Remembering McNown's General Store in Harshaw

May 22, 2019

In the early 1900's, Harshaw—like many small communities—had a general store that the community depended on in many ways.

The store closed in 1960, but Gary Entz looks back on its importance for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History.

In the high-tech world of the twenty-first century, many people prefer to do their shopping online.  Nearly everything one could desire is a simple “click” away.  For those who prefer the face-to-face experience of shopping, huge national chains in the form of big-box retailers, gas station convenience stores, and dollar stores are the option available to most.  Some small, hometown retailers are still around to serve their communities, and many do so within a niche market.  It wasn’t always this way, and our ancestors often looked to small, local retailers as the cornerstone of the community and the place to get neighborhood news and gossip.  Take for example, McNown's General Store in Harshaw.

Harshaw’s General Store was founded by B.M. Winnie sometime around 1910.  A handful of different men ran the store over the next 17 years, but in 1927 Harrison McNown came to Harshaw and started working in the establishment.  McNown ran the store until he retired in 1959.  The store had a little of everything needed at the time, and if it didn’t have it then it could be ordered and delivered by train.  William F. Stock, who ran the store in the early 1920s before McNown came to town, recalled that townsfolk expected him to be “a banker, a grocer, postman, potato inspector, express agent, and general consultant.”  Some of the items the store had to obtain for people in the community included sauerkraut by the keg and mustard and ketchup by the gallon.

The General Store owner also served as station agent for the Milwaukee Road.  In addition to selling rail tickets, the station agent in Harshaw was expected to package the prize fish caught by summer visitors and ship the fish home for them via railway express.  The General Store provided top-notch horse and buggy service in the early years, and afterwards added a gasoline tank to service the growing number of automobiles as they started to appear.  Local residents congregated at the store to chat about the weather, politics, or whatever was on their minds on any given day, and children stopped for a stick of candy after school.  The store was the communications hub of the community.  In the days before cell phones, and back when different telephone companies charged high fees for long distance, places like Harshaw’s General Store maintained multiple phone lines.  Part of Harshaw was served by Tomahawk’s phone company and another by Rhinelander’s, and the General Store had lines for both.

At one time the Milwaukee Road provided Harshaw with two arrivals and departures daily.  The trains discontinued service around 1956.  Mail to Harshaw went through Rhinelander after that, and with hard-surfaced roads providing reliable automobile transport, people stopped going to the old General Store.  A steadfast part of the Harshaw community closed in December 1960.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The above photo can be found here and belongs to the town of Cassian.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.