By Gary Graupner
Above, Newport, WA circa 1910. Photo courtesy of the Graupner Family Archives.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, I felt I was really lucky. After all, how many kids have a grandfather who owns a grocery store? Growing up in Spokane, and being on a pretty short leash as to where I could go and the distances involved, we never felt as free as we did when we went to Newport, where my grandfather, George Graupner owned Graupner’s Market on the main street of town. Also, their house was but a few blocks away, and Newport was small enough that us kids could walk most anywhere to buy candy, comic books, and just see the sights. The only things that were off-limits were the Pend Oreille River, and the railroad yards. Sometimes we went to these places anyhow, and nothing bad ever happened. Had we been caught – that would have been a different story.
When we would walk down to the store, grandpa was always good for at least an ice cream bar. He sold the 1880 Ice Cream Bar, and he used to laugh and tell us those were the best because that was the year he was born! Sometimes he would make us earn it by having us go around the store and sweep with the wide broom, which we thought was a real treat. Being a grandpa now myself, I know that it’s hard to turn grandkids down for anything though.
Even though we were about seven years old, we remember that above the counter in the butcher shop section of the store, he had an old yellowed and worn looking sign. We thought it was funny and were too small to understand the meaning of it. That sign said, “Be A Wise Duck… Take Care Of Your Bill.”
Many years later, after his death, I came to appreciate the meaning, and also appreciate grandpa for more than just a nice old guy who gave us candy.
George Graupner was born in Lexington, Missouri, on a big family farm. He was the oldest of the boys. When he was three, he almost died, having been kicked in the face by a horse. His jaw was broken and when it healed he had a crooked smile for the rest of his life.
When he was about twenty, he decided that farming was not for him. Older sister Emma and her husband Frank Vawter had gone west to a little frontier town in Washington named Newport. When George got there, by wagon, there was no railroad in town, so you either came by wagon or by steamboat up the Pend Orielle and other rivers. He stayed with the Vawters until he got ahead enough to have his own room to rent.
Newport was growing fast, with lumber, mining, and homesteaders, and George worked for a while in the woods, at lumber mills, and even worked in Alberta for a while during harvest seasons with a threshing crew. Then he decided to go into business with Vawter, and then later on with Dave Caldwell and Earl Cooper. Eventually he ended up opening Graupner’s Meat Market. Growing up on a farm, he knew about meat cutting and so that was a good trade for him. He also gradually expanded to groceries as well.
Somewhere around 1906 he met a beautiful lady named Ruby Phillips, who was the daughter of Fred and Alice Phillips. Fred was the town barber. Ruby and George dated and then married in 1907. In 1909, a little boy, Evan Graupner was born to the happy young couple, but tragedy stepped in when Ruby died of complications of childbirth two days later. George was left with a little boy and blamed himself for her death. In those days, there was no Social Security, and life insurance was almost a rich persons luxury, so he was left in the lurch, emotionally shattered with a baby to raise and a business to run six days a week.
Ruby’s parents were also terribly distraught, since they had lost their older daughter Zola to a lung disorder only a few months before Ruby.
George moved in with them and Alice helped with the baby. Unfortunately, tragedy was not done yet, and Fred Phillips died of a heart attack only a year or so after Ruby. Alice Phillips had lost two beautiful young daughters, and her husband within about three years. Somehow she survived and was able to raise her young son Lyle and daughter Maizie.
George had a sister named Ernestine in Missouri who moved west to keep house for George and Evan, and she eventually met a fellow named Charlie Straight, whom she married, and then she raised her own family in Newport.
As the owner of a store, George knew everyone in town, and eventually met a young Swiss lady named Nadine Stahly. She had come to this country in 1903 with her parents and siblings, and they had settled in Arden up near Colville, and she got a job working at the Northern Hotel in housekeeping. Her brother was working at the lumber mill in Newport, so she moved in to keep house for him, and met George when she went to shop for groceries. He treated her special care and carried her groceries home for her often. George and Nadine had three other children: Gladys, Gordon and Roy, who was my father.
Although times were never really that good, they were about to get much worse. In 1929, the Stock Market crashed and as a result of this, Newport was hit hard when the mines and the mills closed. Most people had little if any real savings and if they had investments, most of those were wiped out too. Credit cards were unheard of, and so most people had one thing that they could count on and that was their reputation. People used to consider a handshake a contract, and most people had pride in their reputation and word. If a man broke his word, especially in a small town such as Newport, everyone soon knew, and shunned him when it came to doing business.
In the days before credit cards and steady jobs, many people were able to survive by having informal credit arrangements with businesses, such as the meat market. George extended credit to people so they could get meat and groceries at times when they may not have the cash, such as during a layoff or before a farmer got his crop sold.
During the Depression, merchants like George often gave away a lot of food to families without and to transients riding the rails in search of jobs.
Grandma told of a man who asked for some food and George told him he could not give anymore away, and so the guy said he would just take it. Grandpa saw him heading to the door with it and threw a cleaver into the casing near the wall. The guy dropped the food and fled.
Grandma said that things were so bad at one point that many businesses in town simply closed, and that grandpa had to call on people to pay anything they could toward their account so he could raise enough to order for the store from the grocery wholesaler in Spokane. Sometimes he would barter for things, like a side of beef or a hog, or a load of wood for the stove. She said it was not uncommon for people to trade goods and services to survive, but of course that cut down on the amount of taxes that were raised, further undermining the governments abilities to provide things.
The store survived those years, and Roy and Gordon served in World War II and both came home in one piece. It wasn’t until after the war that real prosperity came to most people. Even today, people who grew up in these times are more frugal. You can take the man out of the Depression, but you can’t take the Depression out of the man.
Overall, very few people failed to pay their accounts to George, due to decency and pride. Even many years later some were still paying grandpa for the credit he gave.
As a boy, that sign above the butcher counter was funny to me but never hit home until years later after grandpa died. He died with his boots on, putting on his butchers apron one summer day in 1961 at age 80. He was ready to go to work cutting meat at the store, like he did six days a week for the last fifty years, and died of a heart attack.
His son Gordon who worked with him caught him as he fell. Gordon ran the store until 1976 when he passed and it was then that the store was closed for good. When I saw that sign up there all yellowed and faded, I wondered how long it had been there. No one really knew, and everyone said it was probably there since the years he first started out, maybe as early as World War I.
I am glad I took it down and kept it, because it is a reminder of how things were once, in a lot tougher world, and how people rose to the occasion, and were tougher yet. The advice on that old sign is timeless and if we follow it, we will be much better off in life. “Be A Wise Duck…Take Care Of Your Bill!”