Kraft Brothers Store Razed, but Memories Endure

Kraft, Bill. "Kraft Brothers Store Razed, but Memories Endure." Emmons County Record, 30 July 2009, 1, 3-4.

This photo was taken around the mid 1920’s inside the Kraft Brothers Store, showing the variety of goods available for purchase.These men are, left to right, Ray Volk, Joseph Kraft and Pius Kraft.

The recent razing of what was Kraft Brothers Store for half a century on Main Street in Strasburg marked the end of an era. The building on the south side of Main Street was a landmark in this small community of German Russians. Its demise takes with it a part of history worthy of preserving for posterity, for if we do not write, then future generations will not know who we were. Part of Strasburg itself was rooted in a business that served the community for almost three generations.

The original building, operated by Balzar Wald, served as an opera house for a number of years before Joseph Kraft, Ray Volk and C.J. Vandervorst bought the building from Mr. Wald and converted it into a store in 1920. In 1920 Pius Kraft bought into the partnership, replaced Mr. Vandervorst, and assumed ownership with his brother Joseph Kraft and Ray Volk, who left the partnership in 1935. Agatha Keller, who had served as clerk for many years, entered the partnership shortly after Joseph Kraft’s death in 1960, and Kraft Brothers Store then became known as Kraft and Keller. The business thrived until 1970 when advancing age forced the owners into retirement.

For several years the general store offered hardware, dry goods and groceries along with personal items like toiletries and over-the-counter medications. When the line of hardware goods was phased out, Kraft Brothers became the general store that locals came to know for decades to come.

The store, so much a part of the Pius and Joseph Kraft families, remains dear in the memories of the Kraft children. Its ambiance still kindles fond memories. George Kraft recalls "mounting the steps and passing through the front door into a magic world of exotic and mysterious smells and colors. There was a wooden barrel of ripe black olives in brine; halvah, a delicacy of crushed sesame seeds in silver foil, fresh peaches in season, shiny glass bottles of Gold Cross ruby-colored nectar, bolts of flowery printed cloth, leathery shoes and the aroma of "Krist Kindle," candy mixed with the fragrance of balsam and fir trees. I spent much of my boyhood in this mini-world. I never grew tired of going there and never got bored. The store is part of me forever."

Pius Kraft and Agatha Keller owned and operated the Kraft Store in Strasburg in 1960. Agatha entered the partnership with Pius when Joseph Kraft died.

Sister Katherine (Frances) Kraft shares a similar fondness for the candy counter where she watched children "studying the candy counter longingly, figuring out how much all the candy cost. Candy was arranged in order of cost from penny candy to nickel to dime candy bars. Seven-up, Almond Joy, Mounds and Mars were all 10 cents and out of reach. There was gum: Doublemint, Spearmint, Juicy Fruit, Dentyne, Black Jack, and Yucatan in a yellow and pink wrapper. Next to the candy and gum were the cough drops: Smith Brothers, Vicks, and Ludens lozenges. Odors and sundry items also left a lingering memory. The smell of oiled wood floor, the neat way canned goods were arranged on the shelves, the small fruit pies the Sweetheart Bread man brought, the bolts of colored percale and the material women bought for bedding, aprons and dresses, the old adding machine with ticker-tape and large handles, the cone-shaped spools of white string with which to wrap cheese and luncheon meats. Dad was particularly adept at wrapping things with white 'store paper.'" Geraldine Kraft also had a special liking for the halvah and the Goteborg sausage. "Still my favorite cold cut."

Pius Kraft, Jr. and George still remember the old radio that rested on the shelf on the store’s west side. An orange light on the dial directed them to radio favorites like The Jack Benny Show and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, which managed to filter through the static on nights favorable to peak broadcasting conditions. That short wave radio was good enough to deliver even the most distant of sounds. George recalls the night that a maniacal Adolf Hitler rant, "Vass the Deifel," rang out onto their startled ears. In the local vernacular, "Vass the Deifel" translates into "What the devil!"

Part of the store became a haven for Bob Kraft, who warmly recalls "the back room." "That was the storage room, stacked high with pasteboard boxes of toilet paper, blankets and wooden crates of produce. Those boxes could be shoved and stacked to make little private nooks. In those nooks there could be serious talks about girls, serious sunflower seed chewing, and hilarious anecdotes about townsfolk. Just outside was the back alley where burning refuse, before the days of garbage pick-up service, ignited our imagination. All sorts of hell and damnation could be played out. 'Here! This is Hitler’s house going up in flames.'"

