Who can name all the mom and pop grocery stores that were in Pittsburg? Just ask Gloria Oertle. She will tell you there was a grocery store on every third corner, and then be able to give you the name, address and background of at least five within a couple of minutes.
Before the time of self-service, customers would approach the grocery counter, hand their list to the clerk, he would then select the items for the customer, bag everything and that was the trip to the grocery store. The majority of the merchandise was placed behind the counter where customers were not allowed go. Some people had not even seen the inside of a grocery store, as they would simply call in their order and have it delivered. An example a mom and pop store is the former H.R. Brown Grocery Store.
Harold R. Brown spent most of his life in the grocery business. He began at the age of fifteen delivering groceries to the coal miners from the Mt. Carmel Mercantile Co. store in Chicopee, Kansas. Miners were paid in script which could only be used at the store. Two years later, Mr. Brown met and married his wife. They moved to Pittsburg with a dream of opening up their own grocery store.
Their dream came true when the Browns opened the first H.R. Brown store in 1907 at 424 S. Broadway, later moving in 1910 to 412 S. Broadway (current site of Lotus Express), where it operated until 1968. In addition to the grocery store, a small storeroom was attached to the back of the store, along with a barn behind it that housed delivery wagons and horses. At the height of their deliveries, the store owned two wagons and five horses. The barn burned down in 1966, never to be rebuilt. The store had two telephone lines installed, Southwestern Bell and Home Phone Co., so customers could get through easier. H.R. Brown had one line, No. 363. Mr. and Mrs. Brown worked side by side, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., selling large varieties of dry goods, meats, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Salesmen came from all over to setup the latest goods in the window for display; one example would have been an array of gloves. Many local businesses such as Beck and Hill, at 305 N. Broadway and Marrone’s Inc., did business with the Browns. Beck & Hill had a slaughter house near Chicopee that sold wholesale meat to the grocery stores. The Kent’s had a bakery behind their house on Forrest Street that delivered their bread to the store daily. The local meats hung in the other window along with produce.
Ron Marrone remembers delivering to the Brown Store when he was around 15 or 16 years old in the old Plymouth Station wagon. The Marrone’s produce business at that time was on 111 N Pine Street (currently El Caballo), only a few blocks from the grocery store. Mr. Marrone set the perimeter where his sons’ delivery route was within a three block radius from the family business. Ron remembers the big butcher block Mr. Brown had by the back door and setting ten pounds of onions, tomatoes, bananas, or whatever produce he had ordered on it. Rons route before school also included the Plaza Café, A & A, and Karbie’s, later Piggly Wiggly, on the corner of Euclid and Broadway. When chain stores such as Piggly Wiggly began opening in the early 1930’s, management had to show consumers how to shop in a grocery store.
After sixty five years in the grocery business, Mr. Brown retired at the age of eighty and sold the lot to a chain in 1968. He was proud of the fact that he never sold frozen vegetables in the store. The new owner who purchased the lot was willing to give the Crawford County Historical Society the building. The Brown family agreed to restore the interior the way it was during the stores early years, complete with the cracker barrel, coffee grinder, tobacco cutter, original canned goods, scales, plus much more, including a pot-bellied stove, that’s just begging for someone to play checkers around again.
Did you know that in 1912 Pittsburg supported 79 grocery stores? When the Browns closed their store in 1968, Pittsburg was supporting a generous number of 25 grocery stores. At the time the H.R. Brown store moved to its permanent site at the Museum in 1978, Pittsburg had seventeen grocery stores.
Today, the H.R. Brown Grocery store is an important addition to the Museum and is enjoyed by visitors who are given a wonderful glimpse into the past and the people that lived and worked in Crawford County.
Remember, history is fun!
— Amanda Minton is the director of the Crawford County Historical Museum, as well as a lecturer of history at Pittsburg State University.