Each winter, the 3rd grade classes from Cokato Elementary visit the museum as part of their unit on local history. Part of their tour here is the viewing of a slide show that shows how this area began and developed, from the mid-1850s through about 1920. One of the slide images shows a typical grocery, or “general” store.
As the narrator describes how the stores had supplies in big boxes, bags, and cans, and how items were stacked up to the ceiling, invariably a student will comments on how “little” these store were. This makes sense when you realize that their frame of reference is a store like a Cub Foods or The Marketplace. So yes, they would seem ‘little’.
Fans of the popular television show, Little House of the Prairie, will recall the general store in Walnut Grove run by the Nels Oleson family.
For many small communities, those Oleson-esque stores were commonplace. Countless towns like Cokato had four or five of these operating at any given time.
From its beginning, Cokato had a thriving grocery/ general/food store component to its downtown business district.
A passage from Cokato’s First Century, by Carlton Lee, helps describe the situation:
In 1939, Cokato had nine individually owned and operated food stores, all located in the downtown area. The stores were: Corner Grocery, Nyquist Mercantile, Leader Department Store, Model Grocery, Blaha’s Store, Eric Anderson’s Meat Market, Holmberg’s Red & White, Corner Meat Market, and White Front Meat Market. Ed Enberg provided daily delivery service from all nine establishments to homes in Cokato.
Other stores that dotted the Cokato business district over the decades included a Red Owl, Jorgenson’s Red & White, Illstrup & Miller, Heglund’s, and National Tea (the first chain store in town).
When considering that in 1940, the combined population of Cokato Village, Cokato Township, and Stockholm Township was less than 5000, the concept that this many food stores could remain open may seem astounding to a modern audience. One key demographic change that has occurred over the last seven decades is the rise of the commuter culture, which now has people shopping more in other communities, a change that affected not just food stores and certainly not just Cokato.
Over time, many of these small stores ceased operation as their owners moved on or retired, with nobody willing to put in the hours necessary to operate a grocery. By the late-1970s, three stores remained: The Farmers Store, Stan’s Jack & Jill, and The Marketplace.
The closure of Jack & Jill in August 1986 left only The Marketplace, which opened its current store 1993.