Memories of the Tommy Store
By David F. Daniels
Grandson of Conrad “Connie” Bobb
The Tommy Store operated roughly from 1932-1958 and was located across the street (directly west) from the current Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Main Street in Shawano, Wisconsin. At the time of the Tommy Store, the church rectory was adjacent to the church to the south. The “old” Catholic Church was on Center Street with the janitor’s home on the SW corner of Main and Center. Even though the Tommy Store was across Main Street from Sacred Heart, there never seemed to be any religious concern with his restaurant being liked by all.
The priest, Father Richard Schaefer, would frequently give “bums” a written paper note allowing for a small meal which the church would reimburse if Conrad asked. I suspect some other pastors also helped the poor & vagrants. I remember my grandfather directing beggars to the priest’s house, I believe to give a second opinion to the actual need and it tempered regular repeaters.
Grandpa would drive to the Tommy Store in his 1929 black Ford Model A pickup which he owned until the early 50s. In 1949 he purchased a green Buick 4-door Super (which I learned to drive at age 16) and this mostly replaced the Ford except for hauling whatever.
The Tommy Store had two grills, a flat grill used primarily for eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches but occasionally also for hamburgers during rush times. The main hamburger grill was heated on two levels, the lower level functioned also as a grill and the top level which was used to toast hamburger buns just prior to serving.
Hamburger arrived fresh every day from the former Kleeman’s Meat Market just down Main Street. Hamburger arrived in large butcher paper wrapped packages. We measured the meat for individual burgers using a metal scoop.
Fish was featured on Fridays; deep fried perch with French fries and tartar sauce, served on plates with flatware. French fries were prepared from large Idaho potatoes, peeled, then cut with a cutter for this specific purpose. Odd sized potato pieces were deep fried to clean the used fish cooking oil and then discarded. I learned to like fried potato skins from this.
Daily operating hours were 11 a.m. till 2 a.m. although Grandpa would leave home early to make necessary supply purchases and prepare for opening like stoking the fire for winter warming or opening windows in the summer, making coffee, warming the grills, scooping fresh hamburger balls for hamburgers, and last-minute cleaning. Fans were used in the summer when temps inside became uncomfortably hot.
In the morning at the dining room table, Grandpa counted each previous day’s income and paid bills. He kept meticulous business records including weather and more. He piled coins and dollars in stacks of ten and then counted stacks. As a kid I remember being given a penny now and then.
As we closed the store for the day, the wooden plank floors were mopped with a caustic soap, counters washed, dishes washed, garbage removed, and grills and coffee turned off and cleaned.
Grandpa Bobb had a background in retail merchandise. He lost general store located in the former Muehl’s Furniture Store on Main Street during the depression. He also sold Fuller Brushes before and during his Tommy Store years beginning about 1938.
In the winter the Tommy Store was heated with a small iron wood burner on the north wall. Firewood was stacked behind the building. The windows were leaky single pane style, insulation was merely a future invention. During winter’s closed times Grandpa would go to check the temperature to prevent frozen pipes which were known to happen.
I only knew the Tommy Store as it existed with an addition around all four sides of the original building. The original building’s center is now on my son’s property after being purchased for a child playhouse by a Shawano resident when Grandpa retired. Only the original center of the building was saved, moved, & preserved.
Customers were served on a counter around three sides of the original Tommy Store area. High back-less wooden stools were used by customers on three sides of the counter. There were no tables or booths because there was no room. On the fourth side was the prep & cooking area, a tiny restroom, the heating stove, the dishwashing area, and a small storage area.
Sandwiches were individually wrapped and served on waxed papers which also served as place mats. Chili soup, Grandpa’s recipe which I still use, was prepared in batches on the electric range and served in glass soup bowls. Pork Bar-B-Q’s, another one of Grandpa’s recipes I continue to use, were also from previously prepared batches. Toasted cheese sandwiches used only sliced processed American cheese which was also used for cheeseburgers. Ice cream was served as cones but could be ordered in small glass dishes with chocolate syrup, strawberry or pineapple toppings, popsicles and ice cream bars were also available. Carry outs in paper bags were popular.
Among my other part-time jobs, I would carry pop and other supplies using a permanent wooden ladder to the “basement”, a small beach sand dugout storage area accessed by a floor trap door in the “extension” which encircled the Tommy Store. This trap door was located in the floor about half way between the sinks and the stove. This basement area was lighted by a single electric bulb hanging from the ceiling and was cool and dry. This was the principal storage area for “extra” supplies due to the small total area of the restaurant.
