Grover Cleveland was president of the United States when the Godahl Store opened its doors in 1894. Those doors closed for good on Dec. 31 as the tiny, community-owned retailer straddling the border of Brown and Watonwan counties finally yielded to a hard truth: Not enough people were shopping there anymore.
And they hadn’t been for quite some time.
In recent years, the store — Minnesota’s oldest retail cooperative — no longer could get deliveries of milk, pop, groceries and household items. It was just too small for the delivery trucks to bother making the stop. Longtime manager Darlene Olson was forced to drive to stores in larger neighboring communities and buy groceries to bring back for resale.
“The writing has been on the wall for a number of years,” said Olson, who started working at the Godahl Store in 1972 and took over as manager in 1990. “But I did think it would go on longer than it did.”
The store’s official name was the Nelson and Albin Cooperative and Mercantile Association, reflecting the two townships it originally served. The community of Godahl has about 20 residents, but through the years, the store also served nearby Hanska, La Salle and St. James.
The store stopped turning a profit about 35 years ago, Olson said, but local residents kept it afloat for years with fundraising events: pork chop feeds, calendar sales, bake sales, painting parties, jewelry and art sales. Dwindling receipts finally outweighed the community’s ability to recoup the ongoing losses through fundraising. The store’s annual sales in recent years ran about $30,000 to $40,000, Olson said.
The store maintained a lively Facebook presence right up to the end, featuring charming displays of gifts and seasonal items and keeping residents up to date on special sales and events. It’s safe to say that wasn’t a merchandising tactic foreseen by the area farmers who founded the store as a cooperative, with members buying shares in the operation and sharing the profits. Its original bylaws were written in Norwegian.
That model worked well when there were dozens of farm families in the area and travel was by horse and buggy. As the years went by, the number of farmers dwindled and transportation improved. The Godahl Store became more of a community gathering place than a shopping destination.
And it’s that aspect that residents will miss more than any other, said Carlie Olson, who is Darlene Olson’s daughter-in-law. Her husband, Keith, is a longtime member of the cooperative’s board of directors.
The store was a place where residents gathered for coffee or a card game, and where grandparents brought kids for a bottle of pop, just as their own grandparents had brought them.
“It’s sad. We’re losing a very important piece of history,” Carlie Olson said. “Just the sense of community that the store stands for — people have so many good memories of what that connection meant.”
The community plans to take some time to figure out what might be next for the store, Carlie Olson said. Members might decide to sell the building and its contents.
“Or, we could create a nonprofit and operate the building as a community center, a place where we can still have gatherings and keep the historical items that are there,” she said.
Carlie Olson’s boys — ages 12, 11 and 7 — are sad to see the store go, too, she said.
“Partly it’s because it’s where they used to go to see Grandma,” she said. “But it’s also a very meaningful place to the community.”
So much so that when she told her 7-year-old son that the store was closing, he offered a bit of financial help to keep it going, telling her, “You can have all the money in my wallet.”