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Friday, 13 December 2013 11:51

New owner takes over Cooksville landmark

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The interior of the historic Cooksville General Store has been remodeled and restocked. The interior of the historic Cooksville General Store has been remodeled and restocked. Terry Mayer

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- Sue Ebbert is hoping to breathe new life into a small, quaint building known for its historic appeal.

Ebbert purchased the General Store in the crossroads town of Cooksville, northeast of Evansville, during the summer. The store, built in 1847, had been closed for about a year and half before Ebbert decided to take over ownership.

“They claim it’s the longest continuously running store in Wisconsin,” Ebbert said. “There’s a lot of history in town. You have the church up on the corner. There’s a brick home that used to be a doctor’s house and the old blacksmith shop next door.”

During the past year members of the Historic Cooksville Trust and Cooksville Community Center have helped find a new owner for the general store.

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Larry Reed, Cooksville historian, said he is pleased that a new owner has been found and feels the general store will be a popular stop for tourists.

“It’s exciting. After a year, it’s great that a proprietor has been found for the store,” Reed said. “It will be a great boon for our little, historic village. I believe it’s the oldest general store in Wisconsin. In the past, the general store is what drew people to Cooksville, and I’m sure it will do so again.”

Ebbert and her husband remodeled the store during the summer, installing new front windows, removing old shelves, adding new coolers and installing a heating and cooling system.

“We did keep the 1940s deli case. That is a part of the store. There really wasn’t much in here. It was kind of empty, so I guess we’re starting our own little history with this store,” Ebbert said. “We’ve had past proprietors drop off stuff that used to be in the store. We will eventually have a historic wall with some of those items.”

The store opened Labor Day weekend and hosted a grand opening on Sept. 28 and Sept. 29. The store features whole-wheat flour, lentils, jams, jellies, soup mixes, homemade breads, hand-rolled butter, spices, salsa dips and homemade pies. Ebbert receives most of her products from local Amish farms.

“I just want to offer holistic foods, natural and organic. I hope it catches on,” Ebbert said. “The hand-rolled butter is really good. The cashew crunch is really good… The homemade pies have a lard crust -- nothing comes from a can. We have sticky buns that you can take home and let rise in the oven.”

“The community has been very supportive, and the outlying areas have been, as well,” Ebbert said. “We didn’t want to run it like a convenience store. We wanted to run it like a place where you could come get your baked goods, baking supplies and cooking supplies, as well as a treat here and there.”

Ebbert also operates the Simple Life Country Store in Fort Atkinson, which also sells whole-food products.

“That store is probably six times the size of the general store, so it’s much bigger. Space is a challenge for me here,” Ebbert said. “(The Simple Life Country Store) is much bigger, but this one has a totally different look. It’s quaint. We tried to take it back to the early 1900s, but that’s darn near impossible. It could never look like the old stores in Chicago with the historical back bars with the wood casings. I don’t think this one ever had it.”

Ebbert said one of her customers at the Simple Life Country Store told her about the Cooksville General Store.

“He came in and said, ‘Hey, I have a place for you,’” Ebbert said. “I came down and looked at it, and I thought the community was really nice, so here we are.”

Ebbert said operating both businesses has kept her busy, but she doesn’t mind the extra work.

“It’s been a challenge, but it’s been fun,” Ebbert said. “I try to be at both stores as much as I possibly can. The customers always like to see the owner.”

Ebbert said some community and family members have helped her operate the general store.

“My husband hasn’t learned to operate the cash register yet, but he’s good at carpentry, so I keep him around,” she said with a laugh.

Ebbert said she has some customers who shop at both stores.

“We have bakers in Madison, so it’s easier for them to come down here and get their 50-pound bags of flour and whatever else they need,” Ebbert said. “If I don’t have it, then they can get it at the other store. Items also can be brought down here if someone lets me know ahead of time.”

Ebbert plans to add more items to the general store in the future and hopes to make it a tourist attraction again.

“We did have quite a few bicyclists that came through. Next spring, we’ll have homemade ice cream cones,” Ebbert said. “We’ll grow as we go along and see what the community wants.”

Reed said Ebbert has done a good job of operating the store.

“There’s been rave revenues of Sue Ebbert owning the store,” Reed said. “She’s brought in a lot of organic and natural foods. It’s amazing what she has done with the interior. It looks old-fashioned and quaint.”

Reed said the second floor of the building always has been occupied by the Masonic Lodge, and the first floor always has served as a general store.

“It’s been an old-fashioned store that carried a little bit of everything, including nails, food and farming equipment,” Reed said.

According to Reed, the store has had many owners throughout its history.

“There was a proprietor who owned the store for about a decade,” Reed said. “Then there were times when the store was owned by a new proprietor every few years. So in the past 160 years, there’s been quite a few owners.”

Besides the general store, there are several historic buildings in the Cooksville area.

“The village has about 30 historic buildings. Besides the general store, there’s historic school buildings, churches and homes,” Reed said. “Outside of Cooksville proper, there’s about 10 historic sites. I would say there’s at least 50 historic buildings and architecture sites near Cooksville.”

Reed said Cooksville is an unincorporated community governed by the town of Porter.

“There’s only about 65 of us in the tiny village, so I don’t think we could afford to govern ourselves,” Reed said. “We enjoy living in the community and giving tours of the buildings in our historic village. We’re small, but we’re very well organized.”

The Cooksville General Store is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. For more information, call (262) 707-4503.

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