March 7th…….“IN CONTRAST TO TODAY, WHAT WAS IT LIKE, AS A LITTLE BOY, TO GO SHOPPING FOR SHOES AND CLOTHING WITH YOUR PARENTS IN YOUR SWEET HOMETOWN OF KIESTER, MINNESOTA?”
A cheery “ching-a-ling” sounded above our heads as Mom and I pushed open the glass-paneled door of Kraus Department Store. In my mini-boy mind, I could tell that that tiny brass bell, hanging from that wooden door frame, was just plain happy to see us. “Mr. Bell” had announced to the owners that we had arrived at their family-owned establishment. Like all good farm families, we patronized this fine, hometown store for our family clothing needs. Since 1952, this brick edifice of commerce sat elegantly on the north end of Main Street there in our beloved hometown of Kiester, Minnesota. As was typical of countless other Main Street storefronts of American culture, in that era, this department store had massive “picture windows” that brightly displayed various fashion wares and accessories to folk passing by on the sidewalks of our lovely village. Long before giant malls, our town’s sidewalks were the boulevards upon which these owners hoped their displayed wares would catch the eye of local farm families who came into town on a regular basis to provide the clothing and shoe necessities for moms and dads and children, too.
If ever there was a “test pilot” for clothing and shoes, well, that was ME!! Instead of the honorable Captain Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound (in 1947); from 1954 on, I was an infamous test pilot in my own right as I was breaking the speed of how fast I could wear out blue jeans, shirt elbows and shoes!! With a blur of my racing feet, I could “slide into home plate” on our graveled farm yard and do major damage to any fabric I was wearing from head to toes. Then, there were the “Mount Everest” adventures of climbing every type of tree I could get my energetic hands on; only to get near the top of said tree and then lose my grip as I’d “pinball” my way back towards the earth with broken branches tearing a shirt to shreds on the way down. I was even “religious” when it came to clothes and especially shoes, cause instead of holy, I was HOLEy in the way I could wear down the soles of my shoes till you could see “daylight” right through to my socks. Or, on an even cuter version, my worn out shoes would start “talking to me” when the glue came undone as the sole came away from the toe of the shoe. The shoe looked like a mouth opening and closing with each footstep!! 😉 During the dry times of summer, I’d just carry on with my “HOLEy” shoes, but when the wet weather of fall and winter came along, or going back to school, it was time for a trip with Mom to Kraus Department Store.
Iowans by birth, Chuck and Jean Kraus lent the flavor of their lives to the weave and beauty that made our village of farm families so special. Marlys “Jean” Stavely married Charles J. “Chuck” Kraus on June 26th, 1949 in Traer, Iowa. By September of that same year, Jean achieved the honor of becoming a registered nurse. Chuck had honorably served our great nation as a Corporal in the United States Army during World War Two. Somehow, destiny brought them to the community of Kiester, Minnesota and together, they were a grand team that brought over thirty years of love and dedication to providing shoes, clothing, dry goods and accessories to the precious farming community we all called home.
To this fidgety, fun-minded, frolicking farm boy, each life experience in those early days of life were accentuated by sounds, fragrances and the nuance of people’s personalities around me. Unlike the audio barrage of unwanted, canned music in stores of today, Kraus Department Store was blissfully quiet as we walked in. Pleasant conversations could be heard nearby as Jean Kraus was meeting the need of other shoppers. For Mom and I, though, we were in the market that day for some new shoes for my rambunctious feet that seemed to melt each pair with wear from all my fast-paced, farm fun festivals. To that end, the two of us began our clickety-clack descent down the tiled steps of the large stairwell that took us into the leather fragrances of the shoe department downstairs. We were met with a smile from the very tall Mr. Kraus who instructed me to take off my current shoes and sit on a stool with a slanted ramp on one end. A fascinating metal contraption was pulled from Mr. Kraus’ sales desk called a “Brannock” Foot Measuring Device. I was captivated while Chuck Kraus snuggled my little boy’s foot into this shiny, metal creation and started moving sliders towards my big toe and another slider in from the side to measure the width of my ever-growing foot. Mom shared her little boy’s style needs and price range with our friendly business man and, from there, our tall friend disappeared around a corner into the myriad of shoeboxes that lined his store’s walls. With a stack of boxes in his grasp, our smiling shoe man returned to us and brought out his short, shiny metal shoehorn. He helped me slip on one pair of shoes after another. I’d get up from that ramped stool and walk around a bit in those leather luxuries while our dear mother, Clarice, and Mr. Kraus commented on how the shoes looked on my little appendages. Of course, there were the cursory questions to me of “how do they feel”?, too. Other than being stiff, in their brand-newness, I would give my humble little boy opinion and then away we went to the old-fashioned cash register that went “Ching, Ching” with a sale to this midget male 😉
Like so many in our sweet, farming community, Chuck and Jean Kraus were vested in, not JUST their business, but they lived out their Christian principles in serving the Lord as giving members of “Grace Evangelical United Brethren Church” there in our hamlet of Kiester. Growing up, I have such tender memories of Jean Kraus being one of my Sunday School teachers as well as being a leader during our church’s summer Vacation Bible School Week!! In 1982, after serving the Lord and our community via their store and church ministries, Chuck and Jean bid farewell to Kiester as they retired to Lakeview, Arkansas. In July of 2001, this wonderful duo returned once again to Minnesota. Only this time, it was to Winona, Minnesota to live close to their family. Sadly, Jean was slipping into Alzheimer’s Disease and would eventually leave us in January of 2005 at the age of 76. Although missing his beloved Jean, Chuck enjoyed his children for another nine years, passing into the arms of the Lord in June of 2014 at the age of 93. As you can see, there was so much more than “just” buying a pair of shoes as a child for this Norwegian Farmer’s Son. ><>