Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

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Andrew T.
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Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by Andrew T. » 06 Jun 2018 19:17

This week, I belatedly discovered that one of my library cards gives me access to the same Ancestry.com city directory collection that our host uses to fill gaps in his site's coverage. This news probably thrills him (because it means I'll be able to contribute more cities in the future), and it means that I'm able to decipher some of the grocery mysteries in the cities I've lived over the years. There are some places, however, that present more questions than answers.

Take for example Morgantown, West Virginia, the place where I toiled away in the mid-2000s. It's a well-retailed city, with both WV and Pennsylvania influence. One look at the 1960 directory (the most recent year available), however, revealed a surprising dearth of chain grocers: There was one A&P, one Acme, two Thorofares...and that was all. There were no Giant Eagles. There were no Krogers.

I found the lack of Kroger particularly surprising. Both Charleston and Pittsburgh had a Kroger presence back to the 1920s, as did many West Virginia cities of lesser significance than Morgantown. What happened there?
kromor1.jpg
Fortunately my library card gives me access to newspapers as well as directories, and they gave me a few precise answers. It turns out that the first Kroger store in Morgantown (seen above from coverage of a 1974 labour strike) didn't open until the late, late date of 11 January 1970! This store was actually in Sabraton, an adjacent town annexed in 1949. It survives intact as the leftmost anchor of this centre, a short distance from its 1980s greenhouse-era replacement.
kromor2.jpg
Confusing matters is that there was speculation in 1968 that Kroger would open a store in the Suncrest Shopping Plaza on Patteson Drive...but it never opened as such. When Morgantown's second Kroger store opened in November 1974, it was located across the street from the Plaza without being part of it. This store is still in business today. And Morgantown retained two Kroger stores all the way up to 2008, when a third store opened on the northeast end of town.

This answers what happened...but what about the why? My best informed guess is that Morgantown for many years fell into the "no-man's land" between Kroger's Pittsburgh and Charleston divisions, with neither willing to take the market on. Add that to the weakness of A&P and other chains, and you have the ingredients of a 1960s grocery store scene much more skewed towards independents than usual.
"The pale pastels which have been featured in most food stores during the past 20 years are no longer in tune with the mood of the 1970s."
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Re: Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by rich » 07 Jun 2018 20:31

Another, fairly straightforward explanation is that Morgantown and its surrounding county lost population in the 50s, which would have made it less attractive for building a store. Given Kroger's big push to build stores between the mid 50s and early 60s which included pushes into places like the Twin Cities and Erie PA, it would have been a time when they would have been expected to enter someplace like Morgantown that was near the existing markets.

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Re: Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by Andrew T. » 08 Jun 2018 00:30

OK, here goes: Morgantown Chain Grocery/Supermarket Locations, 1925-1960! Some take-aways from this:

* A&P consolidated 5 stores into 1 between 1935 and 1941!

* Directory coverage of the towns that surrounded Morgantown (some of which were subsequently annexed) is sketchy and inconsistent, with a fair number of unnumbered addresses.

* Several directories gave a mysterious reference to an A&P store in a place called "Mona"...which is not indicated as an abbreviation, and which does not exist on any map I've seen. It makes me wonder if this was R.L. Polk's equivalent of a trap street!

* Thorofare's stores were known as Streamline Stores until 1948; Streamline in turn entered Morgantown around 1940. At least one of Thorofare's buildings at 285 University Ave. (aka Don Knotts Boulevard) still stands today, although it isn't much to look at. News archives imply the chain lasted in the area until 1982.
clover63.jpg
* An important "missing link" in Morgantown's grocery history was Clover Farm. Clover Farm was evidently an IGA-like buyers' cooperative founded in Cleveland in 1926. It marketed itself behind a unified brand, and was the predecessor of Foodland. In fact, the overarching corporation called itself "Clover Farm-Foodland" for a number of years.

* The Billotti family appear to have been a Morgantown dynasty of grocers, with no fewer than four stores in the 1940s and 1950s credited to their name (some of which were also Clover Farm affiliates). I don't know how closely affiliated the Billotti stores were, but some were clearly transferred from one family member to another. They also had staying power: According to local newspapers, Sam Billotti's store survived until 1976.

That's about all the dirt I can dig up without a physical research visit. However, I last stepped foot in this city in 2007 and I don't know if I'll ever return...
rich wrote:Another, fairly straightforward explanation is that Morgantown and its surrounding county lost population in the 50s, which would have made it less attractive for building a store.
That is true. Morgantown is one of the healthier and more economically diversified cities in West Virginia, but it hasn't always been that way.
"The pale pastels which have been featured in most food stores during the past 20 years are no longer in tune with the mood of the 1970s."
Andrew Turnbull

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Re: Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by BillyGr » 08 Jun 2018 16:03

Andrew T. wrote: * A&P consolidated 5 stores into 1 between 1935 and 1941!
Probably quite similar in many locations - as they were converting the small stores into early supermarkets they went from somewhere around 15,000 stores (nationwide) to around 3,500.
Most likely the only reason it's not more exact (5 into 1 ratio) is that some smaller towns wouldn't have had 5 stores to start with to combine.

