Disappearing Local Grocery Stores Prompts Town to Open Cooperative Grocery Store

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Four teachers handle four classes of students at the local grade school.
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A map of Arthur shows just how small, yet tight-knit, the community is.
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Pilgrim Holiness Church was built in 1928 in Arthur and constructed of straw bales in response to the region’s dearth of trees or sod. The church is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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An old home was the first site of the Wolf Den Market, and then, thanks to donations, was moved to a new building.

It’s a long way from anywhere to this cow town.

Most people take for granted that they can simply jump in the car and get a cart full of groceries for the next several days, or a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk at the supermarket. Or, even get those necessity items at the little convenience store on the corner.

Folks in Arthur, Nebraska, and from many miles around the ranching town, don’t make that assumption. Arthur’s 117 residents are 40 miles from another community. And, the 460 people in the county, mostly ranchers, likewise depend on Arthur, the only town in and the county seat of Arthur County — the least populated county in Nebraska — for essentials.

So, when the community’s small grocery store shut its doors two decades ago, it created a hardship for many residents.

Fortunately, Arthur does have a school system; it’s a good one according to those attending, their parents, and others for miles around. Enrollment is limited, but there are quality instructors for elementary through senior high students, and those instructors and high school students get full credit for their efforts to solve the grocery store dilemma.

High school business students took on the project to start a grocery store, and the Wolf Den Market opened in November 2000, says Ron Jageler, an Arthur resident since the early 1970s and the owner of Sandhills Garage, the local automotive repair shop.

“Once it became apparent there was enough interest to get the enterprise going, parents and community members became concerned that if student interest fell off, the store might close again,” says Jageler, chairman of the Wolf Den Market board of directors. Parents, and most everybody who had an Arthur, Nebraska, address, came on board to help.

“At that point, a group was assembled to change the project from a student-run operation to a cooperative with a board of directors and shareholders,” Jageler says. “There were also some people who made donations to help get the business on stable ground.”

When it came time to name the store, the community chose to call it the Wolf Den Market, a nod to its roots with Arthur High School, whose team mascot is a wolf. The store’s out-front sign has a directional arrow underlining “All Your Grocery Needs.” An old house first served as the store, but when another business building was destroyed by fire eight years ago, a new 40-foot-by-60-foot metal building was constructed and, with generous donations, purchased for the grocery store.

Of course, groceries have to be acquired. “We get our groceries wholesale from Dredla’s Grocery, owned by Steve and Debbie Clark in Hyannis, who get only a small markup on the merchandise,” says Nida Gorwill, who has been the store manager for three years. “Twice a week, volunteers drive the more than 70 miles roundtrip to the next county to refresh supplies. We provide a vehicle and give them 10 percent off their grocery purchases.”

Gorwill credits volunteers for assisting in stocking shelves. A few part-time grocery store employees, including Tracy Bowlin and Sally Monahan, man the store, and other volunteers step in to help when the need arises.

“Customers can invest $25 in a Wolf Den Market Co-op card. For every $100 spent, $5 is returned to the card holder. If the customer chooses to renew, the annual membership for another card is only $20,” Gorwill says.

“We have a good selection of food items, Shurfine-brand canned goods, and we do have some fresh fruit and vegetables,” Gorwill says. “No fresh meat, really, but we have bacon, sausage, ham, hot dogs, lunch meat, cheeses. A lot of frozen items — pizza, frozen entrees and the like.” Wolf Den Market also offers laundry soap, other homecare products, some pharmaceuticals, and an assortment of personal hygiene items.

Convenience stores in cities are typically and notably higher priced than grocery stores and supermarkets — not so at Wolf Den Market. “We have to make a profit to keep the doors open, but the prices we charge are generally about the same as in Hyannis and Ogallala, sometimes even less on certain items,” Gorwill says.

Doris Wilson, wife of rancher Duane Wilson and a Wolf Den board member, is a regular customer. “The store has everything we need. I do go to Hyannis sometimes, but most of what I really need is right here at Wolf Den,” she says.

One satisfied Wolf Den customer says, “It’s 70 miles to Ogallala and 30 miles here. Besides, I have to pick up my daughter from school anyway. I’d much prefer taking a five-minute shopping trip in Arthur and get just what I need, than an hour-and-a-half trip to a Wal-Mart and buy things I didn’t know I needed.”

The population of Arthur is similar to many small towns with 61 households, but nearly a quarter of those houses have someone 65 years of age or older living alone. Almost 30 percent of Arthur’s residents are 65 and older.

The community shows a great sense of care for these senior citizens. “Of course, we know everybody in town, and sort of keep track of them. Most of the older people like to come in to shop personally, and we like that. But, if they are ill or can’t get out for some reason, we try to deliver groceries to them or have one of the volunteers stop by. It’s not very far to any of the homes here in Arthur,” Gorwill says.

Just ahead of a grocery store’s importance to the survival of a small town is the school. “It’s a fight, but we have a very good school system,” Jageler says. “Our school is actually growing, we have more than 100 students; some come from 50 miles to attend school at Arthur.”

Four teachers handle four classes of grade school students: kindergarten, first and second grade, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth. Junior high is combined with high school, and there are 10 teachers. “With a grocery store and a school, we have everything we need. Everybody enjoys their life in Arthur. There’s never any trouble here. Everybody is terrific. We work hard to keep our community alive. If something needs done, it’s taken care of by somebody,” Jageler says.

“The lack of access to grocery stores in many rural areas is striking,” researcher Jon Bailey wrote in a 2010 report published by the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs. “More than 400 counties in the United States, including many in Nebraska, are classified as ‘food deserts,’ meaning that all residents live more than 10 miles away, often much farther, from a full-service grocery store. The real-life consequences of living in a ‘food desert’ are less access to a full range of healthy foods, less healthy eating, and less healthy people. The long-term consequences of less healthy individuals, families and communities are, of course, substantial. You know, grocery owners can play an awesome role in their communities.”

Folks in Arthur, and in the surrounding area, feel fortunate to have a grocery store.

“We have been without, and it’s much more convenient to have a grocery store. Of course, this requires lots of cooperation. We are doing everything we know how to keep the Wolf Den Market going. It’s a not-for-profit grocery, but a service to the citizens, the ranchers, and everybody in Arthur County,” Wilson says.    

— Frank J. Buchman 

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