A store that was more than a business

Sep 17, 2017 By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

As a little kid I walked the aisles of Safeway with my Grandma Gasser. She could still walk in those days, and to say she was a discriminating shopper would be a gross understatement.

She was the best cook I will ever know, and part of that culinary excellence came from her careful selection of produce, meat and packaged goods.

Years later, debilitating arthritis put her in a wheelchair but my long suffering grandfather took the reins and shopped for her at Safeway.

He did an admirable job of finding the same items my grandmother did, but on occasion he received a stern lecture when the items didn't match her carefully-prepared shopping list.

Jump ahead a generation or two. Wife Sue and I often took a Red Flyer wagon with Staci riding inside and Brian alongside us on his little bicycle on trips to the same franchise.

The stores were different, but the trademarks, produce and dairy products were the same.

Safeway has a long history that is intricately intertwined with the city of Riverton.

My mom related to me stories of shopping at Safeway with my grandmother in the years before World War II.

The store was located south of Main Street in Riverton in those days, in the building that now houses a children's science museum.

On my watch the store was in the present site of Ace Hardware and later just a few yards north in the present Rocky Mountain Sports site before moving west to its present location.

In those days there seemed to be multitudes of grocery stores in our fair city and in the adjoining countryside.

My mom and dad used to sell eggs and cream to the Pay and Save on North Broadway, with Hartman's Sporting Goods next door.

The Moss family owned that store along with a couple of others in town. Ben's Grocery (two stores in Riverton) and Mr. D's competed with Safeway for the grocery market in the rapidly growing, vibrant Riverton economy of the 1960s and 1970s. (Long-timers tell me of the little Home Grocery store near the old Riverton High School as well.)

If you traveled a few miles out of town, there were stores in Shoshoni, Hudson, Morton and Burris, along with the Missouri Valley Store, the Midvale Store, the Kinnear Store, Gardner's Market, the Basketeria in Pavillion, and the Crowheart Store.

There were a lot of choices back in the day, and each one held a special charm to the local clientele.

There was an orchard where the present-day Safeway is located when I was a youngster.The 40 or so acres of apple trees owned by the Schmidt family were razed, and Safeway and the original Kmart store rose to prominence on the property.

That link with our past is about to leave us forever. No, there won't be any ceremonies, there won't be any dignitaries making speeches, no public fond farewells.

The franchise that has been an anchor to the community for almost 80 years will close and move into the ethereal realm of our collective memory.

Why? You may ask.The answer is simple. Some MBA in a corporate office who has never been to the Valley of the Wind River looked at a spreadsheet and decided the profit margin just wasn't high enough to keep the store open.

This person never shopped with his grandmother in the aisles of the old store.

This person never had his grandpa put a nickel in the electric pony by the entrance for his grandson to take an imaginary ride on Roy Rogers's Trigger.

Most likely he has never even been to a community our size. He simply looked at the bottom line, took a pencil and scratched out the Riverton store, and, in his indifference, drove another nail into the coffin of a link to an Americana that is struggling across the heartland of the nation.

As a young man I taught history and coached football, basketball, track and baseball in Lusk, Wyoming.

Lusk knows the heartache of a declining community better than we do. It didn't take much for the people of the largest city in Niobrara County to see what the effects store closures have on a small community.

The small nearby towns of western Nebraska and Northeast Colorado are testament to the demise of America's heartland.

Take a walk in Henry, Nebraska, or in Eaton, Colorado, or in Igloo, South Dakota. The theoretical takes a literal tone in the boarded-up store fronts, decrepit bank buildings and decaying structures that just a generation or two ago were vibrant, integral parts of their community.

Things aren't that bad here, but the empty Kmart building (the second one Kmart built and abandoned) is slowly decaying into an eyesore. The same fate awaits Safeway and the adjoining businesses all the way north to Riverton's city offices (which occupy the first Kmart).

We deserve better than this.The store's customers deserve better. The depressed employees of Safeway deserve better.

When the store closes its doors for the final time in a few weeks, a little part of all of us dies. We can continue to run on memories for only so long. A bit of the fate of us all rides in that final purchase made at a soon-to-be-defunct checkout stand. When the past dies, the future goes with it.

Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.

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