quantity carried in stock – usually about 500,000 cigars – varying in price from $35 to $115 per 1,000.&uot;

During the years as a part of the Western Grocer firm, the Albert Lea branch featured three predominate trade names.

One was Jack Sprat. The name of this character from an old children’s nursery tale was used to identify the loose affiliation of Jack Sprat grocery stores which purchased a good portion of their food items from the Albert Lea wholesale firm.

The second name was Chocolate Cream, used on the labels of one of several coffee blends sold by Western Grocer.

A third once popular brand name, now nearly forgotten, was Cameo. This was the &uot;house brand&uot; used to identify packaged, bottled and canned food and beverage items sold to Western Grocer customers for resale. Products with the Cameo label included coffee, tea, fruits, chocolate, cereals, vegetables, preserves, jams, ketchups, pickles, relishes, and even fish in cans.

Western Grocer Co. was purchased by Consolidated Foods of Chicago in 1946. The new owners continued to use the building on East Pearl Street until 1964 when a more modern warehouse and office facilities was constructed on East 14th Street. (This south end site later became a distribution center for Red Owl Stores and is now a part of Streater Store Fixtures.)

The huge building with the Jack Sprat portrait and Chocolate Cream name painted directly on the west side wall facing Broadway Avenue was empty for a few years. Then, in 1967, it was acquired by Drug Supply Inc. According to the 1980 city directory, the officers of this firm were: Leslie Hendrickson, president; David R. Yokiel, vice president; Dorothy M. Hendrickson, treasurer; and Shirley M. Yokiel, secretary. Drug Supply Inc. ceased using the building just prior to 1984 when Tom and Mary Ferleman acquired the historic structure as the location for their business, Stevens Window and Hardware. They rented space in the structure to other firms and individuals for storage.

In July 2000 the former Western Grocer-Consolidated-Drug Supply-Stevens Hardware Building was purchased by Freeborn County, according to Auditor Kelly Callahan. Its future use is yet to be determined.

As a footnote for those interested in authentic reminders of the past, there’s a small remnant of the creosote wooden blocks once used as the surfacing on city streets near this building’s main entrance at 122 E. Pearl St.