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Rural Missouri Magazine
Henson's General Store
A relic of the past

 

by Heather Berry

This general store has been in the Henson family since 1940. The store is located in Champion, a township along the banks of Fox Creek not found on every Missouri map.

Among the rolling hills of the Ozarks sits what some folks might say is a relic of the past. The weathered and worn structure seems to have a personality all its own as it sits there with a bit of a tired lean, waiting for friends to arrive.

Since 1940, the township of Champion has served as home to Henson’s General Store. And unless you’re looking for it, you’ll miss it. It’s at the end of a paved road, not particularly close to anywhere. “Champion isn’t even on some Missouri maps,” says store owner Betty Henson.

The old general store is located in south Missouri, east of Ava or south of Norwood as the crow flies.

Raised in Iowa, Betty never dreamed she’d end up owning a tiny country store most of her life. Her husband, Duane, told her about the general store his parents ran in rural Missouri, but she imagined it a bit differently than he described.

“He said there was a store and a church, so I expected there to be a town,” says Betty, 55, “But here it is, out in the middle of nowhere. And when I saw this building, I said ‘That’s a store?’”

Duane’s parents, Ed and Anna Henson, ran a service station in Ava back in the 1930s when some neighbors approached Ed about buying the general store in Champion because they thought it might close.

“Ed and Anna came and looked at it and thought they might like running a store, so they bought it.”
In the early 1980s, Duane and Betty began helping his dad with the store so Ed could care for his ailing wife. Gradually, the younger Hensons took over the store.

There was once a time when neighbors came to a store such as Henson’s for all their needs, but stores in bigger towns have all but wiped the rural countryside clean of memorable places like Henson’s. This store survives because the closest alternative is a bit of a round trip for most neighbors. “Norwood, about 20 miles away, is the closest town with a big post office or large stores to shop at,” says Betty.

While the old store has never been a post office, Betty does sell stamps as a convenience to her customers. They can leave their letters for the postman to pick up when he drops off mail and takes his morning break.

Betty Henson catches up on the local news with a neighbor.

As rural as it is, Henson’s offers about anything neighbors might need until they get to town to shop. Betty stocks food staples and sundries, sells livestock and pet feed and local produce when it’s in season. She sells propane and gasoline, too. For the thirsty soul, she offers a variety of chilled pop. And for snackers, there are candy bars and chips.

“It’s like we’re the local neighborhood convenience store,” says Betty. “I try to carry just about whatever a customer requests.”

This past January, Betty’s husband, Duane, passed away suddenly, leaving folks to wonder if the store would stay open. But Betty never once thought about closing. “I need the people and they need the store,” says Betty.

Betty keeps Henson’s open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, but she’s been known to open earlier and stay later if someone needs something.

The store’s particularly busy this late summer morning. An old pickup rolls to a stop by the door and a farm dog hangs his head out the truck window while his owner picks up a few sacks of feed. Another farmer stops by to fill his tractor with gas. And then there’s the businessman who, obviously lost, buys a cold pop and asks for directions.

Like clockwork, postman Bob Cardwell arrives with the mail, offers a cheery hello to Betty and gets a soda. He and patron Jack Coonts sit on the liar’s bench, made from old wooden pop boxes, and discuss politics and the economy. “I think people like coming here because it’s old and has history,” says Betty. “It reminds them of someplace they knew back home.”

As remote as it is, Henson’s has been a resting stop for many visitors. Betty has kept a log over the years, noting where folks are from. National Geographic even gave it a mention in their 1982 “America’s Hidden Places” book.

Henson's store attracts visitors despite its remote location.

“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Rio de Janeiro, Peru and just about any state you mention.”

Betty drives into town once a week to restock her store’s shelves. When she’s heading to town, Betty calls the potato chip delivery guy on his cell phone and lets him know she’s headed his way. They arrange to meet at whatever store he happens to be delivering to and Betty buys her potato chips. The only delivery trucks which actually stop at Henson’s General Store are the gas man and the Pepsi man. And she says it’s quite a sight to see Pepsi’s semi make a delivery at her little store.

One patron, C. D. Upshaw, has been coming to the store for what seems like ages. He was the mailman on Henson’s route for more than 40 years. “Old timers used to stop by the store whether they needed anything or not,” he says. “It was a place where people loafed a lot and socialized to keep up on what was going on.”

While people’s schedules are more hectic these days, many people still make time to stop in and chat with Betty and visit Boots, one of the store’s three cats.

“There are some people who come in here two or three times a day,” says Betty. “If they don’t come in some day, I start wondering what’s wrong and then I’ll think, oh, that’s right, they had a doctor appointment in Springfield today. We all keep up with each other. That’s nice.”

About the only thing you won’t find at Henson’s General Store at the moment is a public rest room.
“We used to have an outhouse,” says Betty, “but the flood this past May took it somewhere down Fox Creek.”

If you would like to visit Henson’s General Store in Champion, call (417) 948-2259 and ask Betty Henson for directions.

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