Look what's cooking at Cooksville Store

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Neil Johnson
Friday, July 26, 2013

COOKSVILLE—After being shuttered for 18 months, one of the oldest general stores in Wisconsin soon will be up and running again. 

Since it opened in 1846, the Cooksville Store has seen scores of proprietors, but it's always been run as a general store in the tiny burg of Cooksville. The store's new tenant, Sue Ebbert of Fort Atkinson, is taking a new twist on the store's longstanding tradition.

Ebbert's new business will turn the Cooksville Store into a general store of the niche—think Amish-style foods and cooking ingredients, and organic foods and products.

Ebbert owns and operates Simple Life Country Store in rural Fort Atkinson, an organic food store that carries food products grown on Wisconsin Amish farms.

Ebbert said she'd been looking for a rural location with charm and a nearby customer base to add a second store. She'd never heard of the Cooksville Store until a customer from Cooksville came into her Fort Atkinson store last year and mentioned the general store had been closed for over a year and needed a new tenant.

After that, a group of Cooksville preservationists reached out to her about the store. Ebbert said she visited the place once and decided to take it on the spot.

Ebbert said she likes the Cooksville Store because of its location; it's closer to Madison residents who are repeat customers at her Fort Atkinson store, and it's a short drive for customers from Evansville. 

Ebbert said she likes the store's quaint, two-story, wood-frame architecture and the old-world character of Cooksville, which has a renovated church, a bed and breakfast and a blacksmith shop.

“Really, it's the charm of the town I fell in love with,” Ebbert said. “Residents try hard to keep the town historic.”

Over the last several months, Ebbert hammered out a rent agreement with the store's owner, a local Masonic Lodge chapter. She's spent the past several months renovating the store, and plans a grand opening in August.

The culinary market that Ebbert's business serves and the name of the town where her new store will be located is a coincidence and an irony not lost on her.

“It's odd. Our store's about cooking, and the town's called Cooksville,” Ebbert said.

Ebbert's store will focus on wholesome, chemical-free food and cooking ingredients, many of which are farm-grown on area Amish farms.   

“There will be no tin can stuff here,” Ebbert said. “If it's not in a glass jar, we don't sell it.”

Ebbert's Fort Atkinson store carries items including more than two-dozen varieties of flour; chemical-free, home-raised beef; spices; raw sugar; sea salts; hand-rolled butter; dried fruits; farm-grown, seasonal produce; along with Amish cereals, home-canned goods and fresh, take-and-bake pies.

Owners of the Cooksville store and local stakeholders are glad Ebbert found the store a good fit.

Historic Cooksville Trust coordinator Larry Reed said locals are excited about the work Ebbert's pumping into the store.

“It's going to look great,” Reed said. “She's enthused and so are we.”

For a time, the future of the store and whether it would ever open again as a business seemed unclear. Cooksville Store closed in 2011 after it lost its tenant, who at the time was running the store as a convenience mart.

At the time, sources in Cooksville said the store had not been profitable for several years.  

The Cooksville Store is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and was thought to be the oldest continuously operating general store in the state. The store has long served as the hub of commerce and social activity in the tiny burg. In 2010, the Historic Cooksville Trust, a local historical preservation group, paid $12,000 to install plumbing and running water in the store for the first time since it was built.

That cleared away a health code restriction that for several years had barred the store from selling perishable goods.

Ebbert has put in new cedar walls to dress up the building's interior. She's keeping the original wood floor but refinishing it. There's one major addition to the store: a new heating and air-conditioning system.

A blacksmith shop next door plans to move some sculptures and an ancient iron jail cell closer to the store. Ebbert said she hopes they'll create curiosity and draw people off the road into the store.

Ebbert said her store will be set up to give customers hands-on access to food ingredients. For instance, she said, the store will be stocked with barrels of ingredients, and old-style weighing scales.

“The idea is for it to look like a turn-of-the century country store,” Ebbert said.

A big change at the store: It will no longer sell gas. In fact, Ebbert's removing the store's gas pump and underground gas tank.

Ebbert plans to add fresh sandwiches and other products once she learns what local residents would like stocked. A few already have put in suggestions.

“I've already got requests for craft beer and certain types of coffee. Not Folgers,” Ebbert said.

Last updated: 3:30 pm Friday, July 26, 2013

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