Stewart man leads effort to convert city’s old grocery store building into community center
The original Red Owl Agency food store in Stewart being renovated by volunteers interested in restoring the vacant building into a community center, museum and small library for the small town residents. Photo by Steve Palmer
It’s been quite awhile since the former Red Owl Agency grocery store in small-town Stewart was an important part of the business district.
Today, all that remains in the empty shell building are the memories from years ago.
But that could all change if a young Stewart man’s vision for restoring the old store brings the building back to life again.
At an early age, Jim Pessek, a native of Silver Lake, was surrounded with old things at his dad’s junk yard located along Highway 7.
His dad died when Jim was only 2 years old, but the collectors bug followed him to Stewart at age 3, where he moved with his mom in 1988, and he grew up, went to school and graduated from McLeod West.
For the past four years he’s worked for 3M in Hutchinson but still lives in Stewart, where he follows his passion for collecting and salvaging old stuff. That led him to form “The Friends of Stewart Red Owl” which bought the empty grocery store building and its memories at a 2013 property tax auction for $1,000 including fees.
The Stewart Red Owl Agency opened in 1939 and was owned by Bill Sunde during a time when the community had a thriving business district.
Sunde operated the store for nearly 40 years until his death in 1978. His wife Dorothe ran the store for another six months until March 1979 before selling it to Larry and Virgene Roepke who operated Larry’s Red Owl for another 25 years.
“My stepdad’s family actually rented the Red Owl store building to Sunde for years before selling it to him, so there’s a connection that I feel with that building,” Jim said. It was a natural then for Jim to become president of the Friends of Stewart Red Owl with the Roepkes, who still live in Stewart, also are a part of the dedicated group of volunteers interested in preserving the original structure.
Jim Pessek sits next to a display board with the history of the Stewart Red Owl store and an artist’s conception of what the renovated interior of the vacant building could look like once renovation is completed. Photo by Steve Palmer
The original store remained open at the same location from 1939 until 2001, when the Roepkes moved it to another building down the street before Larry’s Red Owl closed permanently in 2003. Meanwhile, the original 2,700 square foot Red Owl building remained vacant but intact. It later housed an antique shop in 2008-2009 and then became empty and neglected again.
“At one time there were businesses everywhere in Stewart, and now there’s not much left, which was one reason why I became involved in restoring the unique character of the old Red Owl store and bring it back to its original glory,” Pessek stated. At one time there were two grocery stores in Stewart until IGA closed in the 1990s.
“When the Roepkes closed the store for the last time in 2003 I bought the large Red Owl sign and put it back up on the original building,” Jim noted. He mentioned that the renowned Hutchinson artist Les Kouba designed the familiar Red Owl logo and there are very few stores that still use the iconic sign despite the brand name being bought by Super Value in 1989.
“I remember going into Larry’s store as a kid to buy some candy and seeing a rack of comic books near the counter,” Pessek said. “I bought Beetle Bailey comic books that I still have at home today.
“This store had a little bit of everything and was open until noon on Sundays where you could stop after church was out,” Pessek added. “And at Christmastime they’d hand out goodie bags to the children.”
Pessek said the group’s plan is not to put a grocery business back in the building but rather turn the store into a community center to include a museum and a library with some computers and rent out space for small gatherings.
“We approached the city about restoring the Red Owl store into a community center, but they weren’t very interested because old buildings usually ended up having to be torn down anyway,” Jim said. “So we took the project up on our own. We have almost nothing in town like this to offer so we definitely need it.”
The iconic Red Owl sign hangs on the building.
Restoring the old store is important to Pessek, who wants it to look like a Red Owl building again. “We even had a sign guy reproduce a 17-foot Red Owl Agency sign and put it back up in the exact location where it used to hang over the front doors of the store,” he explained.
But before the building can be saved Pessek knows it will take a lot of work by the Friends of Stewart Red Owl and money. “Right now it’s most important to get the flat roof fixed because it leaks when it rains, but I think it’s a doable project. We’d love to some day in the future go back to city hall and hand over the keys of a restored community building to them,” he said.
