Though general store is no more, owners hope to reinvent historic building

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

— Its days as a general store appear to be over, but owners of the 166-year-old Cooksville General Store hope the defunct business can one day reinvent itself as a restaurant or specialty coffee shop.

Steve Ehle, a member of the Waucoma Masonic Lodge, which owns the building at 11313 N. Highway 138 in Cooksville, said the store has been empty since a tenant who was running the convenience store left 13 months ago.

For decades, the lodge has owned and rented the downstairs to dozens of storekeepers. Although some state history scholars question the designation, local historians believe Cooksville Store is the oldest continuously operating general store in Wisconsin.

Ehle said the last tenant was about the seventh person who’s tried to run the store in the past 15 years. He said she found out after about a year that there was no way she could buy food, mark it up 20 percent above grocery store prices and turn a profit.

So she left, and the white, two-story, wood frame gas station and general store has been vacant since.

Ehle said the lodge isn’t holding out for anybody else to try to reopen the store, and the lodge is planning to drain and remove the gasoline tank that’s buried in front of the store’s covered front porch.

The building is on the National Registry of Historic Places. In recent years, it has served as a kitschy roadside oasis for spring and summer sightseers and bicycle tourists looking for a cold drink or a treat. It’s been the hub, de facto post office and lutefisk depository for the 75 residents in Cooksville. The Masonic Lodge has met upstairs for years.

But all that hasn’t been enough to float the store. Ehle said the business model is broken. Something’s got to change if Cooksville Store is ever to fly again.

“You can’t stay open selling Gatorade and ice cream,” Ehle said. “Running that place as a quote-unquote ‘general store’ is not going to work. I think we have to be pretty transparent about that.”

Instead, the Masonic Lodge has been meeting with potential investors and tenants who Ehle says are considering deals to turn the store into a restaurant, potentially a coffee shop-deli.

“It’s gotta be a destination place,” Ehle said.

He said one local investor has expressed interest in fronting money for a project to move forward with a deli plan. A Madison woman did a commuter traffic survey.

“Cooksville is a bypass for people avoiding the highway between Janesville and Madison,” he said.

Ehle said a few investors believe a coffee shop at the store could serve commuters, and a deli could serve locals and people on their drive home from work.

There are no rules that prevent a tenant or the lodge from updating the inside of the building, which is mostly original wood from when the store was built in 1847.

Ehle said the lodge is now looking at business plans from a few potential investors, one from the Madison area. The plans would have to involve an enclosed kitchen and a sink.

Ehle said that work could cost around $10,000, and the lodge likely wouldn’t absorb those costs.

For the last year, Ehle said, he has been scraping together money to pay the taxes on the property. The store’s tenants used to pay rent, which covered the taxes.

“I wanted to leave the window open. A year ago, the Masons had to make a decision of whether to keep that lower level a commercial entity.”

He said the lodge could continue to hold onto the property as a meeting place, and he’s not sure if lodge members will ever give up on filling the storefront.

“We just want to get something decided soon,” he said.

Last updated: 8:07 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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