Cooperative Grocery Store Helps Keep Cowtown County Seat Of Nebraska’s Least Populated County Alive


By Frank J. Buchman

It’s a long ways from anywhere to this cowtown.

Most people take for granted they can just jump in the car and go get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk at the supermarket. Or, even get them at the little convenience store on the corner, when the family runs out of these necessities, let alone a cart full of groceries for the next several days.

Folks at Arthur, Nebraska, and many miles around the ranching town don’t assume they can do that.

Actually, the 117 residents  are 40 miles from another community. And, the 460 people in the county, mostly ranchers, likewise depend on Arthur, the only town and county seat of Arthur County, the least populated county in Nebraska, for commodity essentials.

So, when their small grocery store shut the doors two decades ago, it created a hardship on many.

Further complicating and adding to the burden is that median age in the county is 53 years. About one third of Arthur’s population is senior citizens, many who can’t drive, or only want to commute very locally.

Arthur, Nebraska, has no river, no bridge, no railroad. Highway 61 goes straight north to Hyannis 43 minutes, and straight south 53 minutes to Ogallala. And, it’s 53 minutes on Highway 92 east to Tryon, which is even smaller than Arthur.

There’s no major highways to the west, just prairie sand roads in mixed-grass prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes very  sparsely populated by cattle, sometimes a well windmill, largely the only water source, and just occasionally prairie dogs and antelope.

Waterholes are virtually nonexistent in Arthur County, although some sources indicate it has three square miles of water, out of 718 square miles in the county, but that much water is sure not easy to find.

Notably nearby in neighboring Keith County to the south is Lake McConaughy, actually about 25 miles south of Arthur , and Nebraska’s biggest lake, and the largest reservoir in a four- state region.

No question, Arthur is still a cowtown, with everybody there frontier people in a certain sense of the word. They  know what it is to travel to get their work done, whether in a ranch pickup truck, or on the back of a Quarter Horse, still a common mode of transportation for ranchers.

The mailman does have a regular schedule, with deliveries on a distant route. But, boxes in the Arthur Post Office, many people in the county are happy to have, is where those from distant fringes come to get their mail, sometimes just once a week, or less frequent, depending on what’s happening at the ranch.

Still an hour-and-a-half, or more likely two hours-plus, just to get ranch family staples is an obligation that got old pretty readily, and it wasn’t just a few that felt the inconvenience.

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

High school business students took on the project to start a grocery store, and through a combination of efforts, the Wolf Den Market opened in November 2000, according to Ron Jageler, an Arthur resident since the early ’70s, and owner of  Sandhills Garage, automotive repair there.

“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,”  remembered 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 explained. “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, as a nod to its roots with Arthur High School, whose team mascot is a wolf.

The store’s outfront sign’s directional arrow underlines “All Your Grocery Needs.”

An old home that was setting idle in the community 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 through generosity purchased for the grocery store.

Of course, groceries have to be acquired, and that wasn’t too easy. “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,” explained 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,” related Gorwill, who credited volunteers for assisting in stocking shelves.

There are a couple of part time grocery store employees including Tracy Bowlin and Sally Monahan. Other volunteers often step in to help when the need arises.

Wolf Den Market opens at 7:15, six days a week, then closes at 5 o’clock, except on Saturday, at 2 o’clock. It’s closed on Sunday.

“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 related.

While convenience is important, Wolf Den Market has far more than just bread and milk.

“We have a very good selection of food items, Shurfine-brand canned goods, and we do have some fresh fruit and vegetables,” Gorwill described. “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.”

Some grocery-store things really aren’t groceries, but customers often relate them that way. Wolf Den Market offers selections of laundry soap, other homecare products, some pharmaceuticals and a generous assortment of personal hygiene items.

Convenience stores in cities are typically notably higher priced than grocery stores and super markets, not so at Wolf Den in Arthur, Nebraska.

“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 calculated.

Wolf Den Market community cooperative grocery store was opened as a convenience for Arthur townspeople, and ranchers from all directions. Thus, there is regular clientele from considerable distance, because they appreciate it, and again because it is just a long ways to anywhere.

One regular patron is Doris Wilson, wife of rancher Duane Wilson, and a Wolf Den board member. “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 said.

Another rancher lives 12 miles from Arthur, and is still 50 miles from Ogallala, thus his wife finds “it’s just a lot more convenient, and we can get most of the things that we need at Wolf Den.”

One satisfied Wolf Den customer said, “It’s 70 miles to Ogallala and 30 miles here. Besides, I have to come 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.”

“If a customer wants a special order, I will try to get other people interested in the product to help make the purchase worthwhile, and even then keep it on hand on a regular basis sometimes,” Gorwill said.

Population of Arthur is similar to many small towns with 61 households, but nearly one-fourth of them have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. Actually almost 30 percent of Arthur’s residents are 65 and older.

There is an even more 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 noted.

Small in yet another category, Arthur County was governed through the smallest court house in the United States. Built in 1915, the Arthur County Courthouse and Jail complex is now maintained by the Arthur County Historical Society, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, a considerably larger, attractively-designed structure serves as the Arthur County Courthouse in Arthur, Nebraska.

