GAYS MILLS - It was 1946. That was the year my Dad, Ryland Gibbs, bought the IGA (Independent Grocers’ Association) store in Gays Mills.
Dad had attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison for three years as a business major. He then joined the Army Air Force and served most of his hitch at Truax Field in Madison.
Eventually, he was sent to Europe and got to England just in time for V-E Day. Then, he was on a ship headed for the Pacific Theater when Japan surrendered. I used to tell him that they heard he was coming and decided to put up the white flag.
He was mustered out of the service in California after the war and was anxious to get into some kind of business back in Wisconsin. He looked at a store in Readstown and heard, on the way back to Barnum, that the Gays Mills store was for sale. And, very soon, he was the proprietor of Gibbs IGA.
There were two grocery stores in Gays Mills at the time, the IGA and Haggerty’s. The town was enjoying some kind of an economic and cultural peak at the time and offered a bustling market-town atmosphere to residents from a wide area.
When people went to town, they could find most of what they needed right in Gays Mills: groceries, a drug store, doctors, used cars, farm machinery, lumber and hardware, appliances, a locker plant, clothing, restaurants, taverns and a movie theater. Especially on weekends, it was hard to find a place to park in our picturesque river town.
The picture above shows Dad at the cash register helping two housewives check out with their purchases. Sheeny Halverson, the meat man, watches. The store looks pretty simple by today’s standards. Plain shelves stocked with the basics, a meat locker and counter toward the back, one place to check out. But it was a hub of activity, as Dad strove to attract and serve his customers. His slogan was ‘Gather at Gibbs’ and Dad was a busy man.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the store. It was only two blocks from home and I wasn’t old enough to be in school, so I gravitated to Gibbs IGA. Dad involved me as much as he could. I clearly remember him showing me how to take potatoes from a 50- or 100-pound burlap bag and put them into paper sacks “up to this level,” making a mark on the paper.
I got to sprinkle the sweeping compound on the floor sometimes. I can still see and smell that magic pink, oily-damp, material as it went onto the floor. And, I can see screen door with the Sunbeam Bread logo on it as you entered the store.
The store seemed much bigger to me at the time than it appears in the photo, but I was much smaller then. There was always a rush on Friday and Saturday nights when the ‘show’ got out, across the street at the Kickapoo Theater. Dad stayed open until that rush was over and the store really buzzed with people.
Of course, the store was closed on Sundays, so people were stocking up as long as they were in town.
Dad sold the store to Herb Watson in 1951. We moved to California, where Dad bought a variety store; he still had that entrepreneurial bent. Watson ran the Watson’s IGA for several years and then sold it to Carl Zimpel. In the meantime the location of the store had changed to a bigger and more modern location across the street, where the International Harvester dealer had been located. Sherman Mickelson bought the store from Zimpel and, after the flood of 2008, relocated the store to its new site, high and dry, north of town.
I feel an affinity to The Marketplace, the establishment that Mickelson’s Market and Meats evolved into after the move.That store and I go way back.