With all the speed and choreographed chaos of an Indianapolis 500 pit crew, the group of a half-dozen folks are quickly sorting, stacking and wheeling groceries into a covered dual-axle trailer.
“Diapers?” shouts Casey Philp as he shuffles through a pile of goods.
“Mine!” responds Esther Negaard. “Well, not mine but …”
Everyone chuckles at the joke but doesn’t break stride.
It’s a cold, blustery Friday in the back of the Roy Grocery, or if the tattered plastic sign out front has its alliterative say, the ROY ROCERY. Negaard has owned the maze of a store with its vast and varied stock of goods for 19 years, but she may not be in business if it weren’t for the Winifred folks working to fill the trailer.
The Winifred Grocery, which first opened in 1914, may not still be in business if it weren’t for California resident Brad Bergum making a philanthropic investment in his boyhood hometown. In the process he not only preserved a key local venture, but also helped ensure at least one small Montana town still has a tenuous tie to its early homesteading history.
“Maybe what we’re doing in Winifred will inspire other places to be more creative,” Bergum says in a telephone interview.
Part of that creativity shows up every Friday morning when an Associated Foods semi-truck from Billings arrives in Roy with a shipment of fresh produce and groceries for the two stores.
“It wouldn’t go to either one of us if it weren’t for each other,” Negaard says.
Becky Willson half-mockingly calls the day “fun Friday. We don’t have to go to the gym,” she says between lifting and hauling armfuls of goods into the quickly filling trailer.
Once full, Philp tows the sagging trailer 40 miles northwest to the bustling berg of Winifred. He jokes that he got “suckered” into a part-time job at the Winifred Grocery by Willson. His mother also works at the store.
“She hired me and I didn’t even apply,” Philp jokes as he speedily stocks the shelves upon arrival. “Now they won’t let me quit.”
Although born in Biloxi, Mississippi, Philp loves the “freedom,” calm and quiet of living in Winifred, which has a population hovering just above 200 folks. Like many communities in this central part of Montana, the town was born in the homesteading era of the early 1900s as the federal government gave away land to those willing to settle and scratch out a life in the often brutal prairie grassland.
Watered by Dog Creek and just south of the Missouri River and its scenic yet punishing badlands, Norwegian homesteader Jacob Gjerde was one of the first Euro-Americans to stake a claim to these rolling hills that were roamed for thousands of years by American Indians and bison. It was 1888 when the sheepherder and ranch manager patented 160 acres where a portion of the town would later spring to life.
Then in 1913 the Milwaukee Road Railroad began building spur lines to generate business for its route across the continent. That was the same year that James Stafford leased a lot in the townsite and began building a general mercantile.
Constructed of regionally quarried sandstone block, the long, narrow store with hardwood floors, large front display windows and a tin ceiling opened in 1914. Recently, thanks to the work of Zane Fulbright, the Lewistown Bureau of Land Management archaeologist, and Jon Axline, a Montana Department of Transportation historian, the store was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
When Fulbright showed up to present a plaque honoring the designation to store manager Eileen Stulc, he had to go across the street and get a burger in the bar because it was fun Friday. Stulc was in Roy helping to load the trailer with groceries.
Stulc has managed the store and its six employees since 2009 when her nephew, Brad Bergum, bought the building.
“It’s not remotely close to anything I had ever done,” Stulc says. “Before this I cleaned houses. Not mine. I don’t clean my house,” she jokes.
Helping to train Stulc was employee Becky Meckling, who was first hired more than 35 years ago and has outlasted two previous store owners. A hometown girl, she began working at the store right after high school. Now a grandmother, she still enjoys the social aspect of the store as well as the modifications instituted by Bergum and Stulc.
“They’ve made a lot of nice changes,” Meckling says. “We have a deli now, a milkshake machine. For a lot of the small town groceries, it’s a struggle.”
Bergum agrees, calling the Winifred school and his grocery store the bedrock of such small towns. Once those facilities disappear, the community also fades, he says. That’s the main reason he stepped in and bought the business.
A ‘big deal’
Pausing while stocking large red tomatoes in a walk-in cooler at the back of the store, an addition to the original structure that also includes a corner stocked with bottles of booze, Meckling notes that her Winifred roots go back to her grandfather Econom who arrived from Greece as a young man. He had to marry before he left his native land. His wife was only 11 at the time.
Bergum’s mother, Janet, grew up just nine miles down the road from Winifred, just outside the even smaller community of Suffolk. Although now just a smattering of a few homes, back in her childhood Suffolk boasted a two-room schoolhouse that she attended until sixth grade.
“It was a big deal back when I was growing up to get to come to Winifred,” she says. “It wasn’t a paved road then.”
Janet has stopped in to buy some fresh lettuce, along with a few refreshments. The store is often busier on Fridays and Saturdays as residents drop in to get produce while it’s fresh, Stulc says. Strawberries are a big draw, but on this day the cooler also contains blueberries the size of small cherries.
“It’s the only time I get to see my sister, too,” Janet says, pointing to Stulc.
On this Friday afternoon the store hums with a steady flow of teenagers fresh out of school stopping in to buy snacks, drinks and to snap photos with their cellphones or check their Snapchat accounts. The store has a free cellphone hotspot, as well as a computer with internet access next to brochures, maps and a bulletin board populated with posters.
“It’s pretty cool the efforts they go to to keep that grocery going,” Fulbright says.
Drawing residents to the store has been a challenge, Bergum admits, although sales have continually climbed. When he first bought the grocery it was more of a convenience store, a place for snacks, pop and beer. So he encouraged Stulc to expand the store’s stock.
“I kind of made the decision when I was manager that I wouldn’t shop anywhere else,” she says. “So if I need it, I get it.”
That includes sweet and sour sauce, Beanitos (the original bean snack), a shelf of spices, Montana-made beers, gift baskets, Easter candy and a selection of Band-Aids, pain relievers and vitamins. In the freezer there are waffles and bacon-wrapped filets. The crew even makes its own bread for the sandwiches it serves from the deli at the front of the store, along with fresh donuts fried every morning to go with the breakfast burritos. Need a lottery ticket? You can buy one of those too, and even put it on an account, something that vanished from most stores with the advent of color television.
“We put everything in the store,” Bergum says. “We’re trying to change the thinking of locals and keep that spending in town and make it good for the community.”
Even so the store has struggled to convince locals that the prices are reasonable.
“We try incredibly hard to keep things less expensive than Albertsons in Lewistown,” he adds. “It’s a smaller profit margin, because we can’t buy in bulk like they can.”
In the end, though, it’s not about the money for him.
“If it pays for itself, I’m happy. It’s more of an investment in the town than it is for financial gain.”