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A piece of history lost in Nelson

Iconic building, a longtime general store, razed

NELSON – To passers-by, the building was an eyesore, a hazard, an accident waiting to happen.

To Joan Sendra, it was heartbreaking. Five generations of family history dating back to the mid-1800s was gone. 

Sendra’s great-great grandfather, Jonas “John” Stitzel, opened a general store in his clapboard house. For more than a century, it was a piece of small-town Americana in Nelson.

Neighbors would come and go 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to buy basic essentials to get them through the day, and medicine during the night for their sick children.

The lot next door to his family’s home is where the family erected M.C. Stitzel & Sons General Store, named after his son Millard “Miller” Charles Stitzel, in 1894.

The building began to lose its luster, and the store closed in 1988. The post office, located in the store’s front, remained open until 1994, when Sendra’s mother, and then postmaster, Dorothy Sendra, died suddenly of a heart attack. 

That general store was the hub of Nelson, but over the past 20 years, the building has been vacant, slowly dilapidating, crumbling into itself, becoming a financial nightmare for Sendra.

Facing fees and court costs, her dream of restoration painfully passed. On Aug. 19, the demolition process began.

As machinery mowed down the walls, many onlookers wondered aloud why Sendra never took up the historical society’s offer to take over and renovate the building.

Susie DeVries, a former Nelson resident, said there was talk of the building being saved.

“I heard a lot of people say the historical society wanted to buy the store and redo it as a historical place, like a museum," she said, "and every time I heard that, I said, ‘Oh, come on; they don’t have that kind of money!’ But you know how people are.”

Unsure where or how the rumor began, Sendra said she was never approached by the historical society or the National Registry of Historic Places. 

“I made contacts with a few people who are professional architects that deal in renovations of historic buildings, and they all said it was too large a project, or that it was too far gone, and it couldn’t be done,” Sendra said, dumbfounded by the rumor.

Lee County Historical Society President Patrick Gorman said his group never gave that indication.

“There is nothing on record stating that we made any attempt to take over the general store in Nelson at any time,” he said.

The society’s research center is named after 99-year-old Stella Grobe, who also said she had never heard anything about the store.

“I never heard that we tried to get the building, ever, and I have been in that society since, oh, back in ’64, I think," she said. “I go to meetings. I miss once in a while, but I still go. I’m sure I would have heard something if that were true.”

Terry Buckaloo, director and curator of the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society, also said such rumors are not unusual.

“I’ve been here over 20 years, and nothing has been said about that building," he said. “I don’t know how these things start. There were people talking about us taking over a home in Rock Falls once, which was never the case, either.” 

Rustin Quaide, archivist at the National Register of Historic Places, also was unable to find any documents regarding the Nelson icon.

Wanting to restore the building, or at least save as much as she could, Sendra hired a contractor to shore up a wall 3 years ago. She had high hopes of doing a little at a time, but her dream to renovate was quashed. 

The contractor removed an air conditioner, which was the only thing holding up that supporting wall. Once the wall gave way, the roof and other walls slowly followed.

Before the renovation attempt, she was unable to insure the building because an inspector said it was in too bad of shape.

For Sendra, the place that brought her joy throughout her own childhood had become a headache and a financial nightmare.

The place where the Stitzels and Sendras sold their wares, and townsfolk gathered, kibitzed, and picked up their mail, and children purchased penny candies, is but a memory, and an empty lot beside the old clapboard house.

The memories live on

NELSON – M.C. Stitzel & Sons was a place where kids came for penny candy, new school shoes, and to pick up their folks' mail. It was where neighbors congregated after work to hear of the latest proposal, pregnancy, death or illness to strike a family.

Later, in the 1970s, M.C. Stitzel & Sons was where you could buy Billy Beer, named after and promoted by former President Jimmy Carter’s brother.

As demolition took place Aug. 19, dented, rusty beer cans were unearthed. 

The stories and memories flowed as people of all ages watched as the rest of what was left was torn down. For many, the loss felt personal. 

Among the items unearthed was a weathered but still readable diary. Its inscription read, “Merry X’mas from Mamma to Earl D. Stitzel 1905.”

“I can’t believe it,” Joan Sendra said as her trembling hands thumbed through her grandfather's diary.

All of 10, Earl Stitzel wrote of his daily routine in pencil, the cursive still clear on the yellowing pages. “Tended the store. Went after milk. Went to the farm, took in 16 lodes [sic] of hay. Took care of [his baby sister] Mabel some. Went to school. Going hunting with Percy.”

Jerry Stees has lived across the street from the home and general store for 30 years. “It sad, but it’s time,” he said as neighbors gathered on his porch. 

He said the decline of the building came in 1988 when the store closed. Then in 1994, Joan's mom, Dorothy Sendra, died suddenly of a heart attack. 

“Joan wasn’t the same after that. I don’t think she could bring herself to go in the building,” Stees said.

The demolition, though, begins a new chapter of Sendra's life, which she is looking forward to, hoping to retain the good memories the store brought her and the community.

Vietnam veteran Rick Moeller, 63, is a lifelong Nelson resident.

“It really saddened me to see everything go down like it did. It was not only a store, gas station and post office, but it was kind of a gathering place,” Moeller said. “I just think sometimes that people don’t realize how lucky they are to have something like that in your community until something like that is gone.” 

Moeller recalls walking to the store, a block from his home, when he was 7. Back then, candy was a penny, popsicles were a dime and soda was 15 cents. Kids congregated there, sitting on the bench, on the stoop and on the metal polka-dot-painted Wonder Bread box.

It's a fond memory Sendra’s cousin, Bob Stitzel, 66, of Los Angeles, shares. He and his sister, Barb Struble, spent summers in Nelson while their parents were on vacation. 

“They had an old showcase of wood and glass, high-buttoned shoes for sale,” he said. “Barb and I we would go back there and steal candy, but Grandpa knew. For a kid, it was heaven. He had every conceivable candy.” 

Struble  said, “It was the center of the community. Grandpa would let us have any candy we wanted. We’d have fresh fruit, Hostess Cupcakes, oh, we just gorged on junk food, reading comic books, which was wonderful. I am sure my parents would be horrified if they knew.”

Susie DeVries of Rock Falls lived in Nelson for 50 years. She grew up on Main Street and also spent time at the store. 

“We used to swim at the gravel pit every day. Sometimes I’d not even think about wearing shoes or a towel, would walk in barefoot, dripping wet to get the mail. They didn’t care. You don’t do that at Bergners. In Nelson — no shirt, no shoes, no service — no one lived by that rule,” she said with a laugh.

“It was a wonderful time of our lives. We had a wonderful childhood,” she said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else. It brings back wonderful memories. I cry because I’m sad, but we had it good. Oh God, I wish every kid could have what we had.”

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