A few other of my memories of the Tommy Store:
- Being paid 10 and later 25 cents per hour for helping at the Tommy Store. I likely started helping about age ten after school until suppertime. By the time I was thirteen I could be trusted to make and serve daytime menu items and to collect and make change for purchases. Some nights I would assist Grandpa until closing.
- The bathroom, located in the SW corner, was tiny with a single stool and hand sink. Cleaning the bathroom was one of my “jobs” I disliked the most because it was hard to clean because of the materials used for the walls and floor and it was such a small area.
- The narrow shelves behind a glass door from which we dispensed about 6 brands of cigarette packs for sale to customers. My dad Dick assured us he would quit smoking when cigs cost 25 cents for the single 20 pack…he actually began to quit at age 75. Grandpa Bobb never smoked to my knowledge.
- Occasionally working with Grandpa until closing time at 2am. A regular (drunk) customer, totally uncouth, smelly, and shabbily dressed would usually come in after 1am or coffee. Grandpa Bobb could relate to this inebriated person while I only seemed to incite his ranting.
- The street cleaner passing daily with his wheeled bucket, broom, and shovel picking up horse droppings. People still came to Shawano riding horses.
- The Holsum bread truck, driven by “Scotty” delivering fresh bread and hamburger buns daily. He was always cheerful.
- The ice man coming daily with blocks of ice for our two ice boxes, one between the inside door and the grill, and the other on the south wall of the addition near the door. At some point a refrigerator was squeezed into the rear area of the expansion which provided the efficient cooling of food.
- Opening the back entrance door of the addition with a skeleton key and locking the front door with an inside hook.
- Getting a small can of kerosene from Gene’s Deep Rock gas station next door to the north. We used a rag to rub kerosene across the thresholds to keep ants out.
- The parking lot on the south side which allowed cars to also drive around behind the Tommy Store. This connected to the gas station but was not a drive through. The Gritzmacher trucks, operating out of a large building behind to the west would use part of this as their entrance drive. I believe that Grandpa rented the property for the Tommy Store from him.
- Painting the entire outside and some of the inside walls one summer, likely when I was age 15. I remember the heat, the outside flies, the webs and dirt which had to be cleaned before painting. The end result looked good but began my life-long hatred of painting.
- Working with Mrs Kritzer (spelling?), the only Tommy Store employee I remember, inside the small center area, grilling hamburgers, chili, Bar B Qs, French fries, and more as well as serving ice cream cones and sundaes, soda in bottles, and all the items on the menu. Menus were on cards hand lettered by Grandpa Bobb (he had training in calligraphy as a young man). Purchases were almost entirely paid for by cash with the money held in a change drawer under a small prep counter near the pop machine.
My dad Dick Daniels was married to Conrad’s daughter Constance “Connie”, a nurse who worked at the Shawano Hospital during WWII while Dick fought in the US Army in Europe. Dick would use his repair skills to occasionally help “fix” items at the Tommy Store. Due to his job with Bingham and Risdon Dairy Supplies in Green Bay, WI, on Pearl Street, he was able to purchase and install an updated stainless steel 3-sink area for washing dishes to match codes for cleanliness. One sink used for washing dished with soap, one for rinsing in hot water, and one for rinsing in chlorinated water.
I will never forget one example of Dick helping with a repair. In the process of whatever he was fixing or building he came upon an open bottle of whiskey. Delighted he took a generous drink…only to be totally dismayed when its heavily salted taste proved to be Grandpa’s home medicine remedy! I think Dick cried at this desecration of good booze!
During my early years it was Grandpa Connie whom I admired and was also my “father figure.” He taught me many things such as how to go on smiling with life and with no complaints despite hard times and failures, that movies are produced by humans in Hollywood so you never need to be frightened because these are only actors, how to greet, cook, serve and wait on customers, then also make change and say good-bye to them with a “Thank You” and a smile.
Grandpa was also very kind to everyone which I admired. He was “old” but he never acted old, teaching me that old is neither a disability nor a condition to fear in myself or others. I regret not learning German from him in which he was fluent.
Thank you Grandpa Conrad “Connie” Bobb for everything that you taught me.