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Re: Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by Groceteria » 18 Jun 2018 22:13

Andrew T. wrote:I found the lack of Kroger particularly surprising. Both Charleston and Pittsburgh had a Kroger presence back to the 1920s, as did many West Virginia cities of lesser significance than Morgantown. What happened there?
FWIW, a quick scan of Fairmont listings shows that Kroger was there in the 1940s and disappeared for a couple of decades before returning. I'll firm up those dates soon. Clarksburg looks to have retained Kroger stores pretty much throughout the period.

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Re: Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by Groceteria » 21 Jun 2018 20:22

Andrew T. wrote:Several directories gave a mysterious reference to an A&P store in a place called "Mona"...which is not indicated as an abbreviation, and which does not exist on any map I've seen. It makes me wonder if this was R.L. Polk's equivalent of a trap street!
I dug into the 1931 city directory a little deeper and it seems there definitely was a town called "Mona" and it was big enough to have its own post office. A couple of online references have made me think it may have been part of the town that is currently known as "Granville" (which does have a Main Street right by the river), but this is just guesswork.

I love a mystery...


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Re: Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by Andrew T. » 21 Jun 2018 21:59

Well, I'll be. Mona exists! It's real!

Some local newspaper articles from the 1960s made reference to "Mona (Granville)," and I also found a reference to the Town of Granville itself having an address in "Mona, W.Va." The historical map clearly has a "Mona" and a "Granville Station" side-by-side, and both are within Granville's present-day town boundaries. So basically, one place is the same as the other.
"The pale pastels which have been featured in most food stores during the past 20 years are no longer in tune with the mood of the 1970s."
Andrew Turnbull

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Re: Chain history in Morgantown, WV (or, the case of the missing Kroger)

Post by Andrew T. » 11 Aug 2018 11:00

At risk of belatedly stating the obvious, our host gave Morgantown its own map and section, and expanded the research to the present day.

Since I lived in Morgantown in the mid-2000s, these listings bring back a lot of memories and recollections to me...
  • The Giant Eagle at 130 Green Bag Road is absolutely, positively the same as the Giant Eagle at Mountaineer Mall. The mall in question opened in 1976, and the Giant Eagle in the outlot is now practically the only thing left of it.
  • A second Giant Eagle briefly operated in an outlot above the newer Morgantown Mall in the early 1990s...its period of operation was evidently too short for it to appear in the spreadsheet. The most interesting thing about it was its fate: The building was expanded to twice its original size and converted to a Super Kmart that operated from 1996 to 2013, and the seam in its construction is clearly visible in aerial photos.
  • The Thorofare/Foodland on 3515 Monongahela Blvd in Star City was part of a shopping center anchored by a Hills department store. Foodland was still open when I moved to Morgantown in 2003, although the Hills of course was a hulking carcass. Foodland closed in 2005 or so, when the center began to be demolished in phases, and the Aldi that stands on the site today is in a different building.
  • The Foodland/Apple's/Bi-Lo store on 3119 University Ave was also still open when I moved to Morgantown in 2003. This is one of the stores that singlehandedly blossomed my interest in old supermarkets: It was a real trip inside, with bold neon signage evocative of the late 1970s or early 1980s, and it brimmed with archaic features like a time clock near the entrance taking physical cards. Alas it closed a few years later, but Neshachan on Flickr immortalized it in photos for posterity.
  • The "Sanitary" store (later Morgantown Market) at 450 High Street is yet another location I have personal recollections of...though not of its operational state. It was a tiny storefront on the main downtown street, housed in a decrepit wooden building that looked like it was about to fall down. When I moved to Morgantown in 2003, the store was closed...and it had a condemnation notice from 2000 posted on the door deeming the building "unfit for occupancy." The store must have shut down in a hurry, since there were still faded boxes of candy sitting in the window! Unsurprisingly, it met the wrecking ball about a year later.
  • The Thorofare at 10 Richwood Avenue was long-gone before my time in the city, but it explains why Richwood Avenue has such an odd curvature before terminating at Willey Street: Because the street once wrapped around the store!
  • It's a perplexing mystery why Kroger is listed with an unnumbered address on Sturgiss Street in 1995 only. Perhaps they briefly had a divisional office there? The street in question is a block-long stub wedged between University Avenue and the river, and there isn't enough physical space around it to place a store there.
Whew! That's a lot. I wonder what I'll think of next?
"The pale pastels which have been featured in most food stores during the past 20 years are no longer in tune with the mood of the 1970s."
Andrew Turnbull

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