Did you know that Sherm’s Super Market in Princeton – today Detjen’s Piggly Wiggly – opened for business 50 years ago this month?
The “Bird’s-Eye View of the History of Princeton as Detailed by Old Setters,” published by the Princeton Republic in January 1869, credits Philo M. Knapp with opening Princeton’s first grocery store about where today the brightly painted fence hides an empty lot in the 500 block of West Water Street.
Princeton Republic, January 25, 1869 – “Philo M. Knapp first made his appearance in the summer of 1849, and in that fall built a small frame shanty on the present site of Thomas Williams’ boot and shoe manufactory, which he soon stocked with the following list of goods, purchased from George Parker, then a teamster to and from Milwaukee, now a successful grocery dealer in the stone building (535 W. Water): 1 barrel whisky, 1 box stick candy, ½ barrel white fish, 50 lbs. assorted nuts, 4,000 cheroot cigars, 1 box T.D. clay pipes and 1 box smoking tobacco.”
“We believe this was the first grocery store in Princeton,” early settler Edward Harroun told the Princeton Republic in 1880 when the Williams building was torn down.
Most general stores included groceries in 19th century Princeton. The early entrepreneurs included Royal Treat, Silas Eggleston, Teske Bros., Lafayette Fisher, W. J. Frank, Chris Piper, Martin Manthey and others.
In the 20th century, John Shew, Fred Giese, Eugene Kidman, Hyman and Morris Swed, Nickodem Bros., Mackowski Bros., Victor Yahr Sr. and Jr., Reinhold Eickelman, Herke Bartol, Bill Schwister, Fred Bunce, Mel Gerlach, Bill and Pam Schmidt, Art and Cathy Decker, and others filled Princeton’s grocery bags on Water Street.
The first grocery chain store to open in Princeton was the A&P (Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company), which opened at about 532 West Water Street, on the same lot as Philo Knapp’s first grocery, in 1927.
Princeton Republic, March 10, 1927 – “The east half building of Mrs. Fred Schendel was recently rented to the A&P chain of grocery and fruit stores. The room is now being remodified, and shelving and counters will be provided by the lease holders. The building, we are informed, will be ready for occupancy within a few weeks.”
(That building, which housed the City Hotel, aka Commercial Hotel or Commercial House, and Schendel jewelry store for many years earlier, was razed in 1996.)
The largest grocery stores in my youth in the 1950s were Yahr’s Supermarket, operating out of the former Princeton Motors building at 441 West Water Street, and Swed’s, which still included some non-grocery items, in the venerable building at 544 West Water Street.
Meanwhile, a man named Sherm Kautza was building a successful grocery business, founded in 1949, in Omro. When he passed in 1957, his son Pat took over Sherm’s Food Market.
Yahr’s and Swed’s were still the leading grocers, I believe, when real estate agent Paul Coil appeared before the Princeton City Council in January 1972.
Princeton Times-Republic, January 13, 1972 – “That a supermarket would be an addition to our city had been rumors for several weeks. At the city council meeting Tuesday evening, January 4, 1972, such plans were revealed. Paul Coil, a real estate broker, was present and submitted plans from Sherm’s Food Market Inc. of Omro. The plans include two right-turn traffic lanes of blacktopping to be constructed by the city, and permission to attach a proposed private driveway, subject to state-approved traffic regulations. The location selected is at the end of Main Street east of the state highway on property owned by Mr. Coil. Construction of a 7,200-square-foot building and parking lot for approximately 60 cars is expected to begin by April 1972.”
It would be the second Sherm’s market.
Coil said the location at 101 East Main Street was selected because the store would be easily accessible from any direction. The store would include more products than its downtown competitors, owners Pat Kautza and Albert “Skip” Wartchow noted, as well extra-wide aisles and plenty of free parking.
“The décor is in keeping with Sherm’s policy of providing customers with a beautiful, gay atmosphere in which to shop – more than just a bright food store,” Kautza told the newspaper.
Wartchow moved to Princeton to run the store. Jim Beahm and Joseph Jungwirth were named co-managers of the grocery department. A four-day grand opening was held in August 23-26, 1972.
