Whipple's Market Ownership, Name Changing
By Bill Hughes
LA CENTER, KY - This weekend marks the end of an era for a business that has been a landmark in Ballard County.
Saturday afternoon, Whipple's Food Market in La Center will close, and on Monday it will reopen under new ownership. Joe Brooks Whipple is retiring after 53 years in the grocery business.
Whipple has been working in one way or another at the store since he was 12 years old. The business was started by his grandfather in 1931. At that time it was called A.C. Whipple and sons, because Joe's father James and his uncle Andrew were partners with their father. As a teenager, James would get up before school and go start the cold stove at the store, so it would be warm when his dad arrived to open. James would come help in the afternoon, too.
In the beginning, the store sold dry goods and groceries, but after Andrew and James returned from World War II, they convinced A.C. to convert to just a grocery store. Joe's other uncle, Adron, stayed in the military and made a career of his service to our country.
Joe was told stories of when he was a 2-3 years old, and farmers would go to the movie on Saturday night in La Center, and then come to the store. His parents would keep the store open late that night to accommodate everyone, and they would lay Joe in an open storage drawer in the drygoods section with sheets and blankets so he could sleep.
Another story Joe heard was about was how his grandfather paid attention to his customers' needs and purchasing habits.
"Farmer John out here, he'd buy one pair of shoes a year. So, when it got time for this farmer to come back in, Pop would buy the shoes, and when he walked in, he had his shoes sitting out there, his size, and he'd say, 'I got just what you need,'" Joe said.
When he was a bit older, one of Joe's first jobs would be deliveries on Saturday for the store, and he paid attention to details, too - for different reasons.
"I had one that I knew what time she had lunch ready, so I'd make her house the last one, and I'd always come out with a piece of chicken or a piece of pie or a fresh hot biscuit. She'd always try to feed me of course, and I'd eat it. So yes, I always knew when to make her house," Joe recalls.
Joe bought a share of the store after his father died in 1969, and they expanded the store to its current size in 1974. Many things have changed since he grew up in the store. He recalls adding machines and wooden drawers for the money, and tagging every item for the customer. Now there are computers and scanners, and prices only get changed on the shelf. He's also amazed at the huge variety of available brands and sizes for items, when the old store had lots of products, but only one kind of each.
Whipple still had charge accounts at the store until this week. The practice is rare today, but was very common when the store opened. Some farmers used to pay their bill once a year, when they got paid for their tobacco crop. He's had customers tell him that their parents would not have survived in the 1930's and 1940's if not for his father and grandfather's willingness to let people charge their purchases.
Since it is a common topic of conversation, Joe also covered the topic of toilet paper. The popular TV commercials made "don't squeeze the Charmin" something Joe heard every day in the 60's and 70's, and briefly in the 90's, when Mr. Whipple's ads made a comeback.
"I've talked to the real actor, his name is Dick Wilson. He called me one night on the phone, and the first thing on the phone he said is, 'Don't squeeze the Charmin, Mr. Whipple,'"
Wilson asked for photos of Joe and his wife, Leah, in the store, and he sent Joe an autographed photo. They wrote letters back and forth a few times before Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 91.
Joe says they've thoroughly enjoyed the whole TP phenomenon.
"When they came out with the commercial, we were the only Whipple's store, they had never heard of Whipple's store. We had it long before they ever came out with it. We're the only real Mr. Whipple there was," Joe said.
The store will have a special closing ceremony at 6:00 pm Saturday, which is also La Center Day in Ballard County. An old customer, Paulette Petty, will be their last. She was the final customer in the old store in 1974 before they expanded and re-opened a few days later, and she will make the final purchase once again. Whipple says he's sure to have mixed emotions when that happens.
"All of my customers are friends of ours. We've seen them grow up, I've seen their children grow up, and we've just seen a lot of generations. It'll be rough, but we'll make it through it," he said.
Whipple says most employees will stay, as far as he knows, when the change-over takes place, and that he's confident the new owner will be accepted by his customers.
Greg Godby, who owns Greg's Market in Bardwell and another store in Clinton, has purchased Whipple's Food Market. When it re-opens on Monday, it will be called Greg's Supermarket, and will operate from 7:00 am - 7:00 pm Monday through Saturday.