Residents of Yamhill frequently drop by the T & E General Store on South Maple Street if they need a loaf of bread, gallon of milk or pound of ground beef.
They might also want to pick up some furniture, or perhaps a bugle, stepladder or vintage Coke machine while they’re at it. T & E has it all.
“You never know what you’ll find here — treasures, my dad calls them,” said manager Mary Landauer, the daughter of store owner Bob Landauer.
He has owned the store since 1976, but T & E General Store itself dates back to 1903, when it was opened by the original T & E: Daniel Trullinger and his brother-in-law Charles Eustice.
For generations, rural residents counted on their local general store as a place to buy anything and everything. Many such stores still dot the Oregon landscape, but their owners see the future looming.
And it’s a future that doesn’t include them or their cherished businesses.
Nearby communities offer big-box stores like Walmart and Target. Online merchants ship to most front doors.
Then there is Dollar General. Executives for the growing retail outlet, now with 17,000 stores in 46 states, follow a corporate strategy of building stores in small rural communities with populations under 10,000 in what are called “food deserts.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials define food deserts as lower-income rural communities where a substantial number of people have only one or two grocery stores. A typical Dollar General store moves into such a market with an average of 7,400 square feet of discount merchandise.
All these factors combine to create a terminal prognosis for the traditional general store, Bob Landauer said.
“That scares the heck out of me,” he said, “but eventually it’s going to happen.”
Americans stand to lose more than a congenial place to jaw with one another while buying food and hardware, said Audrey Yoder, who co-owns the Yoder Store with her husband Paul off South Kropf Road near Molalla.
General stores provide an unbroken link to the past, she said.
Her store still has the raised porch constructed in 1915 to accommodate horses, wagons and buggies.
The history of the store is the history of the Yoder community itself. Jonathan Yoder, Paul Yoder’s great-grandfather, founded the local mill in 1889. In so doing, he basically created the unincorporated town that bears the family name.
“In 1914, an electric train came through town, and Jonathan Yoder said, ‘Hey, we need to start a store,’” Audrey said. He contracted with Andrew Cleave of Canby to build the store and rented the building to L.G. Wrolstad for $50 per month. Wrolstad and his family bought the building outright in 1918.
The Wrolstads operated the building for most of the next 54 years. Several different owners followed until Paul and Audrey Yoder returned it to the Yoder family in 1990.
Little has changed over the years. The aging boards still creak as people walk along the porch to the front door. Inside, the main floor is crammed with groceries, notions and hardware, as well as some handcrafted items sold on consignment. There are even T-shirts, postcards and other souvenirs featuring the store itself.
Additional hardware and farm equipment line a balcony that runs along the south edge of the building.
The Yoders live in a house attached to the back of the store. Their cash register is no more than 10 paces from their kitchen. “One thing I really like about this job is the commute,” Paul said.
Audrey said she is especially fond of the customers. “I have to say, there’s a lot of nice, friendly people who come in,” she said. “I wish I had a diary of all the people I’ve known.”
Most of the faces are familiar. While it’s nice to see old friends, Paul said there are drawbacks to that kind of customer base — especially in an isolated rural area.
“It’s hard being a general store,” he said. “Even though we’re a general store, we mostly sell convenience items. We mostly get the regulars, the people who come for lunch or breakfast, coffee and snacks, in the morning. This is not a highway that draws a lot of people we don’t know.”
The beginning of the end for general stores actually arrived some 60 years ago, Audrey said.
“We can tell it’s changing, but it first started changing in the ‘60s with big grocery stores,” she said. “That really changed how people shopped. All of a sudden, they could go flashing to town in their flashy cars and go to the supermarket.”
The Yoder Store is open less these days. The store used to stay open until 7 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Now it closes at 3 p.m. “The change started because of COVID, but we decided we like it.”
WHEELER COUNTY TRADING CO.
While isolation may hurt the Yoder Store, Gabe Salvage said owning an isolated general store keeps him going. His Wheeler County Trading Co., in the small eastern Oregon city of Mitchell, does a robust business, he said.