The Kraft Brothers Store, shown here in the middle with the side facing the camera, used to be an opera house, but in 1920 Joseph Kraft, Ray Volk and C.J. Vandervorst bought the building and converted it into a store.

The back room was also the place where we carried out some of our assigned duties when helping out at the store. When fresh eggs arrived from the local farmers, we had to candle them to sort out the good ones from the bad ones. Bob still remembers what he did with some of the bad ones. "But what does one do with cracked or unacceptable eggs? Those eggs had to be flung somewhere with all those Kraft baseball-arms. The best place was the wall of the neighboring building, Mattern’s Blue Room. What was a greater rush than the sound and vision of a splattering egg on stucco?" The back room also became a place for games. According to George, "This same back room was our favorite place for playing hide and seek among the stacks of cardboard boxes. Another favorite sport was teasing the cellar cats by dangling a wiener on the end of store string down the cellar steps until they gave up or got tired."

Some of us were also assigned duties apart from egg candling in the back room. Al Kraft says, "I started working at the store as soon as I was strong enough to push a broom. Later my chores mushroomed with it from sweeping the floor to filling the vinegar jars, and lugging and delivering groceries. In the winter, my job included stoking the furnace, cleaning the basement, and carrying out the furnace’s ashes. As a teenager I also waited on customers and took inventory." Another of Al’s chores had its own reward when he cleaned the furnace each fall and "was required to clean the area round the plenum. The plenum was cone-shaped so anything that dropped through the gate would roll down to the edge surrounding the area. Mixed in the debris, I would find oodles of coins and usually some bills. I got to keep all the money I found as it was considered my pay."

The store also had to be swept at week’s end, so on Sunday mornings after Mass we went to the store. There, Sister Katherine recalls "sweeping the store using large brushes to push the pungent sweeping compound across the narrow wooden floor boards." Tom Kraft also recalls performing the same chore on Sunday nights.

Over the course of years, people and events leave their mark in a very personal way.

George remembers that "Late one sultry summer afternoon while we were watching a cowboy movie in the theater across the street from the store, the screen blacked out abruptly; then the manager’s voice warned us that a storm was approaching. We ran out to see a sky of wicked yellow clouds. We rushed to the store just in time. Hail stones, some the size of golf balls, came pelting down. There were two large display windows in the front. We started moving the tables and counters back. A miracle! The hail stopped. Not a crack. We thanked God."

Pius and Joseph Kraft made an effort to connect with people on a personal basis that transcended the mere "business as usual." Joseph, a courtly and gentlemanly soul, always inquired as to the well being of customers in more than a cursory way. His "How are you today?" was more than mere etiquette. It was a sincere inquiry into the well being of his customers. Bill Kraft recalls the idiosyncratic manner in which Uncle Joe responded when Bill asked how the day was going. "Uncle Joe would always say he 'felt finer than silk.' That puzzled me for years because I always thought he said 'finer than Syl,' who was one of the townsfolk. It was only years later I realized that he was speaking figuratively. That expression, for me, became Uncle Joe’s signature. It is the way I will always remember him."

Pius served as a liaison for people not versed in English. Al observes that "The store was very special to many of the German-Russian immigrants because Dad was always there. People who couldn’t read or write English came to Dad whenever they received a letter in English, especially if it looked like it came from a government agency. They shook in their boots when they realized it was from the government. Must have been a carry-over from the 'Old Country.' Dad read their letters, explained what they meant and answered the letters." George has similar recollections in his account. "A very touching experience happened after World War II. I saw Dad reading a letter to an old woman in her babushka. She could not read. I think she was crying. The letter was in German from a relative who had been displaced to some remote area in Russia by Stalin after the war, and it was censored so that the location of the writer could not be known. From clues in the letter, Dad thought it had come from Afghanistan. He did that for others as well."

This recent picture of the Kraft Store shows how it looked in Strasburg shortly before its razing.

