By Joann M. Ringelstetter
In 1997, at the end of August, on a photography trip to Minnesota, Ruth and I discovered an old general store in Winona County called the Fremont Store. It was Sunday and, much to our disappointment, the store was closed. In those days, I was shooting with two Canon film cameras and, due to the cost of film and processing, I was very careful about how many times I pressed the shutter. So I took a couple of pictures of the outside of the store and we moved on.
This year, in early October, Ruth and I finally returned for three days of photographing on the backroads of Minnesota, and this time I was armed with a digital camera, which allows me to be more creative and capture more compositions. It was Saturday morning and, as we arrived in the little crossroads town of Fremont, we were blessed with a lighted “OPEN” sign in the window of the Fremont Store.
A steady rain was falling as I set up my tripod while holding an umbrella over my camera equipment. The gray day was a perfect match for the weathered gray wood of the store building. There is a weather-worn but sturdy wooden porch in front and two large multi-paned windows, one on each side of the door. The front of the building contains both Coca Cola and 7-Up signs; the side, a large and rusted Pepsi sign.
When I’d finished capturing the outside of the store, Ruth and I went inside. In the early days, this store, which dates back to 1856, sold food, clothing, hardware, tires, and gasoline to the community of Fremont and the folks of the rural township of Fremont. Today, the shelves that line the outer walls are sparsely stocked with food and there are no free-standing shelves in the center of the store.
As we walked across the creaky wooden floor, we were surprised that there was no one in sight, not even the store’s owner. But after a few seconds, a door opened on the side of the store and a young girl stepped out.
“Hi! I’m Tammy!” she said with a big smile on her face.
“I’m Joann,” I said, “and this is my sister, Ruth.”
“Do you want to meet my grandma?” she asked, excitedly, then quickly headed towards the back of the store. “GRANDMA! We have customers!” she announced. Her grandmother then came out from a door at the back, walking slowly with the help of a walker. She was wearing a baseball cap that said “Fremont Store” and a warm smile that would take the chill out of this damp day. We introduced ourselves to Martha Johnson, owner of the store.
“Ask my grandma how old she is!” Tammy said with great enthusiasm as her grandmother leaned on the walker with a sparkle in her eyes.
“Well, that wouldn’t be very nice,” I responded.
“No, just ask her,” Tammy repeated, “she likes it!”
“Okay, how old are you?” I asked.
“I’m 93!” she said. She then told us that her son, Don (Dony, as he liked to be called) ran the store for 20 years, but died from complications of muscular dystrophy in 2003. She said she was told when he was young that he would probably only live to be about 17 years old, but he had lived to age 68.
She then told us that, after Dony died, she didn’t have the heart to close the store because he loved it so much. “I don’t make any money at this,” she said, “but I keep it open in his honor.” She also told us that when they purchased the store almost 30 years ago, it took 18 boxes of Spic and Span and 20 gallons of paint to clean up the building. “There were 25 people in Fremont when we moved here; now there are 15.”
As Martha continued to talk with us about the history of Fremont and their lives there, we checked the antique cooler for some old-fashioned bottles of soda. We also purchased a Fremont Store bumper sticker and a photo of the Fremont Creamery.
Martha’s husband Martin was a buttermaker for 40 years and managed the Fremont Creamery, which is still standing across the road from the store, but it is no longer in operation. He was a lifelong friend to Frank Root, who purchased the Fremont Store in 1921, and ran it for over 50 years.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit an old general store, you’re missing out on a real down-home treat.