“Also in the National Register of Historic Places is the Pilgrim Holiness Church built in 1928 out of straw bales in response to the region’s dearth of trees, or construction sod,”
Jageler said.

Located about a mile southwest of Arthur’s central business district is the unpaved Arthur Municipal Airport which handles about five operations per year, Jageler related.

“Thank goodness for our Post Office,” Gorwill repeated. “We’re also fortunate to have a Fire Department and EMT services, although health care is often a dilemma.

“There’s the town bar, which is a meeting place for people, provides meals for many of our senior citizens; the best place to buy a hamburger,” Gorwill related. “We have a feed store, a well repair and service business which is extremely important because wells supply water for livestock survival, and a hat shop, which is really unique.

“We had a gasoline station, but it closed its doors; we hope another one will open,” Gorwill said.

Plus, there’s veterinary services, a swimming pool, tennis courts, fairgrounds and the rodeo arena. “Everybody looks forward to the Arthur County Fair and Rodeo. It’s a Sandhills Tour sanctioned rodeo generally the second weekend of August with evening performances in Arthur,” Wilson commented

“Nothing happens in a big hurry in Arthur. We have the neatest little houses; little houses that don’t come up for sale in Arthur. It’s definitely a family-oriented community,” Gorwill analyzed.

And, the cowtown’s population is increasing. “Oh yeh. Our population went up last year; only four, but that’s better than down,” Jageler inserted.

Right before a grocery store’s importance to survival of a small towns is the school. “It’s a fight, but we have a very good school system,” Jageler reiterated. “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 ten teachers.

“We also have satellite teachers to further enhance our educational system,” noted Wilson. “Our ranch is where my husband’s father was raised. My husband’s the third generation, and our children are the fourth generation on the ranch. We’re an Arthur, Nebraska, ranch family.”

Every citizen and all the ranchers in the county and beyond are important to Arthur, Nebraska, but the king’s crown likely goes to Al Knott, age 100.

“He’s lived here all of  his life, I guess. Al still drives to the store and visits people around town. Everybody just loves Al. His mind is good, and he’s a very generous man for the community of Arthur,” Wilson credited.

“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 assured.

“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,” Bailey said.

“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,” Bailey stated. “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.”

Other Nebraska communities have responded to being without grocery convenience, too.

The Nebraska Cooperative Development Center (NCDC) has been involved in development projects across Nebraska focused on the conversion or start-up of community-owned stores in rural towns.

“Many of these projects are helping to maintain an essential service for the community, or to re-establish a service that the community has lost,” said Jim Crandall, NCDC official.

Students at Cody-Kilgore, Nebraska, High School, with assistance from the Center for Rural Affairs, began research two years ago about the business development processes of a cooperatively-owned grocery store in Cody.

“Plans are plan is to create a community-owned grocery store utilizing a formal agreement with the high school allowing them to use the store as a learning laboratory,” Bailey said.

Cody, Nebraska, received a grant to build a straw bale building to house the grocery store.

After the owners of the Harrison, Nebraska, grocery store transitioned out of ownership and no one seemed interested in purchasing the store, NCDC, in conjunction with the local Extension office, assisted with facilitating a community meeting of more than 50 Harrison residents.

“A concerned group of citizens looked at community ownership options, but ultimately their activity stirred the needed interest in the store leading a local family into buying and running the store,” Crandall said.

When the only grocery store in Potter, Nebraska, closed in February 2011, community leaders contacted NCDC for assistance in forming a steering committee to study community ownership of the store.

“Current plans are to own and operate the store as a community-owned facility, along with partnering with a neighboring town grocery who will act as a grocery supplier,” Crandall said..

Since the town of Mitchell, Nebraska, lost its grocery store, a number of residents have missed the convenience of a local store, as well as felt the negative impact an empty, downtown storefront has on the community.

“NCDC has become involved in the planning process to help. A group of community members are envisioning the development of several opportunities including: a grocery store, an artisan co-op retail location, a business incubator and a student entrepreneurial center. The immediate focus of the committee is the re-establishment of the grocery store as the anchor for the other three endeavors,” according to Crandall.

When the only grocery store in Elwood, Nebraska, closed in January of 2012, community leaders quickly responded, organizing a community meeting to consider opening a cooperatively owned grocery store.  Crandall is assisting their endeavors to get the store opened again.

“The problem extends into neighboring states of America’s bread basket. Of 215 Kansas grocery stores in towns with 2,500 residents or less, 82 have closed in the last five years,” according to  David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

“But, the implications of dying rural grocery stores go far beyond those stores’ balance sheets. Plenty of threats plague the rural grocery,” Procter contended.

“The loss of a grocery store in a rural community can be a devastating blow, especially when it is the only, or at least major, source of local groceries. Not only do people then have to travel farther and expend more time and money to get their groceries, but it can also be a serious blow to community pride and makes it harder to attract new residents and businesses,” Crandall insisted.

All at, and a long ways around, Arthur, Nebraska, feel fortunate to have a grocery store, and the townsfolk and ranchers certainly do appreciate it as verified by continued patronage

“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 concluded.


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