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Stephenson's closes after 91 years

September 17, 2008
To walk through Leavenworth is to walk through history. At one time it was a booming stop along the Ohio River, but just as the river gave life to the town, the great flood of 1937 almost took its last breath.

Despite being all but wiped out, the town persevered and much of it, including Stephenson & Co. General Store, relocated to higher ground. For years, the small store, in the heart of the new town, served as a link between the "old" and "new" Leavenworth.

Things change, however, and what arguably has been the town's anchor had its "open" sign turned to "closed" for the final time on Sept. 1, Labor Day. The building and its contents, from those in the general store portion of the building to the treasure trove in the adjacent former funeral parlor and basement, will be auctioned on Oct. 18 and 19.

As Elaine Stephenson, 79, walked around the store late last week, stopping often to give life to the items by offering many a brief description, she became emotional when asked if she was prepared for next month's auction. It's understandable considering the store has been in her husband Jack's family since 1917, when John Stephenson purchased it from the Conrad Brothers.

The business then included harness and harness repair, hardware, horse-drawn farm machinery, feed and grain and fertilizer, as well as a casket house and two horse-drawn funeral coaches.

While other thriving businesses, like the three-story Hawn Hotel, failed to reopen following the 1937 flood, Stephenson's followed the town to higher ground and continued to be a staple of the community. In 1939, a rear room was constructed for a post office and a separate room next to the store served as a casket display and embalming room. In addition, for a couple of years during that time, local craftsmen were employed to make the well known D. Allen Ohio River Skiffs in the basement.

The post office and funeral home eventually moved elsewhere, although being funeral directors for the town was part of the business until 1978. The general store, however, remained despite the deaths of Harold in 1988 and Jack nine years later, John's son and grandson, respectively, and an arson fire in 1999 that closed the store from May to September.

Elaine, however, was committed to seeing the store not only stay open, but continue to serve the community as both a place to buy groceries, a deli sandwich, plumbing supplies (19-year employee Janet Allen was an expert at giving advice to would-be self-plumbers), and other odds and ends and the unofficial keeper of its history. As a former librarian, she wanted to see that history collected by her husband, starting some 20 years before his death, continued to be shared with Leavenworth residents and tourists alike.

"I'm proud of what my husband started, gathering history, not just antiques," but photos and his writing "because an old river town like this has a lot of history," she said.

Elaine said she made the difficult decision to turn off the lights and shut the door one last time just recently, about the time that school started.

"I've got six grandchildren and six beautiful Morgan horses and six goats, and I just thought I better let somebody else run this show," she said, adding that she hopes someone will purchase the building and its items at the auction and reopen it.

Elaine's grandchildren always hang out in Leavenworth during the summer, but their activities and the responsibilities of the store made it difficult to spend as much time with them as she would like.

"I ought to really be spending more quality time with them when they're available," she said.

Sitting at a couple of small tables near the deli counter in the rear of the store, Elaine and former employees Pat Gottfried, Sandy Jones and Reva Wilkins, who worked at Stephenson's for 35 years, and Georgia Cole, the store's longest running customer, who lives just three doors down and began shopping at the store at age 14 when it was down by the river, reminisced about what the store meant to them.

"I'll sure miss it," said Cole, who has been coming to the store for 71 years.

"Georgia was a good customer, and she always paid her bill," Elaine said, noting the store allowed customers to run a tab.

Jones, who spent much of her six years working at the store behind the deli counter making as many as 40 sandwiches during lunchtime each day, said she still is thankful for the generosity Harold Stephenson showed her father after he was laid off from his job. Harold, she said, told her dad to get anything he needed because Harold didn't want to see her family go hungry.

"And I've never forgotten that," Jones said.

Gottfried began working at the store just four years ago, but she was no stranger to general stores. Her father, Floyd Denton, owned one on Main Street in Marengo, and working at Stephenson's brought back several memories from her childhood.

"It's been a blessing to be here," she said. "I have really enjoyed every day."

The store's longest employee, Wilkins, who worked with the public for 28 years and as the bookkeeper for the past seven, agreed that working at Stephenson's has been a wonderful experience.

"It's just been a really special place for me, and I was just thankful to be able to work here," she said.

It was Wilkins, whose husband, David, was chief of the town's volunteer fire department at the time, who delivered the emotional midnight phone call to Elaine in 1999 to tell her the store was on fire.

"I could not believe it," Elaine said, recalling Wilkins' voice cracking as she shared the news. "It's just an arrow striking your heart."

Elaine admitted that when she arrived and saw the flames and later saw the smoke and water damage to the rear of the building, she considered closing the store.

"I thought it would get the whole building," she said, recalling her thoughts when she saw the flames for herself. She thought "the end had come, and I was tempted to close."

Instead, her devotion to her husband's love of history and the work he had put in Stephenson's to make it not just a general store, but a connection for the town's current residents to those of its past, encouraged her to reopen.

However, now, nine years later, family is calling, and with her daughter and two sons having careers of their own — Polly Mohr is an attorney, John is a data base manager for the Cincinnati Symphony and Scott, who has been co-manager of the store, works with computers and farms — closing makes sense.

While most of the items will be auctioned, family members are going through and pulling back items that have special meaning to them. For instance, a granddaughter, Rachael Stephenson, has claimed an old Leavenworth Post Office sign.

Still, many items, including antique tools from the old skiff shop days, along with a finished skiff itself, and a wicker casket in the basement that always made Elaine laugh when visitors screamed after coming across it — and the dummy inside, will find new homes. However, their ties to Stephenson's can never be severed.

After her former employees left last week and Elaine walked back inside and locked the door, a woman pulled up, got out of her car and was visibly disappointed to read the closed sign. Elaine opened the door, talked to her for a minute and then went back inside the store while the woman went back to her car.

Indeed, Stephenson & Co. General Store was closed.

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  1. Stephensons
    September 18, 2008 | 12:05 PM

    Its a shame that everything that the Breedens have bought in Leavenworth that they wouldn't try and by this part of the towns history and let the Stephensons store live .

  2. print email
    Stephenson's Closes After 91 Years
    September 22, 2008 | 02:08 PM

    Thank you for the wonderful article (and pictures)about my family's business. Our grandfather purchased the business in August of 1917 on the day my dad, Paul Stephenson, was born.
    --Ron Stephenson--

  3. print email
    brings back memories
    September 23, 2008 | 10:48 AM

    We moved from Leavenworth 20 years ago but recall Stephenson's with great fondness. Where else could a clerk tell you your husband had already bought ice cream and what kind. I can't imagine Leavenworth without them!!

    Dean and Carol Morris
Barbara Shaw
Schuler Bauer
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