Some funds have been collected through a benefit music concert held a couple of years ago which raised $2,000. And, during the Stewartfest celebration, Pessek sells old Stewart High School athletic basketball jerseys that were salvaged from the former school for $10 apiece.
“We’ve received an $8,000 grant from the state legacy fund to research the history of the building, which would give us a chance to nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places,” Jim explained. “The preliminary indication is that it could be eligible, but we’re still waiting for the state preservation office to research a couple of items one of which is whether the building is one of the oldest or last Red Owl Agency stores that existed.”
“The building structure is still strong,” Pessek noted. “It started out as a little wood building built sometime around 1900 until brick was put around it in 1939. The brick was salvaged from the old high school that was demolished in 1938. Names of students that are carved on some of those bricks are now upside down on the old Red Owl building,” he said with a smile.
“Basically, since we don’t have the funds we need right now we’re just kind of in a mothball stage trying to fix what we can and doing some painting to keep things from getting worse,” Pessek explained. “If we receive a National Register of Historic Places designation it’s like getting a badge of honor that agrees this place matters and is important to our community of around 500 people. It would open up a lot more funding options for us,” he added.
Pessek’s leadership role with the Red Owl building is a natural arrangement for him as his interest in the history of Stewart runs deep. He lives near Main Street in a former gas station and veterinary clinic building which has a vintage gas pump and pop machine standing out front.
He owns the old 1953 International Civil Defense fire truck he purchased from the Stewart Fire Department and proudly drives the vehicle in the Stewartfest Parade each summer. “It was the town’s second fire truck, and you might say it’s The Friends of Stewart Red Owl official truck,” he joked.
Next door, he owns the former Stewart Post Office building, which has become a collection destination for a number of Stewart-related relics. “I’m known as the Red Owl guy – my girlfriend found a spice can of Red Owl chili powder in an antique store that she gave to me on my birthday for my Red Owl collection.”
As the designated town historian he’s put together nine complete years of bound volumes of old Stewart Tribune-Bulletin newspapers plus a complete run of the Gibbon Gazette-Stewart Tribune from 1984. “It’s all from copies that people saved and have given to me…word gets around, and if there’s anything historical, they say ‘give it to Jimmy,’ and I’ll take it.”
Among the items that have appeared on his doorstep is the old manually operated Stewart Ballpark scoreboard with numbers that were recently replaced by a new digital unit. Inside his post office storage building Pessek has the original Red Owl store 1939 checkout counter that still had some advertisements stuck to it from the 1960s.
“It’s been said that the story of Bill Sunde coming to Stewart began when he had a flat tire while driving along Highway 212,” said Pessek. “While getting the tire fixed he looked around town and saw the building where he decided to open his Red Owl store instead of going to a different place.”
Pessek said Sunde was an interesting businessman. “He used to be on the fire department, and when the siren went off, he’d throw his apron on the front counter and take off, leaving the front door open. If someone came into the store while he was gone they’d put the money with a note of what they bought on the counter.
“He also had a Coke bottle machine in the store, but he would randomly put a few bottles of orange soda in it too. If you got an orange soda out of the machine you could take it to the front counter and get a free pop.
“His son Tom said that, as a boy, if he found any loose change in the heat register in the floor by the till his dad would let him keep the coins,” Pessek remarked.
To raise some more funds to reach their renovation goals, The Friends of Stewart Red Owl have partnered with another group to form a 501(c)(3) so money donated is tax deductible through the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Donations can be made out to the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and mailed to P.O. Box 83, Stewart, MN 55385.
“Last year we had a big Halloween party for about 70 kids which was held outside the Red Owl store in the street so we think we’re doing something positive for the community,” said Pessek. “So maybe sometime in the future we’ll be able to hold that party inside the building when the restoration of the old Red Owl is finished.”