Thanksgivings to Remember
Tomorrow is the day we have set aside in our country to give thanks for the things we share with family and friends. We also give thanks for the freedoms we have in our religious beliefs and personal life choices. We give thanks for all the men and women who in the past and present defend those freedoms. Many of them are in countries far away from home. We give thanks to first responders and health care workers, teachers and all those who serve the public in these challenging times. And we give thanks for the community in which we live. We know this day as Thanksgiving.
Each year on the last Thursday of the month, we come together sharing memories, laughter and the traditional Thanksgiving meal. And in this community, that meal may have come from a local family business, Witschey’s. That familiar name on the front of their store, is no longer there. A new family name is now in its place, Riesbeck’s.
Thanksgiving reminds each of us that times, people, and places change. As I write this story, I feel as if I am writing about family. And in every way but blood, I am. I have known Bill Witschey and his family since I was a kid growing up out the creek. Bill’s family lived just across the road from us. I got to know the Witscheys first by delivering their daily paper. Later on I peddled flower seeds to his wife, WIlda, to earn spending money. His daughter Jennifer, grew-up with my sister, Sherry. It was a small country community I remember fondly.
A while back, I learned Bill had made a deal to sell the store. I asked if we could sit down and talk of the sale and changes that would follow. He agreed, but not until after the deal was completed. That happened the second week of this month. True to his word on a Friday afternoon, we sat down and began speaking of many things. He shared much of his family’s life’s story that day.
I first asked Bill about growing up and what he remembered. He explained his first memories began when he was about ten. He told me that his dad moved the family around from time to time. He described his family’s situation in those early days as being tenant farmers. His parents, Harold and Ethel worked taking care of a place in exchange for a rent payment. Bill was born in 1931 in a house on 5th street. His parents were taking care of it for a man who was not able to move in until the following year. All of his brothers, Walter, Wayne and Warren were born at home. Lila their sister was the only sibling to be born in a hospital.
Over the following years they moved several times until they ended up out on Whiteman Hill in 1944. His dad, Harold earned $15 a week working as a butcher for Lawrence Amos at the Corner Cash Market on Main and North Street. When Amos became a deputy sheriff, he sold the store. Harold bought the store and began with $500 in inventory and equipment. Sales that first partial day were $28.32. That was 76 years ago. Harold and Ethel would be proud to have known, that from that humble beginning, the Witschey family business has grown from that corner market into a business that welcomed thousands of customers each week.
Bill showed me a simple spread sheet that chronicles the family business from the early days. The records for the first four years were lost in one of the downtown floods. He pointed to the year 1948. That year they had sales of $2000 a week. Part of that came from the grocery store and part from a business his dad owned south of town, the Shadyside Restaurant. Bill’s father had also opened a small grocery store on 4th street.
I asked Bill about those first days in that corner store and what he remembered. He explained his dad had an agreement to supply the cafeteria at Central Grade school. One of Bill’s jobs before school was to carry fifty pound bags of potatoes and crates of oranges to the third floor where the cafeteria was located. He talked about people bringing butter, produce, chicken and eggs to the store to trade for groceries. Butchering the chickens was another job he helped with. He remembers how Clark Hammel delivered ice daily to keep the fresh chickens cold. Back then, business and family homes placed a card in the window. How it was placed told Hammel how much ice they were needing that day.
Bill spoke about moving from the corner store in 1958, down to the old A&P building, where the pawn shop is today. Then in 1968 the business moved to its present location. Over the years, it has been remodeled and expanded twice. After one remodeling, they were preparing for a big sale. It was interrupted by Hurricane Agnes. Inside the store, 12 inches of water covered the floor. Groceries were moved to high ground. Even with flood waters, customers came in by boats to shop and Witschey’s filled their needs the best they could.
Bill talked about how the store has served the community down through many holiday seasons. He explained there was a time, when Thanksgiving and Christmas saw 1800 to 2000 customers come into the store. They wanted small items they had forgotten such as, brown and serve rolls or chicken broth. He said at one time they did a big holiday business with film, flash bulbs and batteries. But, those days are long gone. He reminded me that at one time they purchased ginseng, yellow root and May Apple root from customers. They even purchased beef hides, fox and raccoon pelts. Over the years, the store has played many roles supporting a changing community of needs.
I pointed out that with the end of his family’s ownership, locally owned family grocery stores will be part of history. He thought for a moment before explaining at one time there were three downtown furniture stores, three hardware stores and five pharmacies. Back then there were several grocery stores. Clyde Steele and Thomas Drug Store were up by the railroad. Opposite the Moose, Forrest George had a store. The Riggenbach and Berger store was on the corner. Across the street was Bachman’s. On the corner was my dad’s first store. Down the Street was the State Food Store, A&P, Earl Coulter, Beckon & Emch, Elmer Winters, Schrader, Jerry Whiteman. Over in Brooklyn, Hattie Linger, Harvey Potts, Burl Dulaney, Able Holt, Abe Barth, Henry Shamp and Jennie Blake all had grocery businesses. And now, the Witschey’s business will join that list of family business we remember in the past.
I asked Bill about Thanksgivings in the Witschey household growing up. He paused before saying, “it was kind of like Norman Rockwell. Everyone sitting around the table.” He talked about how often other families joined their holiday table. I asked if they raised the turkey for their meal. He laughed as he told me, “no, it came from a guy in Parkersburg we called Chicken Charlie.”
Bill sat back in his chair as he said, “Thanksgiving…you have to be thankful too the employees, for the customers we had, thankful for your family, thankful for the country we live in. I have been fortunate in my life. I have been in about thirty countries, I have been in every state, and not a bad one in the bunch. I am thankful for what we have.”
On behalf of the Witschey family, the staff of the Wetzel Chronicle and Mary and myself, we wish you a healthy and wonderful Thanksgiving as we look forward Through the Lens.