“I could use a store twice the size,” he said.
And he does it without the help of the Internet. It does little good to promote his business online anyway, Salvage said.
“Cellphones don’t even exist out here,” he said. “I mean, they exist, but they don’t work. We sell a lot of maps. People get outside their service area and notice their phones don’t work.”
Mitchell, a community of 142 people, sits along U.S. 26 roughly halfway between Prineville and John Day.
“Everything is at least 40 to 50 miles in any direction,” Salvage said. “It’s a long drive between John Day and Prineville. They get to Mitchell, and they just expect there to be a store here.”
It’s been that way for a long time. The store was built sometime in the 1880s to serve weary travelers, he said.
His grandfather renamed it the Wheeler County Trading Co. in 1985. It had been Norton’s General Store. It has also been known as Oak’s Mercantile and Brady’s Cash and Carry.
“I love the variety of being able to sell everything from hardware to feed to groceries,” Salvage said. “If it was just a grocery store, that would be boring, but we sell everything from T-bones to 2-by-4s. It keeps it interesting.”
Salvage start running the store in 2018. One of the draws for customers is that he continues making sausage at the site, following a time-honored family recipe.
“When I got back into the business, I just copied my grandpa’s recipe,” he said. “People loved it then, and they love it now.”
There’s a lot that people seem to love about the store, he added.
“We had a lady come in the other day from Sunriver, saying it was worth the trip even if she didn’t see anything else,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s a real treat to come to the store. You’d think it would be the painted hills, but it’s not the painted hills, it’s the store.”
T & E GENERAL STORE
Yamhill’s T & E General Store is such a community institution that a local celebration evolved around it.
The town’s annual Derby Days started in 1953 to celebrate the store’s 50th anniversary. Except for a brief interruption because of the pandemic, it’s been held every third Saturday in July ever since. Mary Landauer runs the event’s annual auction.
The community owes a lot to the store’s founder Daniel Trullinger, Mary said.
“He’s the one who really progressed the community,” she said. “He literally brought electricity to Yamhill.”
When Bob and Valerie Landauer took over the general store, Bob’s sister Rilla Meyer soon followed. Her husband Larry was the store’s manager up until two years ago, when he retired and Mary took on the job.
“That’s pretty crazy that we’ve all stayed here,” Meyer said. “All our kids worked here. Grandkids too.”
Mary, who majored in business administration at Pacific University in Forest Grove, said she sticks to running the business, freeing her father to find more treasures for the store.
“He loves estate sales,” she said. “He lives to buy stuff in general.”
He started to going to auctions with his parents when he was 12.
“I used to do storage units, but I quit when that ‘Storage Wars’ show came on TV,” he said. “It pushed the price up. I used to pay $200 per unit. Those same units are now going for $1,000. Sometimes you find stuff in them, but not usually. Now I just do estate sales.”
He used to just bring his found treasures home. Now, they go to the store.
Aside from collecting curiosities, Bob Landauer said his favorite part of the store is the customers.
“I really enjoy the people,” he said. “Mary does all the responsible stuff now, so I just come down and visit. I know almost everyone by name, even those who come from out of town.”
The Landauers worry about what Yamhill and other communities will be like once their general stores vanish.
There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned general store, Bob Landauer said. “You walk around the store, it’s almost like a museum,” he said.
One day, and perhaps sooner rather than later, small-town residents and visitors won’t have general stores to buy their T-bones and 2-by-4s. They will stop by their local store for a bag of chips and won’t be able to find a radio from the 1940s.
Paul Yoder said when he and Audrey are ready to retire in a few years, they are unlikely to sell the store to another generation. They will probably bow to the cold, unsentimental reality of the 21st century and let the 107-year-old institution fade with the horses, wagons and buggies that once rode up to the front porch.
“I’m guessing it will have kind of run its course, and that will be the end of it,” he said.
— Tom Henderson | For The Oregonian/OregonLive