The Sorensen’s Grocery and More

Written by Betty Lusk Hughes

Have you ever wondered about the beginnings of Wauconda, the village, after the settlers arrived and got established? Not all the new arrivals were farmers. Many arrived with other skills and ideas. Some were builders, some were or wanted to be merchants. I’ll tell you a little about one building and the grocery businesses that thrived there.

One of the earliest structures on Main St. was a frame building at 106 N. Main.

Built in 1841 by Justus Bangs at a cost of $69.88, it backed to the lake and fronted on the dirt road which was the main street of the village’s growing business district (in the 1930s, a pharmacy, then a boat business located in a building south of it. The Golding brothers were the first grocers there, followed by a series of others. The building was very rundown when Andy and Eva Sorensen bought it in the 1920s. They renovated it, created a nice upstairs apartment for themselves and operated a grocery store for well over 20 years.  

When my parents lived on the Cook Farm, they’d become good friends with Andy and Eva. When I was 15, the Sorensens offered me a summer job at their store.

Business was brisk due to Summer Resort shoppers. I would help Eva with housework upstairs as well as clerk in the grocery store. The year was 1945. I’d shopped there with my mother. Now I would be on the other side of the counter.

A typical teen, I never thought for a moment about the origins of the building. 

I certainly didn’t realize the building was a century old or give thought to my Cook ancestors shopping there.    

This store was one of those built during the first surge of pioneer arrivals and it served the village in basically the same way for more than 100 years before becoming outdated. After groceries, other businesses operated there. It functions now as a wellness center, I think.

Pretty good investment, that $69.88! 

Will the building make it to 200 years old?

HERE’S WHAT THE GROCERY STORE WAS LIKE IN 1945:

The interior was a long rectangular space with a large glass front window and 

vintage ceiling fixtures as lighting. The walls down both sides of the store and across the back were lined with shelves to hold canned and packaged food items. Typical “quaint” country store. There are some still around, or at least copies.

The store in 1945 was pretty much as it had always been. Shopping carts, aisles to cruise, and checkouts with cash registers were still to come.

Sturdy countersas well as some glass display cases, ran almost the entire length of both sides with just enough room behind the counters for the clerks. Shelving lined the walls, displayed packaged food items.

Wooden bins of fruit and vegetables rested on the floor, one end raised and tilted against the counter to show off the contents. The meat and dairy cases were refrigerated. Cary Dairy delivered milk to the store in glass bottles.  Your salami & bologna was sliced to order and your chops freshly cut in the meat dept. 

The open center area offered space where customers mingled, exchanged news of the day and socialized. I remember a young Jim Paddock and his attractive bride stopping by and being inspired to dance a few ballroom steps on those shiny wood floors. I was totally dazzled!

Most of the action took place at the counter: The customer told the clerk what she/he wanted to buy, item by item, the clerk assembled the order in a pile on the counter. Customers looked around, maybe added a few more things, told the clerk how many they wanted of the canned goods, packaged items, baking essentials. etc.         

Before bagging, the order was itemized on a pad like this with a carbon copy for the customer. The bill could be paid right then or later when the milk check arrived or another sort of payday. Known local people could run a “tab” at most stores. We counted out change, the registers then didn’t figure it out for us. 

There were fancy baked, decorated items on display, straw hats available along with other useful things. It offered a touch of “one stop shopping”!

A stack of square bins in one center area held yummy cookies, sold by the dozen. They could be viewed through the clear glass lids. The shopper or the clerk would open the hinged lid and pop the chosen cookies into a brown paper bag keeping track of how many. 

Then there was “the back room. Customers brought in their own glass jugs for vinegar. All sizes. I’d take the jug to the back room to fill it from a big barrel with a spigot. When that ran out, we’d have to use a hose to siphon and get the vinegar flowing from a new barrel. Ewww!  

On a raised wooden platform back there, loose potatoes rested in a huge pile (like mulch in someone’s driveway).  When rotten potato odor was detected, there was no mistaking it! One of us brave souls had to hold our nose, dig into the pile to find the nasty one(s) and dispose of them. The backup supply of fruit and veggies was stored back there, as well as supplies of everything else.

Another summer-or-two later, I worked at the A&P a few doors North. It was an example of what was on the horizon:  roomy aisles, shopping carts, 2 checkout stands and even a rack with woman’s Day magazines—7 cents each!

Other Main Street grocery stores with enough space managed to create aisles and get carts, though aisles would usually be pretty narrow.

There was no going back. This new pattern of grocery shopping arrived to stay around 1945. The Sorensens retired and sold to Clarence Vassau in 1946. I worked for Clarence Vassau for one summer and then took a summer off to keep house for Dad on the farm while Mom visited family in Sweden.

I worked at Dickson’s later. For me, working in these grocery stores of our village for those student summers was a remarkable experience. Each store had its own specific group of customers. This allowed me to meet most people in town as well as the rural folks who shopped there. I learned how local families were interrelated, who the returning WW II vets were, and gained friends I’d never have met otherwise.