Reporting Mike Binkley
FREMONT, Minn. (WCCO) — Well past the point that many people retire, one Minnesota woman is still going strong. Martha Johnson, 95, may be the oldest business owner-operator in the state.
You’ll find her in a general store in rural Winona County, about 25 miles from the nearest Target or Wal-Mart.
“There are people that stop now and then,” she said, as a large tractor passed by on County Road 29.
The Fremont Store has been around since 1856. It’s been in the Johnson family since the 1970s.
“We don’t have too much,” she said, pointing at some of the cabinets put up by the original owners. “We’ve got enough that you aren’t going to starve.”
A bell next to the front door lets Johnson know when visitors arrive. And as they make their way along the creaky wood floors, they’re free to help themselves.
She still uses the honor system. What little cash is in the register is there for people to make their own change.
“I am not a business person,” she said. “I get chewed out by my tax guy. I get chewed out by the state.”
Bookkeeping, she explained, is not one of her strengths.
At her age, she said she’s not in this for the money. In fact, she said without her Social Security payments, she wouldn’t be able to keep the store open.
She does it partly in memory of her son, Dony. He had muscular dystrophy and wasn’t supposed to live past 17. But he ran the Fremont Store for more than 20 years until he died at 68.
“It was something that he owned, and something he could do,” she said proudly.
He couldn’t use his hands, though, and that’s how townspeople got used to the honor system.
There’s another reason she keeps the store going — the regulars who keep checking on her each day.
“If we didn’t give her a razzer every morning, why she wouldn’t be around here,” said Dave Miller, who stops by once or twice a day.
Roger Haag, a turkey farmer helps with chores like snow shoveling, enjoys her sense of humor.
“Oh, it’s tough some days,” he said. “Sometimes she beats you at your own game.”
Beyond store owner, Johnson said she’s come to have several titles.
“I think I’m like a, sometimes like a marriage counselor,” Johnson said with a smile. “Sometimes like a grandmother to everybody.”
But for all the wisdom she may dish out to her guys, she said she’s the one who benefits.
“It’s therapy,” she said. “I’ve got to get up in the morning and come over here, put on my face. I would never meet the people that do stop. They wouldn’t come to my house.”
The Fremont Store will turn 155 years old on July 17.
There’s have a celebration planned with dinner, music and special remarks by Johnson.