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Cheers 2 – the groceries I


Submitted by Karl Breckenridge

When last we met I mentioned a couple watering holes – the Pub ‘n Sub and Brickie’s. A reader asked, weren’t those once both grocery stores? Yup. There were a lot of grocery stores in Reno when you were a kid? Yup. One on darn near every other corner? Yup.

One cannot write of postwar Reno grocery stores without the mention of refrigeration – ice making – cold storage.  It was in pretty short supply in the first half of the 20th century. Therefore it was incumbent upon a homemaker to visit a grocery store almost daily – at least every couple of days – to stock up on stuff that required refrigeration, which is a lot of what we eat. Going to a big-box grocery store was not an option inasmuch as the little woman (I’ll pay for that!) wasn’t about to run all over town to a store. And most households had but one car anyway.

Consequently, grocery stores – not big ones, mind you – sprung up all over town. A homemaker could buy about what could be carried in a Radio Flyer wagon or a cart that all homes had, slightly less commodious than today’s shopping cart. And a couple blocks’ walk would get the shopper home.

Ice Man
The Ice Man. Image: German National Archives

Refrigerators, if the home had such, were small, and had a frozen compartment about the size of a ’57 Chevy’s glove compartment. And, not all homes even had refrigerators – the Iceman Cometh several times a week to half the homes in town. A big delivery truck, about the size of a present-day UPS truck, would park as  close as possible to the home, and a big dude with arms like tree trunks and a leather cape would exit the truck with a block of ice on his back as big as the icebox could hold. He got to know his customers well, how to get into their homes if they were gone and how big their icebox’s ice compartment was.

Into the icebox the block of ice would go, where it would last for a couple of days to a week – fewer days in the warm summer months. And it would melt, dripping into a pan below the icebox. It was my job as a little kid to dump that tray until the happy day that a pair of guys, one of which I think was Dad’s friend Julius Broili, showed up with a brand-spanking new “refrigerator” from Nevada Machinery & Electric, and the whole neighborhood dropped by to see it!

But – capacious it wasn’t – so Mom trekked every couple of days, down the hill to the Ralston Market or up the hill to the University Market, now the Pub ‘n Sub. Our Whitaker Park neighborhood was typical of most in Reno and Sparks – with a plethora of such tiny groceries within walking distance – the Quality Market (Quilici’s!) kitty-corner across the park on the corner of Washington and Seventh, the Hilltop at Ralston and Eleventh, or the Santa Claus on Vine Street.

But the king of the markets was on Fifth Street at Washington across from Mary S. Doten School – Johnny Beetschen’s Cottage Market, one of the few little neighborhood places in northwest Reno with a walk-in freezer and a butcher shop – that was high-livin’, to go occasionally to the Cottage and come home with steaks for dinner!

But remember, Mom had to cook them that day we brought them home because they probably wouldn’t fit in that new “refrigerator” from Broili’s…

And if Dad was having the golf guys over for a drink, or the campaign committee for Bill Beemer, his insurance-guy buddy who was running for the Justice of  the Peace, he’d go to Union Ice down on the Lincoln Highway west of town and get a sack of cubed ice, like the bars and restaurants had to do…

As I write this I think of how much we take our refrigeration for granted – in days of yore keeping food edible was a chore, as was moving it from place to place. The big trucks had some pretty rudimentary refrigeration equipment, and it wasn’t that unusual to see a big ”sale” – often a giveaway – of meat and seafood or frozen food destined for a restaurant, usually, being sold on the side of a road because the truck’s refrigeration unit conked out with perishable cargo on board in the heat of August.

Time marched on, and the science of keeping stuff cold improved. Refrigerators in homes became larger, and the food-supplying industry responded by offering more and more products frozen for shipment and sale.

Here in Reno and Sparks we thought we had a handle on it, but had a rude awakening in the August of 1960 when a forest fire took out some poles, and therefore power, from Truckee to the Utah state line and our electric refrigeration went out with it for three days.  That’s another column, we’ll call it “the Donner Ridge Fire” – we’ll read here as soon as I write it.

I’ll probably lead with our Reno High buddy Dave Quinn, that summer working for Sears Roebuck downtown, being dispatched by Sears to pick up dry ice in Sacramento. Returning to Reno, the CO2 fumes damn near killed him in the by then-freezing van and he nearly froze his butt off then died. Fortunately, Sharon Lyman rescued him and brought him back to room temperature, so Dave did the right thing and married her. And they remain wed, good pals to many of us readers…..an ATΩ and a Theta forever.

Once again I’ve tangled up my writing, by starting to write of the Pub ‘n Sub and Brickie’s (née Hansen’s Market) and writing about refrigeration. But – come back to This is Reno over the weekend, and we’ll visit a few old neighborhood markets.

Have a nice week, what’s left of it, and, be safe, huh?

Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally. 

Read more from Karl Breckenridge

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Cheers 3 – the groceries II

Karl did not limit his column to ten items or less, so get out of the express line to read this history of Reno grocery markets.