The First Convenience Store
The Near Birth of a Town.
Council Grove, Kansas is the county seat of Morris County. It's a small town, lacking strip malls and big city glitz, but has a main street right out of Americana, and a lot of locally owned businesses. Some of the residents can trace their ancestory back to original settlers, and as the last outfitting stop for the Santa Fe Trail, the town has a lot of historical significance.
Following the Santa Fe Trail highway, US 56, for about fifteen miles to the west, is the site of an early innovation in convenience shopping. It lies at the junction of two highways, 56, and KS highway 149. Highway 56 goes on west to Herington and eventually into New Mexico while highway 149 is just a short spur connecting US 56 with KS highway 4 about six miles north. It's just a lonely rural intersection of two highways, but it was a logical choice for an innovator to put up shop.
This innovation was started by a man named J. C. McWhinney. (Name spelling may or may not be correct.) From what I have heard, McWhinney moved to the location probably in the late thirties, and opened a gasoline station. This was about the same time, the 7-11 stores in Texas were growing, with similar notions, and It seemed the idea's time had come. The little Kansas outpost operated by itself for a number of years before anyone else moved in and then sometime later, probably in the md fifties, a welding shop opened across the highway to the south. A few years later, in the early sixties, a Farmer's Coop set up across the other highway to the west. This all happened during a period of about twenty or thirty years, and at some point along the way McWhinneyville was suggested as an impromptu name, and it sort of stuck. That may have been people's way of honoring its founder.
The little almost town, never grew into anything but a small pit stop for travelers or a local service stop for area residents and at most was home to only three businesses, and less than a dozen people. It never had a post office, nor did it appear on any map as a city. It was never incorporated, and probably not real well known by people who lived more than fifty miles away. The nearest towns consisted of Delavan about four miles west, Wilsey, about the same distance east, and a little south, and White City ten miles north. Wilsey and White City were the only ones that had much of anything to offer back then, since Delavan was home only to the post office, a grain elevator, a machinery dealer and a blacksmith shop. Before the telephone system was upgraded in the mid sixties, the local switchboard was located there too.
Wilsey and White City had a few more amenities. Gasoline stations, hardware and grocery stores, libraries, schools, and lumberyards were located in those cities plus most of what was available in Delavan. But the entrepreneurial types who opened shop in McWhinneyville saw a niche that had previously been overlooked. They, starting with McWhinney, started an enterprise that would save customers a little time and allow them to by some commonly needed quality products from people they knew well and trusted.
All That Remains
A Simpler Time
The people who lived in that part of the country in the fifties and sixties had less of the entrapments that complicate lives today. Television was limited to the three major networks and required antennas thirty to forty feet above ground to catch the signal. As for radio, FM was a fledgling technology and pretty much unknown in rural Kansas so AM stations broadcasting songs like "Dang Me" by Roger Miller and "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash were the norm.
Most rural residents were farmers and they raised much of their own food. They planted gardens, raised cattle and chickens, and didn't have a lot of need for grocery stores. Generally the shopping list included staples like flour, sugar, canned foods, and so on. Grocers taylored their inventory to fit the customer base, and some didn't even sell a lot of meat. Local locker plants offered butcher services to anyone who brought in a fattened steer or hog, and some of them had a retail meat counter also.
McWhinneyville morphed into Wienieville, perhaps inevitably, and McWhinney either moved on or died. The original building burned down at some point, and was rebuilt, a bit larger than the first one. A man by the name of Louis or maybe Lewis Strome owned the welding shop, and his brother Lyle partnered with another gentleman named Johnny Hertlein to operate the gas station, naming it J & L Service. They sold Conoco gasoline, offered oil changes, and minor repairs, sold tires and fixed flats. Louis Strome left in the mid sixties, and Lyle bought out Hertlein's share of the gas station shortly after the Coop opened. The Coop then closed a few years later leaving only the gas station. Somehow the name Wienieville still held on.
Where the welding shop was
After Lyle Strome took over the gas station, it began to mean a lot to the local folks. Lyle was a good mechanic, and able to do a wide range of repairs. He was also a hard worker, willing to go to some extra effort to help his customers, who incidently were also his neighbors. It wasn't uncommon for him to drive to the customer's farms to work on machinery or vehicles, when the owner couldn't bring it to the shop. He extended the hours during the summer to 10 PM, and it became a social spot for the local farmers as well. Many evenings, one could find as many as a half dozen sitting around on folding chairs sipping cokes, or snacking on chips and salted peanuts and rehashing the day's events. Lyle even got ahold of the front seat from a Cadillac, and sat it on the concrete floor to provide something a bit more comfortable. It still had all the original electrical adjustments too, so he wired it up to a battery. It may have been more of a novelty than a functional piece of furniture, but it was usually used before the wooden chairs, at least by anyone who could stand up from its relatively low height.
