George Peter Stegner
The Life and Death of An Independent Grocery Store
Condensed information comes from the Stegner family book by Sylvia S Stevens and is at the Campbell County Historical & Genealogical Society in Alexandria. The entire story and pictures can be found there.
George Peter Stegner was born 6 Apr 1860 in Cincinnati, the son of George Stegner and Barbara Bauder. His family moved to Ross where he became a farm boy, who wanted to live in the city. He father, George, needed him to help with work on the farm on Ten Mile Road. The issue was resolved when George P was 26 years old and a relative offered to provide the farming assistance his father needed. In 1885, George P set off for Newport, Kentucky, the big city where he was certain he would make his mark.
In 1885 he opened his first grocery store in Newport in a building still standing at the southwest corner of Saratoga and Seventh Street. That same year he met and married Anna Caroline Bernreuter (Carrie A). There he and his wife Carrie ran their grocery business and raised their children. In the German tradition the business was on the first floor and the family living quarters were on the second. Nine of their eleven children were born in Newport. The last two were born in Ft Thomas and nine of these children survived to adulthood.
George P became a successful businessman in Newport, his business thrive4d and he expanded it to three stores within the city. At one time he was elected as an alderman on the Newport City Council. In 1897 he served on the jury of the Pearl Bryan murder trial. His son, George Henry Stegner, the third child remembered taking lunch to his father while the jury deliberated. George P was a tall man of imposing stature over six feet tall. He allowed no alcohol, tobacco or other drugs in his home. Swearing was not permitted and he was one of the founders of the Christ Evangelical and Reformed Church. One of the windows in the sanctuary is named in his and Carrie's honor.
George P looked to the future to expand his business. In the late 1890s he saw the possibilities that the new town The Highlands (now Ft Thomas) presented to him. Thus he bought several acres of land on Mt Pleasant Ave (now Ft Thomas Ave) and Millers Lane in 1904. The land extended from the location of the present building housing the Ft Thomas Women's Club on Ft Thomas Ave to the corner of Millers Lane. He sold off the lots between to establish what would become the heart of the central Ft Thomas business area.
Like any prosperous German burgher, he built a spacious and imposing building which would house his new store and his family's home at the corner of Mt Pleasant/Ft Thomas Ave and Millers Lane. The family moved into the building in December 1904. The store was on the lower left side of the street level of the building. The kitchen and family dining room were on the first floor on the right hand side of the building. The family living quarters were on the upper levels of the building. The main entrance to the living quarters was on the right under the brick arched porch.
On Millers Lane behind the store he built a small barn to house the horses and equipment. In a few years, it became apparent that the barn was too small so it was torn down and a large three storey barn was built behind what is now the drug store and next to the old Highland Movie Theatre. This barn housed the horses, wagons and other equipment needed to operate a thriving grocery business.
On the site of the first barn, George P built a comfortable bungalow which still stands today. it was rented out at first, later to become the home of Floyd and Anna Stegner Basham (George P and Carrie's sixth child) and their family. When they moved on, Lucille Stegner (their eighth child) my great aunt Tip lived there. She created a lovely flower garden and bird sanctuary behind her house.
It seems that my grandfather, George H, did no have much choice about joining the family business. He completed his schooling while the family still lived in Newport and to my knowledge, he never had any other job other than worked with his father in the family grocery store. He became an expert butcher as well as a competent businessman. Special orders for the demanding clientele of Ft Thomas were his forte.
In stature, George H was not as tall or big as his father, but he was wiry and muscular. What else would be be after a lifetime of hefting sides of beef, sacks of potatoes and boxes of canned goods. He was a gentleman and a gentle man. Mild of manner and soft spoken, one listened when he spoke. There was always honesty and truth in what he said. The took great pride of ownership in the store.
George H and Marie Schmidt Stegner had two children; a daughter Ruth and a son George Arthur Stegner. George A did not choose to go into the family business. Instead he served in the Armed Forces during WWII after graduating from Miami University. He followed his passion for music, earning a DFA in Fine Arts and becoming a professor of music and chairperson of fine arts at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina and a prominent member of the arts scene in that city.
