Milestone for store - Wilke’s celebrates 150 years!

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The original Wilke’s Store, pictured above, opened in Clayton Center near the end of the Civil War.

Here’s an inside view of the St. Olaf store taken around 1915. On the left is Elmer (Dave’s grandfather), and on the right is Henry (Elmer’s father). The woman is Mrs. Fred Wilke.

Exterior view

By Becky Wilke

Near the entryway of Wilke’s grocery store in Elkader is a registration box where customers write their names and phone numbers on their receipts in hopes of winning the monthly drawing for a $150 Wilke’s gift certificate. This is just one of many promotions that Wilke’s is running in honor their 150th year serving the residents of Clayton County.  

Dave Wilke is the fifth-generation of Wilkes in the grocery business. Dave is the current owner of the Wilke’s grocery operation. The family founder is Dave’s great-great grandfather, Fred Wilke, who started Wilke’s in Clayton Center, Iowa, in 1867, just after the end of the Civil War.  

Fred traveled from Westphalia, Germany in 1863, and set up shop as a tailor in 1866. A short time later, when the town’s only dry goods and general merchandise store burned down, Fred added those two lines to his business to meet the needs of the community and Wilke’s Grocery Store was born. One hundred fifty years later, Wilke’s has been recognized as Iowa’s Oldest Family Owned Grocery Store, and as far as the family knows, it is the oldest “single store” independent grocery operation in the nation.  The four establishments that are “older,” than Wilke’s are multi-store operations. 

Henry’s son, Fred, eventually bought a store in St. Olaf, Iowa in 1901, and the family grocery store operation continued under his management until 1923 when he sold it to his son Elmer “Dutch” Wilke, Dave’s Grandfather. Dave’s father, Thomas Henry, reminisces of living above the store in St. Olaf while growing up, sharing stories of spending Saturday evenings candling eggs when the farmers brought them to town. His eyes light up as he thinks back to the days of hitting blocks of chocolate with a hammer to break it into pieces, or when he shares stories of burlap-wrapped bananas hoisted high in the air with a block and tackle. They were lowered only when customers requested to purchase them.  

His musings include those of the icehouse on Roberts’ Creek, and with a reminiscent spark in his eyes, he recalls hauling ice blocks back to the store. He continues with a story about his own father, Elmer, and how Elmer turned homemade ice cream for the soda fountain in Henry’s store. One memory leads to another as Tom describes bulk candies and cookies stored behind glass display cabinets, long strips of “Spark Plug” chewing tobacco and 50-pound sacks of flour stored in a tin-lined warehouse next door. During World War II, women used the cloth flour sacks to make dresses when fabric and family funds were scarce. All the memories harken to a quieter, simpler life.

When Tom and his brother Warren were growing up in St. Olaf, the community was loosely divided by nationality, German-speaking residents lived on the east side of town, while Norwegian dwellings filled the west side.  Henry, Dave’s great-grandfather, spoke both Norwegian and German to best serve his customers. 

Tom and Warren attended High School in Monona, Iowa, and constantly pestered Elmer to move the business there. Eventually he took their advice and moved his business to Monona in 1947.  Warren helped Elmer run the business for a few years. Tom joined the family business when he returned to Monona after five years of teaching and coaching, and worked in the grocery business with Elmer from 1957 until Elmer died in 1971. Tom became the sole proprietor at this point.  

Tom, and his brother Warren, had purchased two businesses in Elkader in 1961. They quickly decided to combine the businesses into one location, a store space rented from Reynold Hedemann. Tom, and his son Dave, built a new store in Elkader in 1982, and the fifth generation,  went to work in the family operation, learning the ropes of the grocery business. As time passed and longtime store manager Sam Moen retired, Dave began managing the Elkader store.

Today, Dave, 59, has seen many changes in his 35-year career as Elkader’s store manager and current owner. Services have come and gone with the times. In the late ’80s, Wilke’s offered Beta and VHS movie rentals, which made way for DVDs. When the Elkader store was built, computers and electronics were still in their infancy. Although the store had automatic doors, there was no computerized surveillance system. Today, the store functions on more than a dozen computers. Dave recalls fondly the Moose Brother’s Pizza Station, a community favorite that was in the store throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Busy lifestyles have led to consumer demands for prepared foods, so Wilke’s opened the current location with broasted chicken and an assortment of deli items. 

