My grandparents, Chester and Goldie Austin, began operating Cash Grocery in Brownsville, Oregon, about 1951, when I was three years old. They lived on Kirk Avenue where it connected with Spaulding Avenue. Their store was about three blocks away on Spaulding, next to the library at the edge of downtown. Brownsville had a population of about 1000. Downtown was Main Street that was three blocks long and Spaulding that was one block long.
Photo taken September 1956, Brownsville, Oregon
Much to my Mom’s disapproval, my grandparents gave me access to anything I wanted in the store. I remember it well through the eyes of a child.
The soda pop cooler sat to the right of the entry door. My favorite flavors were Nehi orange and Nehi grape. I popped the caps off the glass bottles at the bottle opener attached to the front of the cooler.
A big round of cheddar cheese, protected by a makeshift cover made of carboard and waxed paper, sat at the end of the counter near the cash register. Grandma cut me thin slices to eat. When I got older, age 6 or 7, Grandma let me cut pieces for myself with a big knife, under her supervision. I had a step stool to stand on. A few years later, I got to cut wedges for customers.
A large, wood-framed, glass-front cabinet spanned the entire width of the back of the checkout area. It was filled with all types of candy like O-Henry bars, Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, candy cigarettes, and juice-filled, wax miniature bottles. Customers requested their choices and we retrieved the items for them from behind the glass. Of course, I could have whatever I wanted.
The shelves held mostly cans and boxes of food and household supplies. There was a freezer, and I know it had popsicles, but that’s all that comes to mind.
Their sign advertised meat and vegetables. However, I don’t remember a meat counter or freezer--probably because that wasn’t what I was interested in. Dad rented a meat locker at the Meat Market on Main & Kirk for his hunting successes that we went to often. As for vegetables, I recall some bushel baskets of seasonal items, but nothing else. I had no reason to pay attention since Grandpa and Grandma had a huge garden and a yard full of fruit and nut trees.
Fresh eggs were delivered daily. I assume they came from someone local. Grandpa and I used a special light in the backroom to look through the eggs for specks of blood or chicken embryos. I know he didn’t sell them if they were bad, but I don’t remember what he did with them.
Many customers called in their orders. I got to take one of the two small wire carts around the store, collecting the goods as Grandma called them out. Once an order was assembled, I wheeled the cart to the backroom where Grandpa and I packed the items into low-sided cardboard boxes. We often raised the flaps to hold more, then tied cotton string around the flaps to hold them in place. In the afternoon, we might have up to six orders to deliver. I helped him carry them out to the trunk of his car. We went to customer’s houses, knocked on the doors, and handed them their orders. Grandma kept record of all the accounts. Most were billed and paid on a monthly basis.
The store served another important function for the community. It was home to one of the fire phones. Brownsville had a volunteer fire department. All fire calls were routed to dedicated black phones with a white button. The phones were placed in select businesses or residences. Dad and Grandpa were volunteer firefighters. Each of our homes had fire phones. The white button, when pushed, sent out a siren alert throughout the town to call in the volunteers. Sometimes it was held longer, and/or pushed several times to get people’s attention. At my grandparents’ store, the white button was pushed briefly, once each day at noon, as a test to make sure the system was working properly. I felt so important when they let me push the button.
Some days, Grandma walked to the store. Other days, Grandpa drove her in the morning. If it was cool out, he started a fire in the pot-bellied wood stove. He spent his early mornings running errands or working in their large garden at home. He reappeared in the store about 10am. I’d often find him sitting in his chair next to the stove, talking with the guy that ran the sporting goods store, and some others that stopped by. Those conversations could go on for a couple of hours each day.
In the afternoon, he and I went to the post office to pick up the mail from the metal box with the round combination dial. I assume there was no mail delivery because I never saw anyone doing it. I’d also go with Grandpa to take care of his banking business, which was two doors from the post office.
Grandpa and Grandma sold the store in 1962. According to a newspaper article in the Brownsville Times, “they are retiring to preserve their remaining health and enjoy their golden years.”