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 fifty one 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.