HAWKINS — When Valentine’s Village Store was severely damaged in a fire last fall — one year to the day after Pat and Alicia Valentine took it over — many people wondered if a local staple would be gone for good.
But residents of this rural Rusk County community rallied around the Valentines, then relative newcomers to northern Wisconsin. With their neighbors’ support, the couple never doubted they and their store would quickly recover.
“Something I learned through all of this is that people in the community were here to help us, and we hadn’t been here that long,” said Pat, who greets visitors by name, engaging in easy conversation about fishing and trapping and helping a shopper gather ingredients for homemade lasagna.
Lifelong Hawkins resident Randy Krings stops by regularly and said his wife does too.
“I’m really happy they’re here,” he said of the Valentines.
In sleepy Hawkins — population 305 — Valentine’s, just across from the Rusty Rail and down the street from the Lutheran church, is a hub of activity, especially after shifts let out at the Jeld-Wen window factory in town. The lunch hour also is a popular time as the Valentines serve up hot daily specials. From September through December, hunting season brings extra traffic through the store.
By far the biggest draw to the establishment is the fresh meat counter in the back, manned by Pat, a meat-cutter for more than 30 years. Fresh meat is hard to find around that area, and meats and cheeses make up more than 70 percent of the Valentines’ business. Pat said he only sells high-quality meats and packages 30 to 40 pounds of ground round daily.
“I believe in good, fresh meat,” he said, and “people appreciate it.”
Along with the usual variety of roasts, chops and steaks, the Valentines have added fish and shrimp this winter in response to customer requests. During summer months, Pat prepares a fresh brat of the week. His mushroom-and-Swiss brats are a top seller, with as many as 25 to 30 pounds sold in a day.
En route to the meat counter, customers find store and cooler shelves neatly stocked with everything from paper towels to peanut butter and from cold cuts to cold beer.
“We try to have one or two choices of everything,” Pat said. “There are still things we don’t realize people want ... and we try to get it in the next couple weeks.”
Because they’re small, independent operators, the Valentines often have difficulty finding vendors willing to supply them. For customers’ convenience, they buy some items such as produce from Walmart. Pat said he’d like to get a consistent supply of fresh produce from farmers.
While their prices overall may be slightly higher than those at big-box stores, the Valentines say they offer a hometown alternative and friendly customer service that’s hard to beat.
Sparked by an electrical issue in a walk-in freezer toward the back of the store, the Valentines’ store was heavily damaged in an Oct. 15, 2016, fire. The incident happened the night before the store’s one-year anniversary festivities.
“At 2 a.m., we got a phone call that the store was on fire,” Pat said.
The Valentines had no choice but to demolish the back half of their building; the ceiling had collapsed from all the water. Although they initially thought they could salvage some merchandise, smoke had permeated it so badly that it had to be discarded.
“Friends and community members just showed up to help,” Alicia said.
During the bitter cold last January, they poured concrete, erecting a tent to keep the construction area warm. The store’s drop ceiling was raised and LED lights installed for better visibility. The Valentines met their self-imposed deadline of reopening on April 1, April Fools’ Day. About 400 people attended the grand reopening.
Daily traffic through the store has almost doubled since they reopened. Alicia said they average 60 to 75 people on a typical day. Despite last year’s hardship, the Valentines say they have no regrets about buying the more than century-old Hawkins store and moving here from Oregon, just south of Madison.
“We had enjoyed the area on weekends. It was our weekend getaway,” Alicia said, adding that they had honeymooned in nearby Chetek in 1988.
To the Valentines’ surprise, they were warmly welcomed in Hawkins from day one.
“A lot of small communities don’t accept outsiders,” Pat said.
Valentine’s draws faithful clientele from the window factory, which employs up to 600 people at the peak of operation. A store closing in Prentice also nudged many shoppers their way, Pat said. The closest grocery stores to Hawkins are about a half-hour’s drive away, in Ladysmith to the west and Phillips to the east.
The Hawkins store, which first opened around 1897 as a post office and later was purchased by E.O. Kramer, who turned it into a store, had last been remodeled in the late-1970s. While it has always remained open and enjoyed a strong community following, Pat said, “it had gotten rundown.”
Looking back, the Valentines can say the fire was a blessing in disguise as it advanced their eventual remodeling plans.
“As bad as it was to lose it ... we love how the store turned out,” Alicia said.
In a nod to the past, frames display memorabilia unearthed in the walls and floor after the fire, including letters postmarked in 1900, an antique baby rattle and an 1899 Barber half-dollar dug out of the floor under the cash register.
The Valentines say they’re in Hawkins to stay, and plans could include the addition of a smokehouse and chicken broaster system. With no fast-food restaurants nearby, they hope to be able to offer more ready-to-go hot foods for people. Takeout pizzas already are popular.
The Valentines said they hope to help Hawkins avoid becoming a “ghost town” like some other small communities.
“The people are very proud of their store now. They bring their kids and grandkids in,” Pat said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“It’s not just about us; it’s about our community,” Alicia said.
Clausen writes for The Country Today, an Eau Claire-based rural life newspaper owned by Adams Publishing Group of Wisconsin.