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Carrying on Tradition

By Cecil Stehelin

Early in the morning, as the sun begins to rise over the vast central plains of Kansas, Scott Nelson approaches the airy porch of a small red brick building. The first rays of light dance across the petunias and geraniums, spilling over onto an old flatbed cart by the entrance. Nelson unlocks the front door and sets about opening up the shop in the auburn glow, preparing for the morning rush.

Photograph courtesy of Efren Lopez/Route66Images.

“If you’ve been here long enough, you know basically what people need to know — if they have something they need help with,” Nelson explains. “Of course, we have a convenience store on the corner, but it’s like any convenience store. [We’re] kind of unique.” Nelson’s Old Riverton Store is, indeed, unique. It has been in continuous operation for 94 years and is part of the living history of Route 66. Scott Nelson, the shop’s current namesake, is an upholder of the ancient custom of the family grocer — a time-honored tradition with roots extending to the birth of civilization; a tradition that has almost disappeared from modern America. Today, the shop has changed little from its original 1925 construction, with the daily rituals of preparing the register and stocking the shelves performed under this same roof by a variety of owners over the decades.

This enclave of old America and the small community that surrounds it is the pivot point of Kansas 66. The 13.2 mile stretch of the old road that just barely slices through the southeast corner of the state, the shortest section in all eight Mother Road states, ties it all together. The Old Riverton Store predates the designation of Route 66 by eighteen months. Moreover, the Mother Road would not have passed through Riverton at all if not for the intervention of the ‘Father of the Route’ himself, Cyrus Avery.

Unincorporated Place

When Cyrus Avery was appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways in 1925, Congress was proposing a highway beginning in Virginia Beach, Virginia, using the roads that would become Highway 60, until they reached Springfield, Missouri. From Springfield, a new road would be paved west through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, before turning south towards L.A.

Avery, hoping to avoid the expense of building through the Rocky Mountains, was keen to route the national highway through his adopted state of Oklahoma, as Nelson elaborates:

“He talked them into routing it through Oklahoma, so then instead of going directly west out of Springfield, they ran southwest through Joplin, and then through the corner of Kansas and Oklahoma. Basically, the part of Oklahoma where I-44 goes through now is about ten miles south and east of here. It’s really hilly in that area, so there weren’t many roads in that area that were good roads. But if you just come west out of Joplin and go through Kansas, then down through Oklahoma, you know, through that little spot there, [those] roads were existing [ones] as well.”

The town of Galena, named for the rich lead deposits in the area, grew into a prosperous mining town after its founding in 1871. The increased mine activity necessitated improvement of the area’s gravel roads.

“That section of 66 [was paved] by the tailings from the mine,” said Renee Charles, President of the Kansas Route 66 Association. “Baxter Springs was a cow town, [and] between the cattlemen and the mine owners, they wanted to go with black top.”

But Riverton has its own unique story. The community grew from a Dutch Quaker colony known colloquially as Vaark. In 1919, when the first post office was established, the postal service took the liberty of changing their new outpost’s name to Riverton, because, as Nelson noted, “It just sounded nicer.”

Nelson’s father, Forrest Nelson, still charming and exuberant at the age of 96, described Riverton as “Three miles from Galena on one side, and five miles from Baxter on the other side. That’s about nine miles; we all call that Riverton.”

By far the biggest employer in the young community was the Empire Electric District Power Plant that still dominates the eastern bank of the Spring River. Its coal-powered generating unit, nicknamed “Old Kate,” helped power the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. It was brought to Riverton in 1913, powering communities as far as Springfield. Riverton grew from a loose collection of farmsteads and Quaker “Friends” churches into a tight-knit community.

The Williams Store

Leo D. Williams, born in 1892, got a job at the Riverton plant after returning home from the trenches of WWI. His wife, Lora, born in 1893, saw the need for a grocery store in the town and set up a small stand across from the plant, serving lunch to help supplement her husband’s salary, until, according to Nelson, “[They] found out that [they could] make more money in the grocery business then at the Electric Plant.” Leo Williams quit his job, and the couple became full-time grocers. “The original store that the Williams family built [was] blown away in a tornado in 1923, so they rebuilt in this location,” Nelson explains.

Nelson family photo. Photograph courtesy of Scott Nelson.

The new location was finished on March 20th, 1925. Built of dark red brick and covered by a tin roof, the enclosed porch faced the highway with a facade of French doors, allowing patrons in the seating area a pleasant view of the Mother Road while they enjoyed their lunch. Sandwiches and the family chili recipe were on offer from the deli as well as barbequed beef and venison from the pit Leo ran behind the shop. The building was split into two parts, with the open eastern section containing the deli and grocery store, while the western section was divided into three rooms that served as the living quarters for the Williams and their daughter, Jane, born in 1929.

“They carried everything you’d expect in an older store in the ‘20s. They carried feed and flour, [and] they carried kerosene and oil— just all your basics,” says Nelson. “They even had a croquet court out there for night-time entertainment.”

