BOULDER JUNCTION — We traveled to northern Wisconsin last weekend to fish some of the state’s prime muskie waters.
Bucktails, Phantoms, Squirkos and everything else in the box were tossed and retrieved on White Sand, South Turtle, Wildcat and three other lakes with uncooperative fish. And while we didn’t put our state fish in the boat after three days of casting in stiff wind, we were rewarded with spectacular colors that today should be at their peak.
We also discovered that the “Musky Capital of the World” is no longer a food desert and that fresh tomatoes, packages of chicken legs and aisles of soup, pasta, bread and barbecue sauce have this part of Vilas County abuzz.
After more than a year without a grocery store, the 1,000 or so permanent residents who call the Boulder Junction area home and the droves of tourists no longer need to trek nearly 30 minutes to Minocqua to fill up their carts. Instead, they’ve now got an 8,000-square-foot full-service grocery store right at Park and Main streets.
“They’ve got a great store in there. They’ve got everything you need,” said Theresa Smith, Boulder Junction Chamber of Commerce executive director. “It’s really a big deal the Coons did this.”
Smith was referring to Steve and Lisa Coon, longtime North Woods retailers who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the new venture. The Coons have owned the property since 1991 and since that time have improved the corner with a clothing store, bike and kayak rental shop and now the grocery store. They had built a 2,400-square-foot convenience store on the property in 1996, but when the community’s lone grocery store down the street closed in the spring of 2013, the Coons’ convenience store began stocking more grocery items.
With the store running out of space and long lines at the lone checkout counter, the Coons broke ground in April on a project that has further transformed their corner and made life here a bit easier, especially come winter, when piles of snow will return. The sliding doors on the new addition opened in July.
“It’s such a great mix of vacationers, vacation home owners and locals. There’s a lot of other smaller communities that probably couldn’t support (a grocery store), but I think because of the diversity of who we have coming up here it works,” Steve Coon said. “It makes Boulder a destination. The more things we can have in Boulder to make them turn in our direction, the better off we’ll be.”
Boulder Junction is surrounded by woods and water, is less than 15 miles from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and isn’t a major hub like Eagle River, Rhinelander, Minocqua or Hayward. But considering its size, the offerings are many.
The community is home to several restaurants, a hardware store, bank, sports shop, gift shops, a laundromat and even a place to get a car fixed. In November, Chad Temeling opened The Bakery in the downtown, adding fresh-baked pies, breads and pastries to the Boulder Junction business mix.
In Madison, there has been talk of food deserts, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a community of at least 500 people who live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store and, for rural areas, more than 10 miles. But Madison is one of the most well-stocked cities in the Midwest. There are pockets of the city that may be more than a mile from a grocer, but most of us, regardless of income, have multiple locations from which to choose.
Not so in the North Woods. Get outside one of the major hubs and finding fresh produce and meat can be an adventure. That’s why the reaction to the Coontail Market is so strong, something we witnessed first-hand last weekend at the 55th annual Colorama Dinner.
We were seated at one of the dozens of round tables in the historic Nash Lodge at Camp Manito-wish on Boulder Lake. During the summer, the YMCA camp founded in 1919 hosts thousands of youths from around the country who come to northern Wisconsin to swim, fish, explore and learn how to use a paddle. But last Saturday night, the dining hall was filled with adults who were there to feast on venison stew, roasted chicken and pie served by the North Lakeland School’s 23-student eighth-grade class. The dinner is a yearly fundraiser for the Boulder Junction Community Foundation and the students, who will likely apply for a grant from the foundation, were also working for tips to help fund their class trip.
During the evening’s program, which included raffles and community news, a mention of the Coon’s grocery store drew one of the strongest positive reactions from the crowd of more than 200 people.
“They’re very active people and always volunteering and trying to work for the good of the community,” Smith said. “They care about Boulder Junction, and they want to see it as a thriving community.”
Steve Coon is tied strongly to the North Woods way of life. His grandfather founded what is now Coon’s Franklin Lodge on South Trout Lake in 1892. Steve’s mother and father ran the lodge for decades and now his brother, Phil, and his family, run the property that features 29 cabins and a main lodge with a dining room complete with a muskie mount over the fireplace.
Steve Coon, 53, had been living on St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands with his wife before they had their three children but returned in 1991 to buy a small gas station with his brother in Boulder Junction. Steve and Lisa Coon have not only developed their corner in Boulder Junction but in 2011 added a 6,000-square-foot clothing and paddle shop and in 2013 opened a dock shop, both in Arbor Vitae.
In the 1950s, Boulder Junction was home to three grocery stores, including Long’s Hillbilly Market. In 1967, the Long family bought out Klassen’s Market before selling the business in 1997, which is when the name was changed to Boulder Junction Market Place. George’s, a restaurant, bar and grocery, closed in 2003 with the Market Place closing 10 years later and opening the door for the Coons.
The biggest challenge for the Coons is getting visitors to realize that a grocery store has returned to the community and for the locals to adjust their buying habits and return to buying their staples in town.
“We needed to build (the grocery store) big enough to let people know they can get what they need right here in Boulder,” Coon said. “Just to keep the businesses we have and keep (Boulder Junction) vibrant and fill up the store fronts, hopefully, the grocery store will help make that happen. We’re really in this all together.”