During the mid-sixites, supermarkets and department stores were only known in larger towns. Council Grove had a number of grocery stores of varying sizes, and White City even had two, but nearby Wilsey only had a small IGA. It was adequate for the town and surrounding area, but it was just enough of a drive that most people hesitated to make it unless it was necessary to continue with the day's work. A lot of the residents tried to make a trip to town once a week, and take care of several tasks at the same time. It was more than just effeciency, it was a means of getting away. For some, it was almost a social event. For more urgent needs a few miscellaneous items could be purchased at the post office building in Delavan, but it was nearly as much a drive as going to Wilsey, or White City, Lyle noticed this, and put in a stock of things like milk, and bread, and a few snack items. Trucks stopped by several times a week, to deliver candy bars, tobacco, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Guys chips, and dairy products. You couldn't buy a can of pork and beans in Weinieville, but you coud get a full box of Hershey's with almonds. He didn't keep any fresh produce, but he did have headlights and filters to fit most cars and pickup truck models on the road. The Coke machine offered a 10 ounce bottle of any of twelve different flavers for a dime. An ice cream bar was a nickel, same as a Pay Day candy bar or a pack of Juicy Fruit. On rainy days when the farmers couldn't get into their fields, or even on slow days between chores, a number of them would gather, drink sodas, and visit. Topics ranged from politics to commodity pricing to local gossip. They told jokes, cussed elected leaders, and went back home to their families. And if it was needed at home, they bought milk, or bread before they left. In fact it was the only place for miles around where a hurried mother could buy a half gallon of milk for hungry kids at 7:30 PM if she ran out during the day. Men could buy tires and batteries or get a flat fixed while they enjoyed a cold Nesbitts.
But the same thing that made the little place convenient also led to it's eventual demise. Although some of the residents of the surrounding area considered it invaluable, the late sixties saw enough change that Lyle was no longer able to make a living. He had raised four children and supported a wife with the business, but it eventually failed him. He sold out to a man named Ruhl, and moved his family to White City.
The new owner was also a decent hard working man. He worked for the railroad and wasn't dependant on the business to support him and his family so flagging sales didn't bother him as much. However, while he worked, his family, either his wife or one of two older children were responsible for the station. If a gas fill or simple purchase was all that was needed, there was no problem. But heavier tasks, like tire repair or installation had to wait until Ruhl returned from work. His customer base gave him all the business they could, but inevitably more and more of them were forced to go elsewhere. In the early seventies, as the energy crunch loomed, a fellow name Hess bought the business, and leased the building from Ruhl. Hess probably could have made a go of it until the declining farm population left him without customers, but he got bored so he turned it back over to Ruhl. Ruhl ran it until sometime in the late seventies and then the gas station closed for good. The Ruhl family moved away, and the property was sold. Currently it appears to be just another rural home in a community well past its prime.
The Coop Site
In 2010, convenience stores are prolific. The corner grocery has largely been replaced and now huge supermarkets, wholesale clubs, and warehouse stores dominate the market. Walmart is spread from coast to coast and located in nearly every major city plus a huge number of secondary towns. The Kroger company is almost as widespread but it operates under different names in different geographical locations so it's not quite as well known on a national scale. But the convenience store, a place where one can buy gas, snacks, cold drinks, a few household basics, and maybe use the restroom has popped up nearly everywhere. The now defunct Wienieville at a lonely Kansas intersection was a model repeated at many interstate highway exits all over the country. Some of these places are combined with a major fast food chains for added value while others have a small hot foods bar serving their own menu. Ironically, many of them are as large or larger than some of the local stores in small Kansas towns fifty years ago. Pictured below is a QuikTrip in Derby, KS. Its just one store in a chain covering much of the central US and as far west as Phoenix. Headquartered in Oklahoma City, the company sells high quality gasoline, and is known for its clean, well lighted stores, and 24 hour operation. It's probably the fastest growing chain in its territory, and has been very well received by the public. The one pictured here offers eight refueling pumps, and is a far cry from the one and two pump service stations of the fifties and sixties. We can probably expect further growth in this sector of consumer marketing as companies try to exceed each others efforts in attracting paying customers.
A drive through Morris County Kansas these days reveals a lot of empty farmsteads. The rural population there and elsewhere has reduced substantially in the last four decades. Around the old Wienieville area, there could be as great as a sixty percent decline in the number of people as the young move away and the elderly die. However, based on the success model seen in more vibrant areas, if the farm and farmer numbers had remained stable Weineiville might have survived. I think old JC McWhinney had the right idea.
Midwest Style Convenience
Plenty of room
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