COOKSVILLE — The Cooksville Country Store’s wooden floor is a mishmash of oak, maple, cherry and who knows what other woods. It is unfriendly to the store’s lone shopping cart.
After 167 years, the floor has become uneven, with a slight downward slope from the back of the 1,600-square-foot store to its front door that in the summer is accompanied by a screen door.
That’s why instead of shopping carts, most shoppers here prefer a basket. An unattended shopping cart in this historic establishment doesn’t stay put for long.
But while the floor has remained the same, with the exception of its undulations, a recent good scrubbing and three coats of polyurethane (a floor sander didn’t work), the Cooksville store has a new look to its interior. The 1940s deli case, the small walk-in cooler with the 10-inch-thick door and the original sales counter remain, but Sue and Don Ebbert have given the Rock County gem a much-needed $10,000 makeover.
The walls have been redone and insulated, windows replaced, new lighting installed and a modern, efficient furnace has been installed. And, for the first time in its long history, the store will be a place of refuge from the summer heat after the addition of air conditioning. This from a building constructed in 1846 that didn’t get running water or a toilet until 2010.
“When I brought my husband in here (in June), he thought I was crazy,” Sue Ebbert said last week. “He loves the store now.”
We were sitting at her ice cream counter, a new addition to the store. The malt and shake mixer was purchased at the Jefferson flea market, the mirror behind the counter from a Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Madison and the five stools from a South Carolina diner that Ebbert found on eBay.
The store has always been loved. It has struggled, yes, but its history, character and role in one of the state’s smallest historic communities has been instrumental in keeping Cooksville a destination. And now, after being closed for most of 2012 and the first eight months of 2013, the store is back in business, this time with a throwback inventory, 85 percent of which is sourced from Amish and Mennonite businesses.
Bags of 12 kinds of flour are milled from oats, semolina, whole wheat and other grains. The shelves are filled with spices, canning supplies, jams, jellies, salsas and pastas. Need a sweet potato pancake mix or a cereal where the ingredients are grown exclusively on a Wisconsin Amish farm? This place has it.
A chest freezer is filled with two-pound loaves of Amish hand-rolled butter while the deli case includes sausage, bologna and wieners from Wisconsin River Meats in Mauston. Specialty dry soup mixes, like Golden Harvest, include black-eyed peas, yellow split peas, brown rice, pearled barley, wheat berries, adzuki beans and spelt berries. The Natural 13 Bean Soup mix has beans like black turtle, baby lima, cranberry, great northern, red kidney, navy and pinto.
“I want to carry different things,” said Ebbert, 54.
“We don’t want to look like a commercial grocery store.”
Ebbert could not have picked a better spot to pull off her goal. The Cooksville Country Store may be off the beaten path for most, but Ebbert already has five years of experience running a store removed from a bustling business district.
Ebbert spent the first 10 years of her life on the east side of Milwaukee before her family moved to Helenville in eastern Jefferson County. She married a rural Fort Atkinson farmer, and spent 20 years as a UPS driver. In 2009, she opened Simple Life Country Store in a remodeled storage shed on their 120-acre farm — where they raise Seminole Angus and Hereford beef cattle — three miles west of Fort Atkinson.
The Cooksville Country Store is owned by Waucoma Masonic Lodge No. 90, which meets on the second floor above the retail space. Many operators leased the space from the lodge over the years, and the Ebbert name joins the Hatlen, Ehle, Julseth and Ortman names, among others who have run the place.
When the store closed in January 2012, the community of 75 people rallied to find a new proprietor. Local historian Larry Reed said it took more than a year to find the right person. There were inquiries but for a variety of reasons, a deal wasn’t struck until one of Ebbert’s customers, who lives in Cooksville, told her about the store.
The Cooksville store provides a more convenient location to her Madison customers and fills a space that has been challenging for most operators. The locals frequent the store, but Ebbert’s business model is to draw customers from larger communities.
“Sue came along, and she was really gung-ho,” said Reed, 74. “I think Sue is doing a great job for the village.”
Stuart Fuller, 24, grew up in Cooksville and stopped in the store last week for a soda and to refill his water bottle after cross-country skiing at his parents’ place. Fuller now lives in Madison but worked at the store for a summer when he was in high school, although he admits he probably played more cribbage than anything else.
He thinks Ebbert has done a great service to the store and the community by remodeling and bringing life back to the space.
“It was losing money like crazy when I worked here,” Fuller said. “This is a giant leap.”
One thing that could help is that the store takes credit cards, something that in past years prohibited some sales to bicyclists and others passing through who carried only plastic and not cash.
Cooksville, part of the town of Porter, was platted in 1842 by John Cook, who purchased land from the U.S. government near Badfish Creek for $1.25 an acre. He built a sawmill, and the store followed a few years later. At one time, a stage coach stop and tavern, several blacksmith shops, a door, sash and blind company, two churches and a cheese factory were there.
When the railroad bypassed the town in the 1850s, population growth slowed and never surpassed 200 people. Today, according to Reed, about 65 people live in the community, which has nearly 35 homes and structures on the National Register of Historic Places, about 85 percent of the building in the town.
Ebbert is ensuring that history here lives on and is still functional at its most notable building.
“It’s come a long way,” Ebbert said of the store. “We just want to make it simple.”