Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

Keeping the store
Crane's Country Store in Williamsburg survives and prospers selling work clothes

by Bob McEowen

Joe Crane waits on a customer at the counter of Crane’s Country Store. After more than 75 years at the Williamsburg location the store still operates as an old-fashioned country store.

Joe Crane stands behind the old wooden counter of the store his father built in 1926 and makes sandwiches. One by one, customers waiting in line to check out place their orders. Joe quickly assembles sandwiches and hands them over, each loosely wrapped in a single fold of wax paper.

“One meat, one cheese, one buck,” Joe says, describing the lunchtime treat so popular with shoppers at Crane’s Country Store in Williamsburg. “Some Saturdays we make over 200. Most days we make a hundred.”

As popular as the dollar sandwiches are, that’s really not what brings people to Crane’s. Locals come because the store carries a little bit of everything. Others come to see the collections of antiques perched above shelves and hanging from the ceiling. Mostly, though, customers come for men’s work boots and clothing.

At a time when many a country store withered and died as better roads made it possible to easily travel to bigger towns with bigger stores Crane’s found a niche that keeps it a thriving business today. The store continues to provide traditional country store items — everything from eggs and milk to nuts and bolts to farm gates and cattle troughs — but the store’s bread and butter is Carhartt clothes and Wolverine boots.

Darryl and Daisy Mordt shop for shirts among the store’s large inventory of work clothes. The Cranes say selling work clothes has allowed the store to survive and prosper.

“The work clothes end of it has been pretty important to our survival,” Joe says. “We made it many years before we did this but work clothes have been good to us.”

The transformation of Crane’s Store began in the late 1970s when a nuclear power plant was being built in Callaway County. Construction workers found the tiny store, located just north of the I-70 Williamsburg exit, and bought out its inventory of Carhartt brand work clothes. Bill Crane, Joe’s brother, ran the store at the time and recognized opportunity when it knocked.

Bill began stocking a wide selection of the popular coveralls, coats and bibs. Unlike chain farm and home stores that ordered clothes once a season, Bill restocked regularly to ensure he had what customers wanted. The workers came to rely on the store and continued to buy from Crane’s even after the power plant was finished and they moved away to other areas.

“They took our name with them,” Joe says of the lifelong customers Crane’s made. “We do a lot of mail business. We’ve sent to most every state and overseas. We have a customer we mail to in Australia.”

Crane’s has had so much success with Carhartts it sells more of the brand than any other single store in Missouri. Until recently the store did no advertising, relying solely on word of mouth. Lately, David Crane, Joe’s son and the current manager of the store, began advertising on the radio. “The (Carhartt) company has some money for advertising and they want you to use it,” he says, almost apologetically.

Crane's store has served local needs since 1926. Within the last 10 years the store has expanded twice.

Another sign of changing times was a recent special promotion that brought a team of sales reps, towing a fancy display trailer to Crane’s. With a live broadcast on a local radio station, the 4-H club selling pie in front of the store and free gifts for every Carhartt buyer, the store was a buzz of activity one December Saturday.

But such fanfare is the exception at Crane’s, which continues to cling strongly to its country store heritage.

The store began as the Harrison and Crane, built in 1898, along the Boone’s Lick Trail at Mineola. Benjamin Rush Crane bought that store and renamed it B.R. Crane and Sons. In 1920, Joe and Bill’s father, Sam, moved to Williamsburg and opened Crane and Sons six years later.

“It was built as a general store and that’s what we try to keep it today,” Joe says. “We try to carry a general line — hardware, clothes, food, produce, feed, farm supplies.

“We’ve never sold beer or liquor.”

The history of the store is recalled in the original fixtures and the many displays of antiques scattered among the crowded aisles. There are old tools and dolls, baby carriages and pedal cars, oil lanterns and antique tobacco pipes everywhere.

Oil lanterns hang from the ceiling of Crane's store. The aisles of the store are packed with displays of antiques.

“The family has been accumulators for years,” Joe says. “My dad was interested in arrowheads. My mother was interested in dolls and glassware and furniture. Brother was interested in pocket knives.”

Bill Crane — fondly remembered by all who knew him — operated the store until his death in 1999. In 1996, his nephew David returned to Williamsburg and Crane’s Store following a stint managing convenience stores in St. Louis. Joe, a retired school principal, works alongside his son, who is responsible for the few changes at the old store, which has been served by Callaway Electric Cooperative since a member swap in 2003.

Although local customers’ charge accounts are still kept on slips of paper filed in slots behind the counter, David orders groceries online with a laptop computer. Lunch meats are now weighed on an electronic scale. But more than anything, David saw the need to build on the work clothes business his uncle started.

It was David’s idea to expand the store, adding two rooms full of Carhartts and another devoted to work boots. In addition, the store also carries a large selection of camouflage hunting wear and upscale Filson brand outdoors clothing.

“If someone is going to drive from St. Louis or someplace like that you’ve got to have the selection, you’ve got to have a reason for them to come out here,” David says. “We have low prices and we’ll have it in stock. We carry a larger selection than most people do.”

The steady sales of work clothing not only allows the Crane family to continue a century-old mercantile tradition but also means local residents still have a place to go for gasoline, milk and bread.

Joe Crane sweeps the drive in front of the store while regular customer Gene Austin visits about local news.

“We’re 20 miles to Fulton, 20 miles to Auxvasse, 20 miles to Montgomery City. But it really doesn’t make any difference because we’ve got this store here,” says Gene Austin, a local farmer who remembers coming to town for 5 cent colas as a child.

These days, Austin stops by Crane’s most mornings for a can of Pepsi. He proudly leads a visitor to a wall of news clippings and photographs on display next to Carhartt overcoats and praises four generations of Crane merchants.

“They’re good business people and they don’t try to hold you up,” he says.
Besides, Austin says, the lunch deal can’t be beat.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the highest price cut of lunch meat or baloney, it’s still a dollar,” he says. “It’s the best sandwich in town.”

Crane’s Country Store is located just north of I-70 at the Williamsburg exit. The store is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

 

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