Historic co-op store closes for good after 122 years serving its community

A small but much-loved piece of co-op history came to an end when the Godahl store, the oldest retail co-op in Minnesota, closed its doors for the last time.

The tiny store, which served farming communities in Brown and Watonwan counties, had been struggling for years as custom declined. Suppliers even stopped delivering goods – forcing manager Darlene Olson, who ran the store since 1990, to drive to neighbouring towns and buy groceries for resale.

It’s a sad end for a business that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and has deep roots in the Scandinavian community who settled the area in the 1870s.

Starting life in 1894 as the Nelson and Albin Cooperative and Mercantile Association, its original bylaws were written in Norwegian. Shares were available at $20 and it stocked groceries, dry goods and tools, traded local produce and resold goods from nearby cities St James and La Salle.

The store, which installed one of the first telephones in the area in 1905, also served as a focal point of the community – and remained so for Godhal’s 20 villagers and farmers from the surrounding area, right until the end.

“It’s always been a gathering place,” Ms Olson told the Minnesota Star Tribune. “There is a group of men that come for coffee every day. There’s teams that play baseball and softball in Godahl that come in and are tied to it.

“It has a lot of historical significance to the farmers in the area.”

A plaque honouring the store’s place in history
A plaque honouring the store’s place in history (Image: State Historic Preservation Office)

Unfortunately, the store stopped turning a profit about 35 years ago as the number of local farmers fell and improved transport links lured customers to bigger stores further away.

Its management fought hard to keep the business afloat with fundraising events and a Facebook page but finally closed on New Years’ Eve, posting the online farewell: “Well, we say good bye tonight. To 2016 and 122 years.”

Customers shared their sorrow on the page. “Oh the memories,” wrote Nancy Brekke Court. “My dad managed the store when I was about 6 years of age. It was our special place. Biked there almost every day! Memories of waiting for the activity bus to to take us to swim lessons… And the candy! We always had a tab!”

And Paul Berg suggested the store was part of a wider loss, saying: “Rural demographics are proving the downfall of many institutions, churches, schools, businesses and sadly, a way of life.”

The fate of the historic building and its documents is still to be decided.

“The building and the historical documents, pictures, signs and other display items in the store are not for sale right now,” managers said on Facebook.

“There will be a public meeting in January 2017. The board will seek input from the attendees on what should happen with the remaining assets. Selling the building, signs, pictures, etc. is a possibility, but if that happens it would then all be done in bidding/auction format at a date to be determined later.

“Another possibility is the establishment of a non-profit association to own the store building and all historical documents, signs, pictures, etc. ”

One idea is reviving the building as a community centre but this “would take a financial commitment by the Godahl community (past, present and future) and all concerned parties near and far.”

What is certain is that the store will be missed. Darlene Olson’s daughter in law Carlie told the Farm Forum: “It’s sad. We’re losing a very important piece of history. Just the sense of community that the store stands for.”

That sentiment extends to the next generation – Carlie’s seven-year-old son offered to help keep the store alive, telling her, “You can have all the money in my wallet.”