THE SEBEWA RECOLLECTOR Bulletin of The Sebewa Center Association,
February, 1981, Volume 16, Number 5. Submitted with written permission of current Editor Grayden D. Slowins:
FORTY-EIGHT YEARS IN A COUNTRY STORE---Interview with Letha (Robinson) PattersonI am Letha Patterson born in 1898 seven and a half miles northeast of Lakeview, Michigan. My parents were Demetrius and Jennie Robinson. Demetrius is a Biblical name. My father worked as a foreman in logging camps and at a 400-acre farm. As his work changed from place to place I attended school in a number of places. I started school in Hinton Township in Montcalm County, then went to a school in the township east toward Six Lakes as well as at Horsehead Lake and Greenville where I went to high school.
I had one brother who died three weeks before I was born and two sisters, one of whom, Helen Mier, now lives in Ionia.
Harry Patterson and I were married when I was young. I did not go to work for about two years. My first job was to cook for a crew of men at Fallasburg Park near Lowell. For about six years we farmed near Saranac before we went to Ionia where I worked in the Hayes Body Corporation shop. When the depression struck and there were no jobs to be had, we came out to Sebewa and started our business in the West Sebewa store.
My husband, Harry Patterson, was born near Lincoln Lake in Montcalm County. His father’s name was Richard and his mother was Elnora Hewitt. We have one daughter, Rosamond Cook, who lives in Kalamazoo. She had finished high school in Ionia at the time we came to Sebewa. Harry was several years older than I. He worked in Minnesota and Wisconsin, lumbering, before we were married. He worked for my father on the big farm and that is where we became acquainted.
When the depression came we felt panicky. We had no jobs with a home partly paid for in Ionia, a car and a radio partly paid for. We had thought that if we gave a good day’s work for our money we would not be out of a job but we got pitifully out of work. Harry scouted around and tried to find work all over. He was a marvelous worker---he would work at anything that was honest or honorable---yet he couldn’t find a job anywhere.
He came out to West Sebewa to look over the store that was for sale and we decided we would go into business. Harley Peacock’s people had been running the store and were living here at the time. We bought the place from them. The store was encumbered to the Webber bank of Portland and the Maynard Allen Bank was liquidating the assets of the closed Webber Bank. We took the store on a rental basis for one year and had the privilege of buying.
We started with very small capital, I think only $74 though that would buy three or four times the amount of stock it would today. Just as fast as we could accumulate earnings we added to the stock. We held dances in the hall upstairs and that helped immeasurably to pay for the place. The first year here Rosomond stayed and helped. She had an orchestra for the dances. She played the violin, Dorothy Hoy the piano, Glenn Gould the Clarinet and saxophone and Russell Patrick had the drums. Later we had Paul Wirtz and his orchestra from Ionia and Margery Rogers and her orchestra. We never had less than 100 in attendance and one night there were 310 paid admissions. There was just standing room. We sold lunches up there as well as cigarettes, candy and ice cream. After that first year Rosamond attended beauty school and no longer lived with us.
At one time we had boarders here including Andrew Blondin from Bay City. Andy had a ditch digging contract with the Township. He had three men working for him and they all stayed here. There are seven living rooms in this place so we could accommodate them. Connie Hiller was a boarder here for six or seven weeks when once the roads were too bad for her to drive back and forth to teach the school. We had quite a lot of business from the school children from across the corner when they came in at noon and after school. I was disappointed when they closed the school.
We raised a thousand chickens a year for several years and once we had three litters of pigs. We always raised a large garden for our own use.
We started in business October 1, 1933 and the next spring Harry put a truck on the road selling groceries in the rural area from near Saranac toward Sebewa Corners. He covered 35 to 50 miles a day. Another man by the name of Patterson was doing the same thing in the area around Collins where he had his store. They kept their territories separate. Harry ran the route himself. He kept that business going until he had a bad sick spell in 1944 and had to discontinue it. He used to get up at 4 A.M. to load the truck and get on the road by seven. I took care of the store and fed the chickens and pigs. Also I was busy packaging sugar, cheese and some other bulk articles for the next day’s run of the truck.
