NEW ULM, Minn. (WCCO) — Long before there were big box stores and super centers, there were general stores.

They were places where people would travel to get groceries, clothing and pretty much anything else they needed.

The Harkin Store, in New Ulm, was one such store.

(credit: CBS)

“We say we are the Wal-Mart of 1870,” said manager Ruth Grewe.

A century and a half ago, long before Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and all the others, the Harkin Store was literally the only store for miles around.

“You could get nails here. You could get gun supplies, you could get dishes, fabric,”Grewe said.

Not to mention ready-made clothing, medicines, shoes and even your mail, because it was also the post office.

Alexander Harkin built the store next to the Minnesota River and 9 miles from New Ulm. Back then, it took two days to travel those 9 miles. He was also the town’s justice of the peace, coroner and treasurer for the school.

“He was the man to see,” Grewe said. “First of all, they didn’t want him here in the German community of West Newton but the Scotsman he won them over and he got to be a very influential man here.”

And in some ways he still is.

When railways took over, riverboat traffic died and so did the town of West Newton. The only buildings left are Harkin’s home and his store, with many of its original goods still in stock.

(credit: CBS)

Grewe isn’t just an expert on the store, she’s also had to become an expert on grasshoppers.

It wasn’t a depression or storm that hurt the local economy, but a tiny insect the size of a quarter. For five years, grasshoppers turned the summer skies black across southern Minnesota.

“They ate all the crops, devastated the whole area,” Grewe said. “Farmers had no money.”

But some farmsteads did survive and so did the Harkin General Store.

In those days, a penny saved really was a penny earned: It could get you a pinch of tobacco or a piece of candy.

And it wasn’t all work either, some of it was fun and games.

“Kids could play 1870s checkers, jacks, marbles, dominoes and a game called graces,” said Robin Grewe, the assistant site manager.

Walking into the store means taking a step back in time.

“We have a lot of people that come special here because they want to see the old things,” Ruth Grewe said. “They want to know the history of how Minnesota was developed.”

The Harkin Store is open from early May through October. They will be having an “Old Games Day” on July 29.

John Lauritsen