Times Past: The rise and fall of Streeter’s General Store

  • Harold S. Streeter, second from left, built Nelson & Streeter, a car dealership, on Church Street in Bernardston in 1925. In later years, the business would evolve into Streeter’s General Store. Contributed photo

  • Dave Streeter’s father, Wendell Streeter, second from left, poses for a photo with his brothers, James at left and Milton at right, along with an unidentified individual, second from right, in front of Streeter’s General Store in the 1940s. Contributed photo

  • Streeter’s General Store in Bernardston is shown here in the 1930s, back before Church Street was paved. Contributed photo

  • After this store, located on Church Street in Bernardston, burned down, Harold S. Streeter built a new building, initially to house Nelson & Streeter, a car dealership. Contributed photo

  • Dave and Sandy Streeter

Published: 2/1/2019 4:26:25 PM

If someone were to write a play or a movie about our lives owning Streeter’s General Store, I’ve always thought nobody’d believe it.

It’s a story of how difficult it was to own a small business, trying unsuccessfully to compete with big box stores and changing regulations. It’s a story of trying new things, hoping to find the magic business model that would allow the store to survive. And it’s a story of finally walking away, with only a T-shirt, a cup and a whole lot of memories to show for it.

Streeter’s General Store, which operated for decades where Bernardston’s Hillside Pizza is on Church Street today, had roots back in 1919. Back then, my grandparents, Harold S. Streeter (known as H.S.) and Ethel Cairns Streeter, started selling groceries out of their nearby home, delivering them to their customers by horse and buggy.

I remember asking the two of them once why they decided to settle in Bernardston. In response, they joked that Bernardston was where one of the wheels had fallen off the wagon.

In any event, the home-operated grocery business was just the beginning for my grandfather. He sold anything he thought would make a nickel, and often made business trips to Canada, once selling more than 300 television sets.

In 1925, he built the store next to their house, having seen an opportunity to start from scratch when the brick building that was there burned down. But my grandfather wasn’t looking to sell groceries; he wanted to sell cars.

The new building allowed him to keep four cars in the showroom. He also parked cars along the side of the building and in a lot across the street, where houses sit today. At the time, the business was called Nelson & Streeter, as my grandfather had a business partner he later bought out. But it only lasted as a car dealership for 10 or 12 years, when the next generation of Streeters took over.

The next generation, made up of nine children, changed the business over to selling tractors and farm equipment, as well as some foodstuffs. Because my grandfather was also the fire chief for around 15 years, the store’s bottom level was used as a firehouse in the 1940s. It housed one truck, while another was kept at Ralph Deane’s. We all had to learn to drive a fire truck at age 10, and because we had such a large family, there was always someone around who could operate the truck. Prior to 1953, state vehicles were stored there, too.

My earliest roles at the store began when I was about 7 or 8, just over 70 years ago now. I would stock the shelves and sweep the floor. My grandfather would reliably come to my parents’ house — their names were Wendell and Dorothy Streeter — each morning at 5 a.m. to wake everyone to come to work, though the store didn’t necessarily have an opening time; if my grandfather was around, he’d open the store for anybody. He wouldn’t let a stray nickel go by.

Even when I was a teenager, my grandfather would knock on my bedroom window to wake me to come to work. He’d say, “You can stay out all night if you want, but you report to work at 5:30.” I eventually learned to cut meat, as did my cousin, thus earning ourselves the nicknames “Hamburg” and “Hotdog,” respectively. Soon all the neighborhood children picked up on the nicknames, and “Hamburg” and “Hotdog” became pretty famous.

The store stayed quite busy up until the 1960s, selling everything that a farmer might need to keep his own business afloat. Those farmers included some of our own family members; you could say we knew the farming business inside and out.

Trying to run a business split nine ways, however, was impossible. For years, my grandfather’s word was gold. He didn’t let the next generation make decisions, so when he finally let go of the business, they didn’t know how to run it. My father, Wendell, and I often tried to serve as mediators, but to no avail. A lot of my relatives had other jobs, too, that took them away from the business, but at the same time, they each felt like it was their store.

The construction of Interstate 91, though, dramatically changed the farming landscape, eating up all the Streeter family farms except for one in Northfield. As farmers went out of business, the store’s customer base dried up. We couldn’t turn our focus to groceries because we couldn’t compete with Big Y and Stop & Shop. We would buy a box of cans when the big box stores would buy in bulk, allowing them to sell items for less than we could buy them.

Streeter’s General Store continued to evolve, with everyone branching out to try to make money. My cousin, Bernie, ran a welding business downstairs in the mid-1980s, and later a towing company. We had also tried having gas pumps, which were installed on the cement where the porch is now. You couldn’t fit more than two or three cars in at a time, and the price of gas continued to rise, making the pursuit a failing endeavor.

My wife, Sandy, and I finally took over the store in the 1990s. We had been running Falltown Spirits just up the street, where Antonio’s II is today, consolidating the two businesses into Streeter’s. We also faced our hardships. Especially because of how close the store was to the river, it seemed as if there was always a new state or federal regulation that would cost $5,000 to implement. We eventually stopped selling gasoline and had to have the underground tanks removed, a job that was thankfully covered by a $75,000 grant.

Given our proximity to Interstate 91, we thought we’d do better business than we did. Near the end, we tried just about everything, selling fried chicken, antiques and high-quality, rugged clothing for the remaining farmers, hoping to preserve the business for a fourth generation.

We also struggled to dig ourselves out of back taxes. My grandfather was quite the salesman, but a bookkeeper he was not. He was a trusting man, and probably only got paid for about half the things he sold. But since he didn’t keep records of his sales anyway, there was no way of knowing for sure. 

In 2006, the doors of Streeter’s General Store closed for good, with Hillside Pizza later buying the building. We had a big tag sale to get rid of all the clothes, and donated a lot to the Salvation Army.

Truth be told, it’s almost easier to shoot yourself in the foot than to run a small business. But it was also fun while it lasted. I think the biggest upside is that you’re kind of independent, but at the same time, the store was like the news center of Bernardston.

We had a bulletin board that would announce marriages in town, and Sandy and I would chat and catch up with customers like at any small store. We’ve both lived in Bernardston all our lives and we’ve always enjoyed knowing our neighbors. Streeter’s General Store was a place where everyone knew your name.


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