3rd generation manages the family grocery store in Cassville | Tri-State News

CASSVILLE, Wis. “Working at Okey’s Market in Cassville has been a part of Elijah Okey’s life for as long as he can remember.

“One of my first jobs (as a kid) was filling soft drink machines at age 5,” he said. “It was always cool to come and work with my parents. I had to take a DARE essay when I was in fifth grade, and I wrote that I was going to avoid drugs so I could manage the grocery store with my dad.

Elijah, 26, has run the 89-year-old family grocery store since the death of his father, Tom Okey, in April 2019.

“It’s kind of a coincidence,” said Patty Okey, 57, Elijah’s mother. “(Tom) took it over from his dad when he was 23, and Elijah’s dad died when he was 23.”

The 12,000 square foot Okey’s Market stocks groceries and has dedicated meat, deli, beer and liquor departments. The store launched a delivery service during the COVID-19 pandemic that spans 20 miles, serving nearby communities such as Bloomington and Potosi.

“It’s a huge part of the community, having a grocery store as beautiful and as big as Okey’s,” said Keevin Williams, chairman of the Cassville Village Trustees and a native of the community. “People come from Cassville communities to shop.”

Store activity swells in the summer, especially on weekends, as Cassville’s riverside location attracts thousands of campers and other tourists.

“When we have tourist traffic and river traffic in the summer, a lot of those visitors buy their supplies at the store, as do campers at Nelson Dewey State Park and campgrounds south of town,” Williams said.

Elijah admits it was intimidating to take on the management of the store, given the larger-than-life presence of his father, who sang songs to some customers and gave customers nicknames. served in the Cassville Fire and Rescue Department; and coached youth baseball, basketball and soccer.

“There were tough times, and it wasn’t easy, but I leaned on my family to support me,” Elijah said.

The Okey family gladly lent their support, as they have throughout the store’s decades-long history.

Tom and Patty have six children, Isaac, 30; Isaiah, 29; Elijah; Andrea Gille, 24 years old; Ezra, 20; and Erasmus, 17.

Store owner Patty said all kids can include grocery work on their resume.

“They all had their time working here,” she said.

The family’s tradition as Cassville merchants goes back decades.

Walter Okey, Tom’s father and Elijah’s grandfather, joined his grandfather’s meat market when he was 13 years old. This store, Niemer’s Meat Market, was founded before 1900.

In the 1930s Walt Okey decided he wanted to own the store.

“He wanted it to be called ‘Okey’s’ because that was his last name,” Patty said. “He ransomed his grandfather in 1933.”

Walt’s original Okey’s Market was located at 200 E. Amelia St. The grocery store moved to its current location, 213 W. Amelia St., in 1970.

Walt’s son Tom took over in 1983. Walt Okey died in 1988. Tom and Patty married in 1990. She was a teacher.

“I worked here (at the store) when I first got married to (Tom), and I was also a substitute teacher,” she said. “I got pregnant with our first child and then ended up staying home with my kids as they grew up.”

Patty returned to substitute education when the current Erasmus high school student was 3 years old and watched during the day by a grandmother.

“Then I finally started working part-time here again,” Patty said. “I had been back here doing a lot of things for three years before Tom died. Then when he died I had to give up everything else to spend more time here. Luckily Elijah (was working full time at the store) since high school.

Tom’s sister, Barb Willis, also helped with the transition. Barb trained Andrea in her role as an accountant and other duties.

“It worked because Andrea got out of college and Barb wanted to retire,” Patty said. “I still have one in middle school and one in high school, and they’re helping me.”

Andrea is now married and a mother.

“Andrea has a 6-month-old baby, and she had him here every day once she was able to get back to work,” Patty said.

Andrea’s son is named Walter Thomas Gille, after Andrea’s grandfather and father, and is a hit with the store’s customers when he makes appearances in the market.

“They all love seeing him, talking to him and watching him grow,” Patty said. “It was like when (Tom and I) had kids. All of our kids came here and (customers) watched them grow up. The kids felt like they were part of the (customers) families because they knew them so well.

Cassville, with a population of about 900, is about 18 miles west of Potosi and about 30 miles south of Prairie du Chien on Wisconsin 133. A ferry across the Mississippi River connects Cassville with County of Clayton, Iowa from spring to early fall.

Elijah said the relative isolation of Cassville in western Grant County helps and hurts the store.

“We’re a long way from the competitors – if we were closer to a bigger city, Walmarts would attract people – but we’re cut off by the river, so we can’t be reached from all four sides (of the city).”

Patty said staffing can also be a challenge for a small-town grocer in a relatively isolated location.

“We often had to do more ourselves (as family members) and put in more hours (due to understaffing),” she said. “We lost a butcher and it took us a while to find a replacement, so I took on that role.”

As for the future, the third generation of Okeys could eventually transition from managing the store to owning it.

“Elijah eventually wants to own the store himself, maybe within the next five years,” Patty said.