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About Us

Our Owners Dave and Becky Wilke
   
Our History

5 Generations of Grocers

An electronic eye guard the glass doors, opening them with a swish when someone comes near. Inside you can buy a frozen chunk of food to zap with a microwave and call it dinner. There are fresh strawberries to be plucked from plastic containers - even in the middle of winter.

If Fred Wilke were alive today, he'd find precious few similarities between Elkader's only grocery store and the little shop he ran in 1867 in the nearby town of Clayton Center.

But Fred, an 1863 immigrant from Westphalia, Germany and the Wilkes who are selling produce, meats and staples in Elkader have a lot in common.

Dave, of Elkader, is the fifth generation of Wilkes to help supply food for the consumers of Clayton County. One hundred and forty-two years after Fred Wilke opened his store, the Wilkes claim to have Iowa's oldest family-owned grocery business, a boast the Iowa Grocery Industry Association and Food Marketing Institute will back up.

From what Dave's father, Tom, has been able to piece together, his great-grandfather Fred bought land in Clayton Center on Feb 10, 1866, and opened a tailor's shop. When the town's general store burned down, probably in 1867, Fred added groceries and general merchandise to his own shelves.

Fred's brother Henry also opened a store called Gossman and Wilke's in Elkader in 1868. Henry's son Gus came into the business but later operated the Elkader Opera House where he had been the orchestra's only trombone player.

Family histories have a way of digressing into anecdotes about a great-uncle who played the trombone, or a grandfather (on Tom's mother's side) who was a butcher, or a spouse (Tom's wife MaryJo) who comes from a grocer's family, or Becky's (Dave's wife) maternal grandparents who ran a grocery store in Germany.

But the Wilke's family tradition progresses in a direct line from 1867 to present.

Fred's son, also named Henry, bought a St. Olaf store in 1901, where he worked until 1923 when it was sold to his son, Elmer "Dutch" Wilke.

Dutch and his family, including Tom, lived in an apartment over the St. Olaf store. Tom and his brother Warren attended Monona High School and "we kept pestering Dad to go into business in Monona" Tom says. In 1947, Dutch took their advice and moved the business there.

Warren helped Dutch run the store for a few years, and after Tom had taught school for five years, he returned to Monona in 1957 to become a grocer. In 1961, Tom and Warren purchased a grocery store in Elkader. Warren later left the business. Dutch died in 1971.

Times have changed. Tom remembers smacking blocks of chocolate with a hammer, breaking it into pieces for sale and cutting chewing tobacco from a long strip. Cookies and candies were sold in bulk from glass cases. Burlap-wrapped branches of bananas, hoisted high with a block and tackle, were lowered when customers wanted to buy the fruit.

Fifty-pound sacks of flour were stored in a tin-lined warehouse next door. The sacks were used later for dresses.

"Saturday night," Tom recalls, "used to be the big night in St. Olaf. Farmers would bring their eggs to town and we'd candle (check for freshness) them right there in the store."

The new Elkader store, which opened in 1982, provided the chance for the fifth generation connection in the Wilkes' family business. Dave took over the store in that year.