OGILVILLE — Mom-and-pop grocery stores decades ago were a staple throughout Bartholomew County.
Besides a variety of merchandise that suited their rural customers, small-town stores like Clouse’s in Hope, Cooper’s in South Bethany, Finke’s in Jewell Village and Moore’s in Jonesville provided a simple charm and down-home friendliness.
Those were qualities that many Hoosiers took for granted, until independent stores began disappearing one by one.
With the October auction of the Waymansville General Store, the only old-time grocery left in Bartholomew County is Meyer Grocery in Ogilville, located at 8031 E. State Road 58.
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Smith’s Grocery was established in the late 1960s in the two-story structure where Meyer Grocery is now located. A Cummins employee, Orville M. “Pug” Smith (1921-2004), founded the business. His wife, Anis Ruth Smith, ran it.
The store and gas station was on the ground floor, while a separate hardware business was operated on the upper level.
Besides operating two businesses and eventually drawing a pension from Cummins, Pug Smith also supplemented his income with horse and cattle trading, according to news reports.
At a time when many locally owned stores closed during the economic downturn of the mid-1980s, the Smiths also decided to bow out.
In September 1986, their store was purchased by Cummins retirees Ed Meyer (1939-2014) and his wife, Joyce Meyer.
Starting a new grocery at that particular time was extremely difficult, according to the couple’s son.
“We made it basically through that period because my Dad refused to fail,” Doug Meyer said. “He had to keep putting his own money into the business for years just to keep it going.”
Originally hired in May 1987 to cut fresh hanging sides of beef and handle the hardware business, Doug Meyer manages the entire store today.
Besides paving the parking lot and some minor rearranging, the new owners felt no urgency to wipe away Pug Smith’s legacy. In fact, they kept Smith’s name on the building for a number of years, and the former owner remained one of the store’s most frequent and loyal customers, Meyer said.
Known for a time as Smith & Meyer’s Grocery, the store also is remembered as a place where Ogilville area neighbors could socialize while downing Whimpie sandwiches and soft drinks.
Although the economy improved, the hits on small independent retailers seemed to get worse.
Like most other mom-and-pop stores, Meyer Grocery was weakened as retail giants moved into nearby Columbus and Seymour with the buying power to sell goods cheaper than independents could obtain them, Meyer said.
Fresh sides of beef, as well as sportsman items such as fishing tackle and crickets for bait, were dropped from the Meyer inventory because the profit margins on them were too small, Meyer said.
But more than money was being lost over time. A generation of retirees who regularly met to socialize at the Ogilville store have since died, Meyer said.
The year 1997 brought another challenge. It was when a Chevron convenience store and gas station opened three miles to the northeast at the Walesboro-Ogilville exit of Interstate 65, Meyer said.
Now a Circle K, the convenience store offered a larger variety of popular products and remained open on a 24/7 basis. To remain competitive, Meyer Grocery began serving hot meals and hired more employees outside their family to extend their business hours, Meyer said.
But there were other challenges, too.
Since small independent stores in remote locations close at night, they were frequently targeted by burglars seeking cigarettes and beer.
In 2011, the driver of a truck smashed the door of Meyer Grocery so hard that he almost took out an entire exterior wall, Meyer said.
“A lot of times, the damage will be greater than what is stolen,” said Meyer, describing the second burglary at his store in as many years.
In September 2015, another competitor arrived when Ricker’s opened a new convenience store at the I-65 interchange with $1.69-a-gallon gasoline.
Realizing his competitors could sell gas cheaper than he could buy it, Meyer got rid of his pumps and underground storage tanks.
Saving the bacon
Today, recent Cummins Inc. retiree Monty Green is one of a few customers who drop by each morning to socialize.
“I have Doug check my lottery tickets, eat a breakfast sandwich, drink coffee and hang out,” Green said.
Business picks up at lunch time, however.
“There have been many a day when I wake up wondering, ‘How can we still be here?’,” Meyer said. “But you know what has really saved our bacon? The (Woodside) Industrial Park.”
Although some factory employees only get a half-hour off for a meal, many still want to take the opportunity to get away from the industrial environment and relax, he said.
Meyer Grocery has met that need by selling hot meals and fresh deli items to factory workers for more than 20 years. The store’s biggest-selling lunches are batter-dipped, deep-fried fish on Fridays, as well as breaded tenderloin sandwiches the other days of the work week, Doug Meyer said.
“On some Fridays, the fish can really get them lining up outside the door,” Meyer said.
It’s such tradition and hometown loyalty helps keep the Ogilville grocery going, he said.
When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, there were 37 independent grocery stores providing food and other items to 11,738 Columbus residents, according to telephone listings from that year.
But according to the Historic Columbus Indiana website, the number of mom-and-pop grocery stores diminished 54 percent over the next 20 years.
The Indiana Bell Yellow Pages shows these were the 17 independent grocery stores serving the city’s growing population of 20,778 back in 1962.
Coles IGA, 201 Washington St.
Garrison’s Produce, 2041 State St.
Deitz’s Northside Market, 1105 23rd St.
Dewey’s Market, 1132 Eighth St.
Eudy’s Market, 662 N. Gladstone Avenue
Ogle’s Central Market, 1465 Chestnut St.
William Palmer’s Market, 1625 State St.
Parker’s Market, 1125 16th St.
Phillip’s Grocery, 2052 State St.
Powell’s Grocery, 1212 Morningside Drive
Spurgeon’s Grocery, 291 N. Gladstone Avenue
Sunshine Grocery, 217 Fourth St.
Sylvester Brothers, 1851 State St.
Two Mile House Grocery, Nashville Road
Wally’s IGA, 706 McKinley Avenue
Warner’s Market, 1417 Chestnut St.
White Star Market, 440 Fourth St.
Source: David Sechrest, Historic Columbus Indiana website.