This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
WENTWORTH – After nearly 130 years in business, June 28 was auction day for Pelsue’s Mercantile. The day began with an ending and ended up with a beginning.
Wentworth’s last-standing, three-storefront stop was the oldest resident living in town. Its walls have housed a variety of businesses — including a long-ago bawdy house — but the core store has been around since 1893.
No one’s left to tell it, but it was a booming time for Wentworth. Perhaps the store started out of necessity during the mining days: The year prior, one newspaper says, Wentworth grew from 42 to 325 people.
It’s a much higher figure than the few dozen people and final business — if you don’t count the car wash — thereabouts today. It doesn’t even have a post office, a local notes, since it was affected by the Joplin Tornado and wasn’t reopened.
But times have changed, and as the clock ticked to 1 p.m., it was time for the store to close up shop.
It simply was time, says owner John Sweeney, given what the clock spoke up to say, and of life.
“I’m nervous right now — I don’t know what to expect,” says Sweeney. “Looks great, considering people are coming and going and looking all over.”
The day is one of significance in his life, given that his connection with the store began more than 60 years ago.
“I came into the picture in ‘61 (after) my natural mother passed in ‘58,” he says. “I was the youngest of four, so my dad decided to move back home where there was blood.”
Sweeney was just around 10 years old when the family moved to Wentworth from Gary, Ind., where his father had worked in the steel industry. The family moved in with his aunt, Agnes Pelsue, who then owned the store — and opening the store’s door also opened one in his life.
His aunt became involved in the 1940s, after marrying its owner. The match — made between two storekeepers, as she ran one across the street — was a bit outside the norm in those days.
“Agnes and Pete (Pelsue) were basically the same age, but one was a Catholic and one was a Protestant,” says Sweeney. “Back in the ‘20s, that was taboo.”
Around 30 years later, they overcame convention. “After she married Pete, they merged and had this store here,” he says of a union that took place in 1950.
Sweeney spent his childhood around the mercantile, helping deliver groceries when food was what people wanted from the store.
“When I was a kid growing up here, I would deliver groceries to about 18 different widow women,” he says. “They’d call in an order, and they’d fix it, and I’d get on my bicycle. I had a three-speed; I went here, there and yonder. They’d always call about when they had something on the kitchen table. They didn’t have much money back then because Social Security wasn’t that great.”
That start began a longtime connection. Later he returned and worked alongside his aunt, and that eventually led to his owning the business with his wife, Karen, in the 1990s.
The products around the store have changed with time. While remnants of the past still remind from store shelves — such as blue jeans, shoes, sewing notions and home goods — most sales in recent years have been of a different variety.
“It slowed down thanks to Wally World,” he says referring to Walmart. “It got down to all the convenience stuff.”
As Sweeney speaks, folks mill throughout the store, eager to see what’s for sale — or perhaps to find some memories.
A few of those folks are sisters Kris Roller and Monna Roberson, who spent time growing up in the store. Their grandmother worked in the store when they were growing up and Pelsue was affectionately known as “Aunt Agnes,” even though they weren’t related.
“There was a great candy counter and they sold penny candy,” says Roller. “You’d see some old men sitting out there, and they’d give us a nickel and we could come in. We would come in and get our bag full of candy for five cents.”
The duo remember days when Wentworth was different. Although they didn’t spend much time there growing up — their father was in the military — they speak of vivid memories given the family connection and the fact that they always came back.
“My grandmother’s house was two shorts and two long rings,” says Roberson of the party line phone tone, speaking of other businesses from days gone by — and, like Sweeney, she recalls days spent delivering groceries.
Those memories are perhaps even more real now. Roberson moved to Wentworth from Texas around six months ago after her husband passed away, just as Sweeny’s father returned, and just as Donna Weiss, another of Roberson’s sisters, recently did.
In Wentworth, it seems, people come home.
“My husband died last year and her husband died the year before, so we decided to come back and be with our family,” says Roberson. “We decided, instead of just making this once in a while, we’d just come up here and retire.”
One of the people she moved home to be near was her father, Clyde Stephens, who was a local civic advocate for more than 40 years. He moved home Wentworth himself after retiring from the military in 1976.
The 90-year-old suddenly died last Friday.
“He was planning to be here,” says Roller of the sale.
Perhaps his spirit was there as a few dozen-or-so folks gathered outside the store for the sale to begin. Round one led to two and led to the end, and within a few minutes, 129 years of history came to a close.
“Anybody want to cock your hammers?,” chanted the auctioneer, buying time for more bids, but eventually: “She said no, and I said sold!”
There were few bids, but all that mattered was the winning one — because it was the Stephens sisters who stood together to take the store home.
Or, perhaps, create a new home for the town.
The family joked about buying the store prior to Stephens’ passing, but it wasn’t a definite decision, his daughters said. But after his death, the family decided they should buy the store and keep it alive in some way — yet to be determined — for the good of the community.
“We said, ‘We ought to buy it, and at least we could preserve one building left of Wentworth,‘“ says Roller.
“He does not want it to turn into a lost town,” says Cassie Brewer, Stephens’ granddaughter. “He still wants there to be something here that the residents can use.”
Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region’s people, places and defining features since 2015. McConnell regularly shares her stories with readers of the Springfield Daily Citizen. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org