The metal dairy containers, horse collars, carriage wheels and other artifacts that hand high on the walls at the Schuette family's St. Rose grocery store are not props, but actual inventory from the business' past.
The high ceilings inside the small Clinton County store on St. Rose Road are adorned with these and other relics that were sold in the family's general store. Five generations of Schuettes continue to sell goods to customers in St. Rose 150 years later.
Fourth-generation owner Mike Schuette said the business is the oldest continuously operated family grocery store in the nation. According to the Illinois Food Retailers Association, the family store is the third-oldest family-operated retailer.
"From the beginning, the whole strategy has been not as much to make money, as to help the community somehow get goods, food and supplies they need to survive," Schuette said.
"We really do try to do everything to support the local community and organizations, schools, hospitals, churches. We really try to help each city and municipality. They mean everything to us. We're not just here to make big bucks and then we're done after we wrench the place dry and go on to the next place. We're totally committed to help these towns because we live here and our employees live here and we know if we don't make it here, we're out of business."
It was in this town where Schuette's great-grandfather Peter Schuette -- a German immigrant -- established a trading post in 1863. Schuette said at the time, people did not have money and bartered for goods.
"It was frustrating because if you needed something, national banks didn't exist, yet," he said. "They didn't come into existance until 1898. If you needed a hatchet or eggs, and you had potatoes to trade, you had to find somebody that had a hatchet or eggs who was interested in your potatoes and then you still had to figure out how many pounds of potatoes would be a fair trade or how many dozen eggs you could trade for a hatchet. So trading and commerce and just getting basic supplies was really challenging."
Six years later, the trading post was Peter Schuette's full-time occupation. Peter Schuette's sons Joseph and Frank began working in the store in 1887, and the business sold dry good, shoes, stoves, tailor-made clothes, hardware, sewing machiens, abrbed wire, carpets and linoleum. Their St. Rose general store also sold cows and other wild animals and at one time was the largest supplier of fresh eggs in Clinton County. They also had an adjacent dairy and meat production building in St Rose.
The business grew and expanded to as many as 17 stores in neighboring cities throughout Southwestern Illinois. But after World War II, the business was scaled back and 13 stores eventually were closed.
"The hardest on us was World War II," Schuette said. "From what I can read and understand about it is that so many of our employees either got drafted or enlisted that they didn't have enough manpower to keep the stores going. So they started consolidating stores."
The store's name also evolved and took on the name of its wholesaler through the years. The trading post was named Peter Schuette's General Store. When Peter Schuette's sons Frank and Joseph took over and the business grew, it was renamed Schuette Bros. Later, the business was renamedCalifo Markets, then SSS Super Tom Boy Market. From the early to mid 20th Century, the business was known as Piggly Wiggly. For about the past 40 years, it had been known as Super Value, then Super Valu Foods. This year, to commemorate its 150th anniversary, the business has come full circle and has been renamed Schuette's Market.
Mike Schuette entered the family business in 1976 after he gradauted from law school. He initially studied business but after two years shifted his major. He later found that his knowledge in law helped him as a business owner with contracts and other aspects of running a business.
He started working in the grocery stores with his brother Tom, who later left the company, and was initially focused on keeping the family business going.
"Once I made the decision to be in this business, my concern was can I keep this going?," he said. "All of these years, we've been up against giants in the industry. Kroger, National, Schnucks and Dierbergs and all of the independents, like IGA and others like ourselves, and then the specialized markets like Whole Foods and Walmart, Aldi's, Sam's and Costco. Dunkin' Donuts even competes. But one thing that I think people know is that we really are committed to serve the people."
They eventually had eight stores. Five stores in St. Rose, Breese, Carlyle, Highland and Troy are in business today. Now, at 64, Schuette envisions working for about five more years and then in a part-time capacity after that. Two of his daughters share the day-to-day adminstrative duties with him and will soon take over.
Oldest daughter Sarah Goodwin, also an attorney, and daughter Tessa Wiegman, who has a master's degree in business, co-run the businesas. Another daughter, Carmen Schuette, is a photographer who also works part-time for the business.
Wiegman, who is the vice president of adminstration of Schuette's Market, said she knew working in the family business was always an option, but initially moved to Chicago to work for another grocery chain before deciding to come back.
"I always left it open," Wiegman said. "I worked in Chicago, after graduating from college, at Cub Foods so I could understand things a little bit more about the grocery business. Then I came here and decided to work here."
Throughout his family's long history, Schuette said the business' focus remains unchanged.
"By serving the town, we think they become more loyal to us. And by supporting the local producers, we're helping their local economy."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2526.