The store became the heart of the community, providing essentials like groceries and gas from the pumps out front and serving as a meeting place — whether it be a meal with friends or a croquet tournament. Travelers from both directions poured through the small community, with the Williams Store making considerable trade. From families fleeing drought and unemployment, to tourists seized by the new car fever, to GIs on their way to fight the Axis Powers in the 1940s — all were conducted through Riverton by the Main Street of America.

Forrest Nelson, who served in France, remembers those days, and often regales patrons with his experiences. “I landed in Omaha Beach in ‘44 with the 6th Armored Division. We came in about a month later because they needed 12 miles of space to put three armored divisions on the land.” His unit was part of an Allied assault on the Breton city of Brest, when on: “August 5th, 1944, I remember, definitely five o’clock in the evening, we went down the wrong road, and there the Germans stopped us. Fortunately, they were good paratroopers; they were the top line soldiers, they weren’t junkies. In fact, they could have killed us. There were only five of us. While we were driving, my captain was killed. They did him, they didn’t get the rest of us. So, then they took us into Brest, and we stayed in Brest for six weeks.” The German division held their ground in the bitter house-to-house fighting, until Allied air-raids razed the city to the ground, as Forrest recalled. “I’m probably the only person left who watched a thousand planes raid on Brest. It was just planes, planes, planes, planes. All you saw was planes.”

After the war, Forrest and his wife Naomi “June” Nelson, moved from Chanute, Kansas, to Riverton, where they raised their five children: David, born 1952, Sara, born in 1955, Steven, born in 1958, Scott, born in 1960 and Jennifer, born in 1962. Sara, who became Sara Davis after marrying her husband, Jeff, still lives in town and teaches advanced algebra at the high school. She recalls visiting the store when she was only four.

“You were always greeted by name. It’s kind of like [the show] Cheers. Everybody knew your name, and it’s still that way, which is what people like.” In those days, Lora Williams ran the shop alone, Leo having passed away in 1948. Sara remembers her as short, hardy and kind:

“Dad only got paid once a month because he was a school teacher, and he had five kids. We always ran a tab up there, so when he got paid, he went in and paid his bill. She’d always give us kids a sack of penny candy.”

Eisler Brothers’ Old Riverton Store

Riverton was a quiet community with lots of children, and the Nelsons quickly found themselves at home and remained there even after Forrest left Riverton High School for a job in Joplin. “Usually, folks that live in the small towns know more people than people who live in a big city,” Scott speculates. “You just interact more with people in a smaller town.”

Sara Davis remembers, “On snow days, we helped a neighbor get out his Oldsmobile. He’d hook us up with three or four sleds and tow us down to a little incline where we could slide. Of course, now they probably wouldn’t let you do it. They’d say it wouldn’t be safe. But boy, it was a lot of fun.”

Isabel Eisler, who would often visit her sister, June Nelson, in Riverton, was taken by the warmth of the community. She was especially captivated by the shop with the old tin roof and the kind old woman smiling behind the counter. Born in Denison, Texas, on April 26th, 1920, Isabel was a child prodigy with a natural gift for writing and design. In Parsons, Kansas, where she was raised, Isabell wrote articles for the Parsons Sun, and worked as the editor for the school newspaper at her Community College, graduating to become the first female advertising salesperson hired by the Houston Chronicle. It was here that she met her future husband, Joseph Elias Eisler, born in 1923. They married in 1950, and the new Mrs. Eisler quit her career to become a homemaker, giving birth to two sons, Andrew and James.

Joe’s career as an advertising executive saw the family continually moving; from Houston to Chicago to Austin and then back to Chicago, before finally settling back in Parsons in 1973. There Isabel helped her husband form Joseph Eisler Associates, an organization of sales representatives specializing in endoscopic surgical technologies. Lora Williams had sold the Riverton Store in 1970 to her daughter’s mother-in-law, Thelma Ball. By 1973, however, Ball was looking to sell.

Having always loved the shop, and with Parsons only fifty miles from Riverton, Eisler figured that she would be able to run the shop remotely, envisioning the store as a project to be taken over by her sons, now on the cusp of adulthood. Joe and Isabell Eisler bought the Williams Store in 1974 with their cousins, the Nelsons, involved from day one. All five of her nieces and nephews took shifts at the shop and helped the Eislers set up suppliers. As Scott Nelson reminisces: “My brother [David] was traveling around with my cousins when they were setting up merchant deliveries to the store. They kept calling it ‘that old store in Riverton’ or ‘that old Riverton store,’ and my brother said, ‘Why don’t you just call it that?’”

The shop was duly renamed “The Eisler Brothers Old Riverton Store.” Apart from this, however, nothing else was changed. Isabel Eisler was adamant that everything be maintained, from the wooden floor to the tin roof, taking care to preserve the shop’s quaint appeal. However, her sons did not share her enthusiasm for the shop, so much of the responsibility for running the store fell to her and the Nelson clan. Forrest Nelson often worked the closing shift in the evenings after teaching in Joplin, and the children pitched in when help was needed. It was Scott, however, who would take a special interest in the shop. “He was always drawn to it,” Sara Davis remembered. “He always liked it. He liked talking to people when they came in. He’s been there since he was in middle school practically.”