Every Thursday we drove to Grand Rapids with the panel truck and picked up merchandise for the store. At that time there were seven wholesale houses in Grand Rapids. Now they have simmered down to one or two. We bought from Radamaker-Doogy, Lee & Cady, Wolverine Spice Co., Domke, Sonnevelt, Hazeltine Perkins Drug Co., Armours, Farmer Peet and Herruds. It was a day’s work to get the stock. Some of the wholesalers had trucks on the road and delivered pop, cheese and meats to us. Lee & Cady delivered from Ionia and later when their Ionia location was closed their trucks came from Lansing and Jackson.
When electricity came in 1938 it helped out a lot. We had an old Delco battery system that had seen better days before we came. Often it gave trouble starting. There was a wood furnace in the building when we took over. The hall upstairs was heated with stoves. When we came, what money we had was locked up in the bank during the bank holiday. Every cent we could get ahold of from our outside activities as well as from the store we put right back into stock for the store. For one year I drove daily to Ionia to work as a teller in the Ionia County National Bank.
We never had a vacation until late in the 1940’s when we went to within 129 miles of Mexico City. The altitude bothered both of us and we came back home. For that vacation we closed the store and had Cleo and Gordon Piercefield tend our chickens and watch things until we got back. Harry died in 1966. After his death it was good for me to have the store for motivation during my adjustment to living without him. My daughter and her husband were very helpful at the time that Harry was sick and during that time they brought stock for the store from Kalamazoo. They have been bringing my stock to me ever since. They are now both retired and would like to travel but this task they do for me restricts them considerably. There is a cash and carry department of the Spartan Stores wholesale in Kalamazoo that serves a few stores like mine.
In the 1940’s when the Mexicans were working on the muck truck crops we began to get a calling for Mexican foods. We had a marvelous Mexican following here. Once we had as high as forty or fifty lined up in the store to be waited on. It was a very good business. They were big buyers and that helped us immeasurably. We handled pinto beans by the hundred pound sacks. They called for Masa Harina, a corn flour. They had special foods for certain holidays. We used to handle the corn husks they used for making tamales. They fast the day before Christmas until midnight and then, after Mass, they feast on tamales. The corn husks were whiter and heavier than ours. They were squared off on the tops. They rolled a meat filling into a dough of Masa Harina, wrapped it in a corn husk and cooked it in a chili gravy. They are delicious if you like hot food. Jim Luna’s wife gave me her recipe for chili. They do not use tomatoes in chili. Mrs. Luna said I spoiled it by adding tomato. They used chili beans, hamburg, comino seeds and oregano. Sometimes we bought the tamales already made up at the wholesale house. We had hot peppers, jalepanos, Serrano pepers, avocados and mangas, a fruit shaped like a pear.
When Harry was living we never had any trouble with holdups. Since then I have been held up three times, twice at gun point and once at knife point. It was a terribly frightening experience. It seemed crazy to me for any one to hold up a little place like this and run the risk they do to get so small amount of money. I keep just barely enough money around to keep the store going---especially since those traumatic experiences. Following those robberies I felt almost like giving the place away---for a day or two. I never was harmed bodily in any of the holdups. I always just gave them the money and let them get out. It is kind of discouraging to work fourteen hours a day seven days a week and have somebody come and take it away from you. The holduppers would come around behind the counter and stand behind me and push me up tight against the counter by the cash register and stand there and hold either a knife or a gun at my throat until I gave them the money. The last time it was about six thirty and once it was about five in the afternoon.
When Dick Evans came here recently for his “On the Michigan Road” he said he thought that some one over at Black’s Restaurant told him about the store. He came here as a surprise and then went to Nashville for an assignment and gave me that much time to be ready for his picture taking session.
The people who traded at the store in the 1930’s are mostly all gone. I miss them so much, they were such lovely people! Florence Goodemoot and Ida Fletcher were always getting something going in the community. Florence called it a get-together. She would say, “We’re going to have a little get-together”. It was really enjoyable. They used the hall several times for golden weddings and such. Now they are gone. Things have changed. We have a school for dropouts over here now.
I bought a new furnace after my husband died. I’ve done a lot of repair work. I had the old barn torn down and the garage built and put in new gasoline pumps, tanks and piping. Also there is a new top on the porch and new steps on the grade entrance to the basement. I know I cannot do another fifty years here but if I keep going until October 1, 1983, it will finish the first fifty.
Last update November 16, 2013