At 33, Jim Pessek of Stewart, Minn., is barely old enough to remember a Red Owl supermarket.
But Pessek recalls that, in 1990, the Red Owl Agency stood as the only grocery store remaining in his small city of about 600 residents. In fact, it was one of only seven Red Owls left in Minnesota by that time. At its peak, Red Owl had more than 170 stores, but the numbers dwindled as the company was bought and sold by various owners, including Supervalu.
“My stepdad’s family owned the building from 1940 to around 1958, just a small space about 20 by 30 feet,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed Red Owl all my life.”
Now, he’s trying to create a small museum for fans of Red Owl. He already has plenty of mementos to put into it, things he has been collecting since he was barely a teen.
There’s a Red Owl chocolate syrup bottle from 20 years ago, a Harvest Queen coffee can, which was Red Owl’s brand, paper grocery bags, wall calendars and spice tins.
“People clean out their houses and say, ‘You’re the Red Owl guy. Here, take these,’ ” he said.
Pessek has purchased some larger items, including artist Les Kouba’s iconic red owl on a porcelain sign, for $500. He also paid for a re-creation of the “Red Owl Agency” sign that hung on the wall of the original store. Pessek used old photos of the exterior to estimate size and design.
His biggest investment to date is paying $1,000 in 2013 to buy the original Red Owl building in Stewart. The turn-of-the-century building at 820 Powers St. became a Red Owl in 1939. Agency stores were franchised, not corporate-owned, and usually were placed in existing buildings in cities with fewer than 10,000 residents.
According to the application to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, Bill Sunde’s car broke down in Stewart on his way to Willmar. He was so enamored of the city that he decided to open in Stewart instead, about 70 miles west of Minneapolis.
Pessek hopes to raise funds to reopen the building as a community center complete with a Red Owl museum. It has seen better days. A leaky roof will cost about $20,000 to repair and the front window needs replacement.
Despite people’s love for the brand, Pessek has raised only about $1,100 from various informal fundraisers including the McLeod County Fair this summer, where he and the Stewart Area Historical Society set up a booth. “I get more attention when I wear my Red Owl T-shirt,” he said.
He’s hoping more donations will come in after his group gets a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation and gets the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The application to be on the register was denied in its first attempt, but the group plans to file again in a few years since so many historical projects get denied initially, Pessek said.
His latest attempt to drum up interest will be at the annual Red Owl luncheon reunion to be held Nov. 7. Last year about 75 former employees attended, including executives, office staff, cashiers, truck drivers, warehouse employees and grocery managers. Most are now in their 70s or 80s.
Former employees and suppliers of Red Owl who would like to attend the reunion can contact Gary Newman at email@example.com. Lunch will be served at the Golden Valley American Legion. The cost is $18, due by Oct. 30.
For Pessek, bringing back a bit of Stewart’s history is also a chance to rekindle some civic pride. “Most of our downtown is empty,” he said. “A community center would set us apart, like the Spam Museum in Austin or the Harkin Store in New Ulm.”