“My mother always said that she knew if I wasn’t at the house then I’d be down at the store,” laughed Scott. “Sometimes, I’d come in [during] lunch hour and help out between classes. Then, I’d head back to work after school.”

During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Scott Nelson managed the store for his aunt. Route 66 traffic had dwindled considerably since its heyday in the 1950s, but the Riverton Store survived on local trade, its remote location proving instrumental in the store’s permanence.

Exterior of the store. Photograph courtesy of Efren Lopez/Route66Images.

Unlike more developed sections of the highway, where chains of convenience stores and supermarkets choked out the last of the family-owned grocery stores, the small, tight-knit community of Riverton presented little incentive for large corporations to move in. It was during this time that the store became a favorite stop of Route 66 artist and icon Bob Waldmire. “Bob, he was on his own little schedule,” Scott Nelson remembered. “He’d make it here in the middle of the night, then just park out in the parking lot and camp out; we’d see him the next day. Or he’d just sit on the porch for two to three hours talking or working on his art, just relaxing.”

The store survived the Mother Road’s darkest days until the late 1980s, when Scott began to notice a change.

In 1983, the Rainbow Bridge to the east of Riverton was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Scott noticed that traffic along the highway gradually began to increase again. “I’d say since 1990, when Michael Wallis’ book came out, Route 66: The Mother Road, I think that’s the catalyst that started to really pick up and take off.”

Renee Charles, who settled in Galena after traveling abroad, remembers being struck by tourists, “Just lying on the road getting their pictures taken, you know, right there in Galena. I was thinking, either these people are crazy, or they really do like Route 66.”

The Nelson family capitalized on this trend by converting the old Williams family living quarters into a souvenir shop and packing it to the brim with Route 66 memorabilia. Soon, the small deli in an unincorporated place had become a destination for travelers the world over, as the highway was reborn.

In 2001, Michael Wallis took a Pixar crew on a tour of Route 66 to help with their research for their seminal 66 flick Cars (2006). The small stretch of Kansas 66 would prove fateful in the film’s development. In Galena, the crew became enamored by an old rusted tow truck abandoned on the side of the highway and photographed it extensively. It became the basis for the friendly but quirky character, Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. It is now on display by the old Kan-O-Tex Gas station in town. The Pixar crew then stopped by the Old Riverton Store for a sandwich, where they were introduced to Dean Walker, a Riverton local renowned for his ability to twist his feet backward. “You know, every circus has its freaks, as they say,” chuckles Nelson. Walker was a significant influence on Mater and the inspiration for the character’s uncanny ability to drive backward.

Nelson’s Old Riverton Store

The Old Riverton Store was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, becoming a protected landmark. Isabell Eisler passed away shortly after in 2006, with her husband Joe following in 2009. Scott Nelson purchased the shop from their estate in 2010 and renamed it once again, dubbing it “Nelson’s Old Riverton Store.”

Almost a hundred years after it was first built, not much has changed in the old shop. This is due, not to complacency, but diligent maintenance and restoration. Nowadays, Isabel Eisler’s insistence that every nook and cranny of the store keep its early 20th-Century mystique has been taken up by The National Register who provide half of any renovation costs. “We can restore the building, but we can’t add anything new to it, it has to be the way it was,” explained Forrest Nelson. “[Scott] wanted to put a new concrete floor in that one building, but they said, ‘No, you’ve got to put a wood floor back.’”

The Nelson family. Photograph courtesy of Scott Nelson.

Forrest, though he now depends on an oxygen canister, is still a common sight at the store. His smile lights up the crowded shop as he warmly greets every person who crosses the threshold. He is a gregarious soul and loves to meet strangers, especially travelers from overseas. “I visit with them, and we have great conversations. They like to talk to us. They want to find out stuff. They’re very inquisitive, which, you know, if you travel overseas, you’re going to ask questions, too.” Forty-five years later, Forrest is still, as he described it, “just helping out,” coming in weekdays to help balance the books and take his old spot behind the cash register. “I work now because they just want me to get out of the house a couple hours a day.” Father and son still spend many evenings together, closing up the shop, proudly carrying on the traditions laid down by the Eislers, the Williams and countless families before them.

The Riverton Store’s old bricks have seen nearly a hundred years of continuous operation, cementing it as the heartbeat of the small community of Riverton and a precious jewel of the Mother Road, with roadies from across the country passing through every year. “We see a lot of the tour guides that do the road — they do it several times a year,” recalls Nelson. “I used to have a couple that would come in from Queens, New York. They would buy a calendar every year. They were on their way to visit someone in Arizona, and they’d always swing by on Route 66.”

As the last rays of light disappear beneath the Kansas plains, Scott Nelson finishes ringing through the evening’s last customers. “Some people say [about] living in a small town, ‘It’s so boring!’ But if you’re busy, you never notice that,” mused Scott. After cashing out and sweeping up the shop, he locks the front door behind him, making his way home in the late-evening sun of the Sunflower State. Another day has passed like a drop in a bucket in the town of Riverton; like many days before in the imperturbable community, it was relatively uneventful. And yet, in a world of constant flux, perhaps it’s the places that somehow manage to stay the same that are truly unique.

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