The store also seemed to be a hub for the locals as well as transients on their way through the area. George recalls his first encounter with an African-American. "When I was five, I went to the store one day and saw an elderly black gentleman comfortably seated on the front porch. I thought he looked a lot like the man on the Uncle Ben’s Rice package. Dad told me to shake his hand. So I did." Al also relates how he saw "a Black lady with two small boys, ages about four and five. She was one of those transients who hop the freight train because they can’t afford the train fare. They then stop at small towns hoping to land a job with some farmer. When she came to the store, she showed me a 50 cent piece and said, 'This is all the money I have. Give me as much food as it will buy.' Dad knew those kids were hungry." The first thing Dad did was give them some food. "When the boys were through eating, Dad outfitted them with new underwear, new shirts, new pants, new socks, and shoes. Next he filled the largest bag in the store with various food items, and then handed back the lady’s 50 cent piece. She was crying when she left the store. I have never forgotten that scene." Sister Katherine also remembers Pius and Joseph "putting extra treats of cookies or candy into the boxes or bags of groceries, especially for families who couldn’t afford those treats."

Other transients who happened upon the scene were Native-Americans, some of whom possibly arrived from Fort Yates across the river or on freight trains passing through town. George recollects the "summer that nomadic Indians appeared and set up their tepee down by the railroad tracks. They were 'dirt poor,' so Dad gave them food and also brought them home. The father had two young boys named Little Yellow Hammer and Rain in the Face." Geraldine remembers the time she tried to coax Little Yellow Hammer into the house with three tootsie pop suckers. "He bolted."

Of the salesmen who made the rounds in the territory, one in particular left his mark in the world of business. Harold Schafer, who went on to great fortune with his Gold Seal Company of floor wax, plied his wares at Kraft Brothers Store long before good fortune smiled upon him. George also remembers the salesman with the peculiar manner of speech. "A traveling salesman came in and engaged Dad over one of those glass counters on the west side of the store. As this salesman was making his pitch, I found myself mesmerized by his speech. I had never heard anything like it. He spoke with a heavy whistling lisp. 'I sell sssslacksss, pantsss ,sshirtsss, ssocksss, and buttonsss.' His whistled S’s hissed through the air. I don’t know if Dad placed any orders, or if he was just as fascinated as I."

Joseph and Franziska Kraft emigrated from Strasburg, Ukraine, to the U.S. in 1906, the first Krafts to enter the U.S. This Kraft family portrait was taken between 1917 and 1920. Front row, left to right, Michael Kraft, Joseph J. Kraft, Elizabeth Kraft (Mrs. Frank Scherr) and Franziska Schweitzer Kraft; back row, Joseph Kraft and Pius J. Kraft, the two brothers who owned and operated the Kraft Brothers’ Store for more than 50 years.

Kraft Brothers Store is gone now, and its passing leaves bittersweet memories for the Pius and Joseph Kraft families. Bob recalls it with fondness and a sense of loss. "Oh, to be a kid again in the back room of Kraft Brothers Store in those glory days. What is there now for kids to compare with the back room and the back alley? Video games don’t cut it." Sister Katherine shares similar sentiments. "Seeing it razed tugs at my heart and memories. It supported two families. Dad and Uncle Joe were astute businessmen and knew about 'customer service' long before that became the language of sales. Dad was smart enough to know that women would not want to buy dresses or hats in the store because everyone in town would know how much they paid for those things. He also knew the store couldn’t possibly buy a wide enough variety of dresses, blouses or hats. I think, too, that we were also the only store where over-the-counter medications could be purchased." To Dorothy Kraft, the store was unique. Its passing stings her heart. "There was nothing like it in the whole world. It breaks my heart that it is going away."

For George the store was a special place, too. "In its time, Kraft Brothers Store provided a complete mini-mall before malls existed. It was not just a store; it was a place to socialize and to get solid advice from men who understood their people. More than that, it stood as a tribute and a symbol. Dad and Uncle Joe were a part of those pioneers who built the town from the beginning. That store was a symbol of the spirit of those pioneers. They were descendants of those people who in the 1800’s courageously left their homelands in Europe to tame the wild steppes of Russia and a hundred years later had the foresight and courage to tame and civilize the virgin soils of America. Their courage, perseverance and unshakable faith in God made this part of America a fruitful paradise. That an old building, once known as Kraft Brothers Store, would one day be no more is a part of the human story. But as it stood, even in its sad state, it was a tribute to and reminder of those men and women, our ancestors, who made our country great."

Persons cited are Bill, George, Alexander, Pius Jr., Geraldine, and Sister Katherine of the Pius Kraft family and Bob, Tom, and Dorothy Kraft of the Joseph Kraft family.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller