Column: neighborhood grocery store were treasures (or, how Limburger cheese nearly killed my neighbors)

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By Rick “Harv” Giese

One of the precious relics of Stevens Point’s forgotten history is the neighborhood grocery store.

There were a myriad of family-owned and operated stores that were convenient, within easy walking distance, and a life-saver when you were having hot dogs and discovered you were out of ketchup.

I grew up on Prairie Street. Our home was next door to my paternal grandparents and only two blocks away was Weltman’s Grocery Store. The store was just two rooms (the main floor and the stock room) and it was attached to the family residence. It sported a single, short central aisle and the rest of the canned and dry goods lined two of the walls. At the back was a small meat counter and beside it the treasure chest, that held the ice cream bars, Drumsticks, Fudgesicles , Popsicles and other frozen treats you could purchase with your quarter allowance and still have change in your pocket.

Business was based on trust. If you lived in the ‘hood or they knew you, you could qualify for an account and charge your grocery items. Everything was written down on one of those carbon copy pads where the white copy on top was the original and the yellow copy underneath became the carbon copy receipt to remind you what you owed.

My grandfather’s brother lived with him and my grandmother. Grandpa, his brother, and my dad all worked at Vetter Manufacturing, just across the block from Prairie, on Wood Street. Dad’s uncle would make regular trips to Weltman’s.

He was ahead of his time for he always went armed with a cloth, khaki colored shopping bag that had a faded blue stripe down the side. He’d walk slowly home from the store carrying his distended shopping bag that more often than not contained the same three items: two quart bottles of Point Beer and a brick of Limburger cheese, wrapped carefully in white butcher’s wrap.

Returned home, he’d retreat to his bench on the back porch where he’d break out a quart of Point. From the brick Limburger cheese he’d carve mouth-sized morsels with his pocketknife.

Now Limburger cheese has to be an acquired taste, although God only knows how you survive the odor. When he sat on the bench eating cheese and drinking beer, it became a “no fly” zone. You could literally see flies drop out the air and succumb to the smell of the cheese. What was even worse was when my grand-uncle inevitably had to pass gas, because then you could actually witness the “domino effect”.

Down-wind residents of one house after another closed their doors and windows in synchronization. Much later when they emerged from their fallout shelters they asked, “What on earth was that odor that swept through the neighborhood?”

I’d just try to look angelic and reply, “I think it’s the paper mill.” Secretly, I never forgave Weltman’s for being the source of my grand-uncle’s culinary delight, mixing beer and Limburger cheese. His one saving grace was that he played the zither and mouth organ (harmonica) although not at the same time, and never while consuming his beer and Limburger.

But, I digress from the topic of record, the neighborhood grocery. Those of you who remember them can probably relate, if I confine myself to the one I grew up so close to.

Mrs. Weltman, the owner, a small, frail woman was probably in her late seventies or eighties, although she looked much older. She wore her white hair in a bun framed by her silver wire rimmed spectacles. When not serving customers she busied herself with a broom, keeping the inside floor immaculate. Outside she would wage war, armed with her broom, on the ants whose anthills that populated in the cracks in the side walk.

She lived beside the store with her daughter, Marian, who was a school teacher. Outside her time teaching, Marian frequently stepped in to help her mother. Also living with Mrs. Weltman was her son, Jake, who had his own recycling business picking up scrap metal, rags, and newspapers, and selling them.

Jake hardly ever worked in the store. When he wasn’t seen patrolling the streets in his old truck on the hunt for discarded metal, you might see him walking, uptown, downtown, or past the house. He lived frugally and always sported a crop of facial hair that never quite made it to beard status. As unassuming as he might have appeared, he was one of the wisest citizens of our fair city.

As young as I was, I always liked to engage him in conversation, for even then I respected his wisdom. I think he should have been nominated for recognition as Stevens Point’s resident official poet/philosopher.

Looking back, I really miss the summer trips to Weltman’s Grocery to cool off with the purchase of an orange or root beer Popsicle or to watch the kindly Mrs. Weltman scoop more ice cream into a ten-cent cone than you could ever dream of.

If you didn’t work your tongue fast enough it would melt and roll down your arm all the way to your elbow. I currently own and live in the house my grandparents and grand-uncle lived in.

On those murderous hot and humid dog days of summer I think I can still catch an old, lingering, ghostly scent of Limburger cheese.

…or maybe it’s just the paper mill.

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