Industrial Harvest


Kavage Bros. by sarah kavage
December 27, 2009, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , ,

It being the holidays and all, I managed to convince my parents to make a visit to keep me company in Chicago for a few days.  All the thinking about grocery stores and food deserts reminded me that being a grocer is part of my own family history.  My dad grew up in a small mining / mill town along the Ohio river, and my grandfather and his two brothers ran Kavage Bros., a small grocery / butcher from the 30s into the 70s. 

I got my dad to refresh my memory with a few stories and descriptions of what the life of a small town grocer was like.  Please indulge, and hopefully enjoy, this short trip down memory lane and diversion from the regularly scheduled “research program.” 

The most important thing to remember about old-time grocery stores is that they ran on a credit system.  Kavage Bros. was no different.  Customers had an account which they would periodically pay off; during strikes at the steel mill credit would be extended for even longer periods of time.  Yes, getting people to pay could be quite an ordeal, even when they weren’t on strike.  The accounting system was a ledger with a tab for each customer and their receipts were affixed to that tab.  When a customer bought or ordered something, the new receipt would be placed on the top of the stack and a running total amount owed was written on that top receipt.  So it was pretty easy to tell at a glance which customers you needed to collect from – they had the largest running totals and the thickest stacks of receipts.  Back then delivery was free, even for a single loaf of bread – my dad did delivery runs practically as soon as his legs were long enough to reach the gas pedal. 

The store was not just a store but somewhat of a social center for a small town.  There was a pool hall in the store basement, and also a 16 mm movie projector with one old silent western on it that my father would watch daily before going to school.  Grandpa pulled the tooth of a one-armed Greek man who came in with a toothache by leaning him back on the butcher block, wrapping a handkerchief around a pair of pliers, and giving a good yank (just writing that makes my mouth hurt).   

Apparently there were also quite a few not-quite-above board activities that went on there.  My grandpa was a big gambler and made so many bets from behind the counter that it sounds like it was difficult for him to get business done; during WWII he and one brother also ran a little bit of a black-market business getting people extra sugar, oil and other rationed goods.  Family legend has it that he somehow did all of this stuff without the knowledge of the third brother who was much more pious and law-abiding. 

For a time, there were two Kavage Bros. stores, one in Yorkville and one in nearby Tiltonsville.  Like many of the small independents, the Yorkville store closed in the 60s, pushed out by the larger chain supermarkets which were coming into vogue at the time.  I have some foggy memories of the Tiltonsville store which revolved around being confused by the fact that we were allowed to eat candy bars there without paying for them.  My grandpa closed the Tiltonsville store when he hit retirement age and spent the rest of his years on the golf course, occasionally taking his granddaughters to the dog races and letting them recklessly drive the golf cart.