Ruth Stegner joined George H in the family business. Early on in WWII, it became apparent that there were no young men available to work in the store. They were needed in the war effort. She learned to drive the store's truck so she could deliver groceries to the customers. She became my grandfather's right hand person in day by day operations of the grocery.
What made our store unique? Start with the phone calls each day which my mother made to certain customers to see what they needed that day. We treasure the little red spiral ring notebook that I found in which she had written the names and phone numbers of our customers. Some she would call every day, other only if they were having a sale on chicken or pork or whatever she thought they might need. She developed long lasting relationships with these folks; they were more than salesperson to buyer. They were friends. Once the orders were taken, they had to be sorted for delivery. Rain or snow, sunny or cloudy, the blue Stegner truck went out on its daily appointed rounds. And during WWII my mother was the driver.
Aunt Tip was always the bookkeeper. She would send out the monthly statement to customers. her mother Carrie did that work prior to retirement. Aunt Ada Stegner Conner (the ninth child) established a bakery in the building's former dining room on the first floor. She provided excellent home baked pastries and breads for sale in the store. Aunt Ada would special desserts for the Methodist Chruch Ladies' Luncheons. Jonas Schmidt, George H's father in law and my other great grandfather, farmed the land behind the store and provided the grocery with fresh corn, tomatoes and other vegetables during the summer. Marie would prepare goetta at home for sale in the meat department of the store. When I was growing up, Marge Jarvis was a clerk in the store who filled orders for delivery. Bill Wessell was the second butcher behind the meat counter. Many young high school men, also worked for us Dick Pierce, Sherwood Williams and Bill Holmes come to mind.
The other service which Stegner's Grocery offered was credit. The orders were delivered with no requirement that payment be made on delivery. People could run up a tab that usually was paid each month, though not always. One document from the 1930s listed payment in full made by transferring five shares of Proctor & Gamble stock from the owner to George P. The minister at Christ E & R and his family did not go hungry during the depression because Stegner's made certain they had food, even if there was little or no money to buy it.
Several disasters struck the store building. Once a tornado blew out the front windows of the store. Merchandise from the grocery was found as far away as Henry Court. In 1958 lightning struck the meat department area. The resulting fire and smoke damaged much of the grocery. Ever present competition encroached on our business. Kroger opened a store in the next block. Albers was in the building across from then Christ Church E & R, now Christ Church UCC. Even with lower prices, the chains could not compete on quality.
On Saturday mornings George H would go to market in a big boxy truck with GEORGE P STEGNER AND SON painted on the side in distinctive coloring. My grandfather would scope a shovelful of hot coals from the furnace and put them in a metal box in front of the passenger seat in the truck which had no heater. We would stop at various merchants in Cincinnati along the Ohio River. First stop was at the Crosset Company, then Degaro and White Villa. White Villa provided the canned goods and staples for our store. This group of independent grocery stores had a large warehouse in Cincinnati which served the Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky area. My grandfather was the president of White Villa for a number of years.
I came to understand that he was caught between forces beyond his control. In order to keep the store in operation, he had to continue to offer the services to which his customers were accustomed even if they owed balances on their bills. However, his suppliers were not as generous with him. Cash flow became a problem.
Finally in 1969 my grandfather made the decision to close the business. He closed the store while he still had control of the situation. He did not have to declare bankruptcy or default on any loans. He quietly and in a businesslike manner, went about ending his father's dream. He sent out a letter to our customers, had a week long sale to get rid of as much of the merchandise as possible and closed the doors of the store. he and his wife Marie had several years of comfortable retirement prior to his death in 1986.
The building was sold to a pizza parlor which only lasted a few years. Then the lovely, sturdy, memory filled citadel of service was torn down in 1981. The gorgeous stained glass window from the stairway landing in the living section was moved to a restaurant, Then Wayside Inn, now Vito's Cafe. My mother saved a box of bricks from the store building for us.
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