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Vanishing America


Sun, Aug 6th, 2000
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Monday, August 7, 2000

Ever since I read about Lilly and her general store in his book, Jailhouse Stories, Iíve been asking Neil Haugerud to take me over to the little burg of Amherst for a visit.

"Youíve never met Lilly?" Neil always responds with surprise. "Everybodyís met Lilly."

Well, I havenít.

This summer, after encountering several people, including a former Minnesota state legislator and three slightly unbalanced New York bankers, who were each going through a bout of severe Midwestern culture shock, and after learning that Neil had taken them all to visit Lilly, I insisted that it was my turn next. And last week, the former sheriff finally agreed.

Neil had described Lilly in his book as "a diminutive craggy-faced woman of considerable character". He wrote of the time when Lilly would not sell a customer the last three loaves of bread from her sparsely stocked shelves because the customer "had to leave some for the others".

That anecdote was one of the most refreshing and appealing things I could remember reading anywhere. Lilly sounded like a throwback to another era, a true remnant of a vanishing America. Lilly was more in synch with 19th century sensibilities than those of the 21st. And when she was gone there would be absolutely nobody who would be able to take her place.

Last Wednesday afternoon when Neil and I pulled up to Lillyís Amherst store there were four pickups parked out front. "Iíve never seen this place so crowded," Neil commented.

Inside a few local farmers and loggers were sitting on chairs and well-worn couches talking about the previous nightís thunderstorm.

Neil introduced me to Lilly, who promptly told me that her back was bothering her.

"Iím 85 years old, you know," she said. "I started running this store on April 1, 1954. Thatís forty-six years ago."

LILLY standing outside of her Amherst general store.



I commented on the uniqueness of the country grocery store in todayís world. I knew that Highland, just up the road, still had a grocery store but I couldnít think of any others around the county. I told Lilly that when I was a kid, Greenleafton, a town of fifty, had two grocery stores, as did Cherry Grove, another town of fifty, only four miles to the west.

Lilly said that within a few miles of Amherst, there had once been grocery stores in Newburg, Lenora, Tawney, Choice, Bratsberg, and Henrytown. Back in those days, the bread and grocery trucks would stop by twice a week on their rounds.

"The grocery business is harder than it used to be," Lilly said. "Now just the Schwans truck and the milk man make stops here."

Still, she enjoys the company, the people who stop in every day to say hello and sit for awhile. "Iím open seven days a week, ten hours a day, " Lilly said. "Sundays are my best day. A lot of people are out driving around and they stop in."

Lilly said that her husband died in 1961. She pointed out the window at her house, a short walking distance away, and said that she didnít spend much time there. "It gets too lonely sitting in the house alone. I do my living right here."

Bruce Hanson, one of the local fellows who had been sitting around talking, stood up to go. "I stop here every day. Itís a tradition," he said. "Iíve already been here over an hour and a half today. I donít know where the timeís gone."

After Bruce left, I reminded Lilly that she had gone before the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners a couple years back, when they were considering raising the price of a tobacco vendorís license to $250. Lilly, who previously had been paying $12 a year, told the board that the new fee would make her "get off selling cigarettes." The board eventually agreed on a license fee of $125 per year.

I saw that there were a half dozen packs of cigarettes on a shelf and I asked if the county had ever sent an underaged person in to try to buy cigarettes as part of their state-mandated sting operation.

"I donít like trouble," Lilly said. "But this boy comes walking in and asks if he can buy a pack of cigarettes and I said you donít look old enough, youíve got to be eighteen, and he said he was sixteen. And he left and went out to a van that was waiting for him. Theyíve done that four times now."

"Did Neil ever pull any of that sort of stuff back when he was sheriff?" I asked.

"God, no," Lilly said. "But you know, times have changed."

Neil and I nodded in agreement.

"Yup, nothingís the same any more," Lilly said. "Itís just like night and day."

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