Bonus Bucks are another bygone Wilke’s tradition. Looking a little like Monopoly money, Bonus Bucks could be redeemed by customers for grocery items. That changed in 2009 when Wilke’s began working with Loyalty Lane to provide a computerized Wilke’s Rewards Card that allows customers to accumulate points for their purchases and then redeem the points for pre-selected free or reduced-priced grocery items.

Among the more recent changes, Wilke’s carried the Shurfine private label through several warehouse shifts from 1960 until the fall of 2016 when Affiliated Foods Midwest merged with Associated Wholesale Grocers. AWG is the United States’ largest cooperative food wholesaler to independently owned supermarkets. According to Wilke, the merger has provided more choices and a new private label, Best Choice.

Wilke’s has also expanded its SKUs to offer a selection of specialty, organic and natural food choices, and carries an extensive line of gluten-free and other items for customers with specific health or nutritional requirements. Dave’s wife, Becky, a registered nurse, who managed a health food/Christian bookstore when they were first married, has always enjoyed the topic of nutrition. Becky says, “I can’t make the choices for the customers, but I can help them read labels and make educated decisions. I am always listening to what customers want, and we are always willing to consider adding those items, if warranted.”  

Built within a 500-year flood plain, Wilke’s store has waged its share of battles with Mother Nature. In 1991, floodwaters seeped into the store, only enough to necessitate removing items from the bottom shelf and deep cleaning the tile. Again, in 1994, water entered the parking lot. The big flood of 2008 was a bit more to handle. Floodwaters inundated the town of Elkader in June that year, and Wilke’s was not spared. At least three feet of water swept through the store, and product had to be removed and disposed. Little forewarning meant the family only had time to raise the computer systems under the cash registers off of the floor.  Many things were lost, including checkout stands that were only a couple of years old, as well as fixtures and product. The dry wall had to be removed and replaced around the entire store four feet high.  Literally hundreds of volunteers came to Wilke’s aid. The tremendous community outpouring helped lighten the burden, according to the Wilke family.  

Dave’s gift of administration came in handy during those trying days.  His foresight and persistence with contractors while the water was still rising meant the store was closed for only 10 days following the flood.   Volunteers assisted with cleanup and stocked shelves to minimize the downtime. The only department not functional in the 10-day timeframe was the meat department.  

As fate would have it, in August of 2016, the Turkey River challenged Wilke’s once again. This time the foresight of the Elkader Fire Department and local officials held back the river with the call to “build that wall.” Firemen, volunteers, school-aged kids and community members turned out in droves to protect the town and the store from rising waters. The sandbag wall stood seven feet tall and extended from the cement retaining wall near Wilke’s loading dock through the length of the parking lot and across the street to the Central Plumbing store. “We were so busy inside securing things that it was early evening before I went outside and even saw it,” says Dave Wilke. “I breathed a deep sigh of relief and relied on the photographs of others to see how the community fared.”

“We are humbled and grateful,” shared Becky, Dave’s wife. The Wilke’s daughter, Jessica, who traveled from the Washington DC area that week for a family celebration, commented that it reminded her of the wall of Jericho.

Although communities, products, services, equipment and employees have changed over the generations, one thing remains the same, the Wilke family’s commitment to the residents of Clayton County. 

The Wilkes grocery operation’s reach has spread over northeast Iowa and beyond the Midwest in the form of political advocacy. In recent years, Dave has helped pave the way in the food industry, attending meetings and being on the cutting edge of new technological advancements. He has lobbied with the Iowa Grocery Industry Association in Des Moines and has testified before a congressional sub-committee in Washington DC.  

Throughout the 150 years of service to Clayton County, the Wilke family’s commitment to bringing customers the very best has never waivered. Satisfaction, friendliness and prompt service are the guarantees Wilke’s delivers. From caring, courteous employees who carry out your groceries to the clean and healthy atmosphere inside, Wilke’s has stood for outstanding customer service for the past 150 years and will continue this proud tradition for the next 150 years to come.

 

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