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Country Store in Olden Times


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The following is based on my father's stories from my childhood. I am approaching my 80th year - I was born in 1877, and much has fallen into oblivion. I cannot remember some dates, but do know that my father, who was a farmer, began a country general store in the 1870s.

My father, Matts Mattsson Heikkilä, is thought to have been one of the first to start a country store in this area. He was born 6 May 1839 to a farm family at the Heikkilä homestead in Korplax village in Gamlakarleby parish (now Karleby). In his childhood he attended reading and arithmetic school in Gamlakarleby where he acquired a proficiency in those subjects. He also mastered the Finnish language.

Before the Saima Canal opened farmers and businessmen from inland and from the areas of Viitasaari and Pihtipudas conducted business in Gamlakarleby which had the nearest seaport. During the winter the businessmen traveled along the winter road that led from Riippa farm in Kelviå and passed through the Heikkilä farm where they often rested their horses. The travelers carried tallow that the Heikkilä farmers bought from them and molded it into candles. At that time people in the country still used torches, while in the cities they used tallow candles.

My father with his horse traveled around to Brahestad, Nykarleby, Jakobstad and Vasa to sell tallow candles. During his travels he met a businessman in Vasa who urged him to open a country store near his home in a suitable place near the coast that was near a sea route. The place he chose was 20 km north of Gamlakarleby and had a good harbor about 1 km west of the coast.

He bought a farm cottage, 20 m long and 9 m wide, and moved it to Rytikari and rebuilt it. I can remember it because as a child I visited it many times in the summer. At the southern end of the building was a large room with a tiled stove and fireplace. This was used as a living room. In the middle was a smaller room with a tiled stove. It was used as an office and had a desk and an old bureau in it. Opposite the office was a hall used as an entrance to the living room as well as to the stairway to the attic where a bedroom was set up. Along the front of the building was an open veranda that had steps leading to the living room which was used as the store. This room was fairly large and was in the north end of the building. Lengthwise along the room was a counter with a drawer. At one end of the counter was an opening to the front door. On the counter was a scale with weights as well as paper bags and wrapping paper. On shelves behind the counter were coffee, sugar, flour, grain, raisins, etc. Also oil lamps, crockery, cloth aprons and tablecloths, yarn and line for fishing tackle. On the floor were rolls of rope, axes, products by the village smith, iron ranges, pitchforks, spades and nails.

There was no fireplace in the store because the business was open all during the summer, and only on Fridays in the winter. The windows were covered with sturdy shutters and kept closed when the owner was away or during the winter when he was at his home in Heikkilä.

My father bought a salt warehouse from Halkokari in Gamlakarleby and moved it to Rytikari and erected it so that one end was on land and the other end was on poles in the water. A bridge was built so that small boats could lay up to the bridge. The warehouse lower floor was divided into two rooms; one for salt and the other for flour. There was a room on the upper floor for other storage. The salt was sold to fishermen as well as to farmers. Flour was weighed on the scales and sold. The wood walls bore evidence of bullets from the battle of the Crimean war in June 1854 when the English landing attempt was repelled by the defenders of Gamlakarleby.

Most of the wares were purchased from Vasa and then shipped on a ketch which my father bought from Brahestad. The merchandise was usually paid for with bank check. Some examples of wares were salted fish and petroleum. There were no luxury items sold. Tar was transported by horse for tar dealers in Gamlakarleby. The tar farmers bought flour, salt and salted fish that they transported to their homes. Business was usually handed by the owner, or by his wife or oldest daughter when he was away. There was no competing business within 10 km so his business was competitive due to his low transport costs.

Merchandise was wrapped in gray wrapping paper and packed into the client's birchbark basket. My father's business did not provide clients with vodka or schnapps because he was not a friend of strong drink. Service could be provided within 24 hours if a client requested it. Payment could be made in cash, but also in kind (goods/merchandise) or in a day's work. Credit lending was common.

There were no telephones in the country at that time and none in Gamlakarleby. I remember one time my father came home from a trip to Vasa and said he had talked into an apparatus called a telephone through which one could hear another person talking. We children were struck with wonder when he said that.

The railway to Uleåborg opened during the 1800s and it created a change in travel to Rytikari. New businesses opened near the railway station providing new possibilities to provide merchandise. General stores along the coast could no longer compete and had to liquidate. Initial expenditures had been heavy and trade was moderate. It did not become a good enterprise.

A contributory factor perhaps was that my father was a good-hearted man who trusted his fellowmen and helped those who were in need. An example of how one can be taken in by a "friend" happened at the end of his business career. He bought up wood in Rytikari one winter and in the spring the wood was loaded into his boat. The "friend" and skipper of the boat sailed to Stockholm where he sold the cargo and the boat but kept the money for himself. My father visited him in Brahestad and demanded a statement of accounts for the business, but got nothing. Father took the matter to court but the company accounts were defective. He could not force his claim and it was rejected and he had to pay all the legal expenses. When he liquidated the business in 1889 he stood on the verge of ruin.

He returned to farm work and owned his home until I bought it and took over. Matts Mattsson Heikkilä died 23 December 1933.

Reinhold Heikkilä, Karleby 5 Jan 1955

Karlebynejden No. 42, 2011

English translation by June Pelo

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