Janesville47.5°

Orfordville gas and grocery store a 'step back in time'

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GINA R. HEINE
February 6, 2011
— Donna's Gas & Grocery is the only place in the area where you can fill your gas tank, pick up groceries, rent movies and buy a bag of minnows.

It's also a place where kids can fill a bag with any flavor of two-cent Tootsie Rolls, or where people pick magazines off the rack and sit down to read them rather than rush through the checkout.


And when you're lost, you don't tell the clerk where you're trying to go—you tell them who you're looking for.


"This means everything to this community," said Roger Hergert, a GM retiree who was hanging out at the store one afternoon with a Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand.


Missing from the place where everyone knows your name—and then some—is Peggy Nelson, the hard-working owner who devoted more than 30 years to the business.


Nelson died Jan. 4 after fighting cancer since August 2009. A handwritten note taped to the counter thanks customers for their condolences.


"She didn't beat around the bush about anything," said Melissa Paulson-DeVoll, who at age 13 started her first job stocking shelves for Nelson.


Nelson was known for her dark brown hair that flowed down the length of her back.


"I always thought of her as the Crystal Gayle of Orfordville," said Paulson-DeVoll, whose mom and sister also worked at the store.


Regulars of the store will be happy to hear the business will remain in the family, managed by Nelson's four children: Lisa Geddes, Tara Turner, Bob Chamberlin and Jason Converse.


The siblings have turned down offers to sell the store because they want to keep it in the family to continue the personable atmosphere their mother was so well known for.


"There is not a big paycheck here," Geddes said. "It's about keeping it going, keeping it in the family and keeping it going for the town. (That's) pretty much the goal."


Though all of the siblings have other jobs, they are making decisions together with plans for small upgrades.


The business started in the family with the sibling's grandfather, Ervin Martin, and it was named after their grandmother, Donna Martin. Nelson took over the business when her father died in 1985.


Turner recalls going into work early with her mother before school, then going to sleep on a couch next to a space heater in the back office. Chamberlin remembers all the Thanksgivings his mom spent at the store, which was open on every holiday.


"It pretty much is the center (of Orfordville)," said Hergert, who will switch the coffee in the morning when the girls get busy. "You lose this, this community's gone."


The building is one of the village's few remaining original structures, though its actual age is unknown.


The exact history of the old white brick building at the corner of Beloit and Brodhead streets is murky, but family members say it is one of the original buildings in the village.


The building's past includes life as an opera house, bus garage and service station.


Much has changed over the years. Most notably, the counter used to be where the deli is now.


Each upcoming area event gets a spot on bulletin boards inside the door, along with pull-tab ads from locals selling snow removal services. Another step in the door and you'll find the deli with cylinders and bricks of Wisconsin cheese along with meat that is sliced on demand.


The bottom row of the brightly colored candy bar aisle is a destination for people from near and far.


"She would always send kids home with (Tootsie Rolls)," Geddes said of her mom. "We have people that stop—they're not from here and don't live here, but have been here—and they come from all over. They just to stop and get those, the penny Tootsie Rolls, or the soft-serve ice cream."


Past the checkout counter, the floor slopes up to the back of the store where everything from beverages and movie rentals to fishing bait awaits. A kitchen table with four chairs in the back becomes a coffee shop each morning, when locals come to "do their gossiping."


The siblings have considered adding fresh deli sandwiches or another flavor of soft-serve, with each decision getting a four-way vote.


"It's kind of a step back in time for people," Hergert said. "They can come in, relax and just kind of take a break."



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