Owner remembers history of General Store, beginnings of Country Messenger
If downtown Marine on St. Croix were a dinner table, the Marine General Store would be the centerpiece.
The oldest general store in Minnesota has hung on through boom and bust, somehow able to maintain its historic integrity as other small town groceries closed up shop, eaten alive by chains and corporate megastores.
The General Store’s quaintness isn’t forced upon residents and visitors. It doesn’t try too hard to be ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’ — it just is. That’s what makes the store and the town so special, and is in large part why Marine has remained such an attractive location for artists, writers and all other manner of dreamers looking for a unique place to call home.
The General Store has had many owners since its inception, one of the most well known being Ralph Malmberg.
In 1962 Malmberg was living in North Minneapolis in the neighborhood he grew up in with his wife Marion and their three children, selling trading stamps to grocery stores in the region. Trading stamps, popular in the ‘60s, were used as loyalty reward programs for businesses.
“$10 worth of groceries was worth $10 of stamps,” Malmberg remembered.
He and his business partner drove to Marine to visit the Strand General Store after hearing it was for sale. They met with then owner Roy Strand. The Strand family had owned the store for many years and Malmberg was taken with the store that sold everything from groceries to sewing supplies, shoes and hardware.
“The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to buy it,” he said.
Malmberg and his family bought the store and moved to Marine. In those days there was still a chicken coop in the back where the ice cream shop sits today, and Malmberg also became the town butcher. Once a week it would be butchering day and no one really liked it. Feathers flew everywhere, then the birds were soaked, prepared and packaged.
The General Store was immortalized by radio broadcaster Garrison Keillor, who was for a time a resident of Marine and frequent customer of Malmberg’s. In his News from Lake Wobegon bit on his weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, Keiller often mentioned ‘Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery.’
“The name ‘Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery’ I stole from Judy Wilcox, my landlady when I lived in Marine forty years ago,” Keillor said. “I also stole from her the slogan, ‘If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it.’”
One hot summer day, Malmberg passed Keillor cooling himself in front of the produce section. Keillor asked where all the cool air was coming from and Malmberg told him he had a fan rigged up in the basement and asked Keillor if he wanted to see it. On his way down the stairs, Keillor hit his head on a low spot in the ceiling and cursed. ”
“What’s that damn thing doing there?” he said.
Sure enough, Garrison worked the incident into a story in News From Lake Wobegon.
Some years after having the store, Ralph had an idea to start a newsletter for the town and he could promote his specials at the store. The Marine Messenger began as a one-sided sheet with two typed columns, held together with glue. As they finessed it, the Messenger progressed to a two-sided newsletter that was mailed to everyone in town. Malmberg’s wife did all the writing, typing and some sketches. She’d sometimes stay up till three in the morning working on it. Marine residents would submit events and stories and local children would help with added drawings.
“It took a lot of time but it was worth it,” Malmberg said. “People loved it.”
Local businesses ran ads in the paper. Marine had two gas stations and a lumberyard then. Fairway Foods was the general store’s food wholesaler distributor then and they would provide clip art to advertise the week’s specials. The paper began to cover Scandia as well.
“It was a good thing for the General Store,” Malmberg said.
A quarter of the store’s basement space was dedicated to the paper with a printing press and Ralph printed it by hand.
The paper would eventually turn into the Country Messenger, evolving over time, as did the General Store. Both remain integral parts of a community that’s as unique today as it was in 1968 when Malmberg first arrived in town.
“They were a big part of what helped built our success,” he said. “And people loved it.”
Poem to Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery
In dear old Marine on St. Croix
Nestled on the river shore,
Stands a graceful old frame building,
Home of Malmberg’s General Store.
Underneath its canvas awning
Village dogs lie in the shade,
Sniff the air and faintly smile
At the figures on parade.
From its door a fragrant odor
Drifts across the village square;
Every morning except Sunday,
Smells of baking fill the air.
In the city, grocery shopping
Is a chore that must be done,
But we go to Malmberg’s daily
Just to visit everyone.
Folks who live down in the valley,
Folks who live up on the hill,
Get together by the freezer,
Meet around the coffee mill.
Folks from Scandia, Osceola,
Otisville (or, some say, Copas)
Come to squeeze the new tomatoes
And see how fresh the cantaloupe is.
Back behind the old meat counter
Stands the owner, blonde and lean,
Father, runner, butcher, baker,
And messenger to all Marine.
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it over,
And never let its truth be doubted:
If you can’t find something at Malmberg’s,
You can get along without it.
So here’s to Ralph and all his workers,
Clerks and stock boys and cashiers,
You are the center of this village,
May you last for many years.