Batavia Depot Museum debuts new exhibit on history of grocery shopping

The cost of groceries these days is high enough to make you grimace. The truth is, depending on the circumstances, we’ve done plenty of grocery grimacing in the past.

Learning about that is a small part of the interesting “Markets and Meals: Batavia Goes Grocery Shopping” spring exhibit at the Batavia Depot Museum, which is on display through July 21.

“There are many stories of sharing (groceries) during hard times at different points in Batavia history,” museum curator Jessica Meis said. “When families were struggling, grocers and residents would share to make sure everyone was fed and taken care of. Others would share their rationing stamps during World War II.”

It’s an important story in Batavia’s history, but this exhibit touches on something equally important—simple nostalgia about the Batavia grocery stores of yesteryear and the families operating them.

A walk through the museum rooms showcasing the exhibit will spark memories for longtime Batavians who either remember these stores or their parents or grandparents talking about them.

Meis has been working on this exhibit since she first became curator at the museum nearly a year ago. In going through the Batavia Historical Society’s vast collections on various topics, she saw a common thread in the interest and importance of the town’s grocery stores. It was a gold mine for an exhibit.

If the first month of the exhibit in March was any indication, Meis had the right idea. More than 500 visitors stopped by the small museum on Houston Street that first month.

Some store names in the exhibit will ring bells — Kinne & Jeffery Co., Sloggett’s Grocery Store, Zollers Grocery Store, Harold Maves Grocery Store, and the penny candy displays at Beardsley’s.

Batavia was part of the chain supermarket craze when it welcomed its first A&P store on Batavia Avenue in the mid-1930s.

“People in the community have strong memories about the A&P, even to remembering that it smelled like coffee when you walked in,” Meis noted.

In the museum’s lower level, the exhibit theme continues with a youth play space related to grocery stores that follows a lesson plan based on a 1936 Batavia Louise White School grocery store project for students.

When first entering the museum, visitors can glance through a directory that shows the names and locations of grocery stores through the decades, starting in the 1890s.

An old coffee mill and accounting book are displayed in “Markets and Meals: Batavia Goes Grocery Shopping,” the spring exhibit at the Batavia Depot Museum on display through July 21. Courtesy of Dave Heun

Behind a glass counter, an old mounted coffee mill is shown, along with an “accounting box” with entries from 1919 to 1924 that grocer William Hendrickson used to keep track of families’ payments and what may still be owed. The way people paid for groceries changed over time, from the bartering for goods that occurred in some cases in the late 1800s to actual cash payments.

“Markets and Meals: Batavia Goes Grocery Shopping” will be on display through July 21 at the Batavia Depot Museum. Courtesy of Dave Heun

The Batavia Depot Museum is open from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

“We’ve had good feedback about the exhibit,” Meis said. “The big thing about the exhibit is that it is really intergenerational. People who grew up in Batavia, as well as newcomers in the community, were able to share stories and relate to things in the exhibit.

“We had someone who brought in their grandmother who was able to share those connections,” Meis added.“Her grandmother was saying what it was like to go to a store back in the day and compared it to what it is like now.

“I like hearing those types of stories.”

Peg Coker, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of the Fox Valley, is retiring. Courtesy of Literacy Volunteers of the Fox Valley

Literacy ‘whisperer’ retires:

Many local citizens have risen to the heights of winning the most coveted awards a city or organization can bestow upon them.

News releases noting that Peg Coker, executive director of the Literacy Volunteers of Fox Valley, is retiring effective Friday, April 26, don’t mention any significant awards this vital person in our communities may have won.

It’s not likely such recognition would matter to Coker. Being awarded grants for LVFV, an organization that has helped adults learn the English language since 1986, has been far more important.

Coker came to the organization after years of nonprofit management and was the director of benefits for the American Medical Association. Something more important than her past job experience marked her entry into more than three decades of helping others.

“It was my personal experience that motivated me,” Coker said. “I grew up in a multicultural neighborhood in Chicago. It was fascinating.”

Because her mother and father were the first in their families to be born in the U.S., Coker understood the need to help immigrants get a handle on the English language.

The organization helps adults communicate in English by matching them one-on-one with trained volunteers. It expanded from about 25 adult learners in 1986 to between 200 and 300 annually now — and growing.

“We serve adults who live or work in central Kane County,” Coker noted. “Most are referred by family and friends.”

Coker has seen instances where some adults who enroll “can’t speak a word of English and have very little education.”

“Our Burmese refugees come to mind,” she added. “Other adults are highly educated but can’t speak or read English well. Many adults arriving from Columbia and Venezuela are in this category. They are very smart but need refuge from corruption.

“In my opinion, there is a brain drain going on in South America. With a little more English, these immigrants are going to make a significant contribution to the U.S.”

As much as anything, Coker is proud of how the communities in the Fox Valley have stepped up to help new neighbors.

When Coker hears the words “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” in our national anthem, it reminds her of a conversation between a learner — a woman from Russia — and her tutor.

“The woman asked her tutor why Americans always rush in to help when there is a need in the world,” Coker explained. “Her tutor replied, ‘I guess because we are free to do so.’”

“The Russian woman then said, ‘Well, you are very brave,’” Coker added.

Those who want inspiration and more like that can join the LVFV program, which is offering the start of its next tutor training on Monday, May 6. Signup is taken at

No tiptoeing, but …

The St. Charles Municipal Center’s memorial plaza has always been picturesque along the Fox River.

It is especially striking when the tulips in the planting beds around city hall bloom. They don’t last long, and some recent morning cold snaps don’t help, but hopefully, they are still upright and bright this weekend, so you can maybe catch a last glance.

40 years? Already?

Somehow, the hands of time have brought us to this point. Well, that’s how the hands of time actually work.

My wife Pat and I are celebrating our 40th anniversary this weekend. It wouldn’t be fair to say it “seems like yesterday” that we were married on a Friday night and blew the roof off a restaurant and banquet facility called Dieterle’s in Elgin. It was 1984, and that wasn’t yesterday by any measure.

The restaurant is no longer there, but I don’t think we were responsible for its closing. Even though the band we hired really rocked the place, the walls were intact when we left.

How two people who met while working at the same newspaper found the time to get married remains a mystery. The morning of our wedding, Pat, a classified ad manager, looked over some ads. As the sports editor, I coordinated coverage of some prep baseball and track and field events before heading to the church.

In addition to the wedding and reception being a blast, Mother Nature added her own interesting twist: Tornadoes were firing up just south of the Tri-Cities that night during our service.

As Father Thomas Dempsey, our pastor at St. Patrick’s in St. Charles who hitched us, said when he heard thunder outdoors: “Don’t worry, this weather is not a sign of what this marriage will be.”

I’d have to say he was correct. It went sort of fast, and it’s been a great 40.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.