Princeton Times-Republic, August 31, 1972 – “The new supermarket, Sherm’s Market, is a fine new business place with adequate parking facility in our small city. A four-day grand opening was in progress from Wednesday through Saturday last week.”
Five years later, with Art Strehlow as manager, Sherm’s expanded as business boomed.
Princeton Times-Republic, September 8, 1977 – “Last week, Sherm’s supermarket opened its new bakery. Since then, customers are tempted by the aroma of fresh bakery every day. … Joe Jungwirth is the local baker. His fulltime assistant is Joyce DesJardins. … The new service was installed when a recent addition of 30 by 120 feet was built.”
The bakery included a new 12×12 freezer, 10-pan oven, three-door retarder and two-door proofer. But the bakery was only part of the project, which was unveiled to the public at a weeklong grand opening in October 1977.
The addition provided 12 more feet to the produce case, 32 feet for greeting card displays, a garden and plant center, a new deli section, a dough-products display case, an egg hut, a barbecue roaster, 12 more feet of frozen foods display area in the meat department, 12 new upright freezer display cases, a new walk-in cooler for produce, a fourth checkout counter, and a new dock and lift for unloading. The store was completely redecorated.
Russ Frees became manager of the Princeton store following Strehlow’s retirement in 1979. Lifelong Princeton resident Paul Schlaefer, who started working at Sherm’s in August 1973, became manager in February 1983 and held the position until retiring in June 2018.
“I started at the bottom at Sherm’s and worked my way up just like anyone else,” he told the newspaper in August 1991. “The Kautzas were always good to me, always helped me if I ever needed it.”
Though more spacious and modern than Princeton’s early general stores, Sherm’s retained the smalltown feel of its ancestors, thanks largely to Schlaefer, who became the face of Sherm’s in Princeton. He knew the customers and their families, trained dozens of new employees – many working their first job – on the fine points of customer service and handled day-to-day operations. He made sure Sherm’s remained a leader in the business community, generously donating time and resources to civic projects.
Pat Kautza sold the first Sherm’s store, started by Sherm Kautza in Omro in 1949, in May 1994 but continued to operate the Princeton and Redgranite stores. Kautza remodeled and built a new entry for the local store late in 1994.
Princeton Times-Republic, November 24, 1994 – “Sherm’s Piggly Wiggly will celebrate its grand reopening next week with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday at 9 a.m. … If you haven’t been to Sherm’s Piggly Wiggly since July, you might think that a new store has been constructed. Extensive changes have been made to the interior and exterior of the store, which allow for a wider selection of grocery items and more convenient service for customers. ‘It looks like a brand-new store on the outside compared to what it was,’ Sherm’s manager Paul Schlaefer said. … The parking lot is leveled off and freshly paved, eliminating potholes and puddles of standing water. The main entrance is at the center of the building’s front, and the old narrow doorways at the side are bricked up. A major overhaul of the produce, dairy, frozen, meat, bakery and deli departments has resulted in an expanded selection. There are now check-out aisles with state-of-the-art scanning equipment, and a bold and bright new Piggly Wiggly sign that hangs prominently at the front.”
Kautza sold the Redgranite store in 1997. In 2000, he purchased and moved the house that had occupied the northeast corner of Main and Fulton streets. (The lot now serves as a base for U-Haul rentals.)
In 2003, Kautza invested nearly $500,000 in a massive renovation that included another addition, new front, smaller meat, produce and dairy prep areas which provided more space used now for the liquor and beer displays, new rows of freezers, refrigerators, display cases, compressors, and other equipment.
Kautza ended Sherm’s run in April 2018 when he sold the store to Alan and Emily Detjen, doing business as Detjen Enterprises Inc., who remain the owners in 2022 and share similar approaches to community and management as Kautza and Schlaefer. (The Detjens also have a store in Randolph.)
Philo Knapp would be proud.
For all the advancements and changes in retail operations over the last 50 years, Schlaefer told princetonhistory.com this week that he would gladly return to the good old days: “I would go back to 1973 in a heartbeat working at the store. Things were a lot slower paced. You got to spend more time with customers and co-workers. No computers, two phones in the whole store, and it took four hours to unload a semi.”
Thanks for caring and reading about local history. If you have corrections or additions, please let me know.