Barth store and home circa 1915-1925 – Courtesy Omena Historical Society
Once upon a time, when big steamers pulled up to the docks in Omena and horses and wagons met them to carry their cargo to the local stores, stores sold all the things which the people could not grow or make themselves, and only that.
Fresh meat and produce were brought in by the local farmers to trade for shoes, cloth, cooking utensils, hardware and many other things that they couldn’t produce themselves. Orders were filled over the counter, the store keepers measured and weighed and wrapped the purchases. The customers carried them home in their own baskets or they were tied up with string.
In those days if you wanted to open a business, you didn’t go to the bank and take out a loan, you lived with your parents, you worked their farm, did some lumbering in the winter, and saved your money until you had “capitol sufficient to enable you to begin business on your own account.” And that is what Paul Barth did.
Life can be Tough
Life had been tough for little Paul. Coming with his parents from Prussia, Germany in November of 1866 when he was only 7 years old, the family lived in Canada for a short time, then moved to Northport where they spent the first winter after their arrival, and then finally moved again to a farm just south of Northport. Paul had 8 brothers and sisters, and was the 5th in line. Life was tough.
Finally by the time Paul was 22, he had saved enough money to start a business. There was no meat market in all of Leelanau County and Paul thought there should be one. He opened the first butcher shop in the county in Northport in 1884, and that same year he married his first wife, Amelia.
They had a child, little Myrtle, and then, after just three years of married life, Amelia died. Paul was a widower with a toddler and just 28 years old.
General Store Opens
Perhaps needing a change in his life, perhaps also weary of dealing with the problems of keeping meat fresh at the meat market in an age before refrigeration, Paul disposed of his meat market in 1889, and moved to Omena, opening a general store just east of Anderson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Post Office. Sprague’s 1903 book, “History of Leelanau County” which was published 14 years after the store opened, describes Barth’s store this way: “He carries a large and well selected line of merchandise, and everything he can do to please his customers is done. He has the strictest ethics of commercial life”.
Paul built a dock across from his store in 1900 which was “twice as long as the Anderson dock, which may have been necessary to accommodate the variety of vessels servicing the bay or perhaps for the appearance of success. Paul’s new store was impressively called “P. R. Barth, Dealer in General Merchandise.” Other sources describe the store as “neat in appearance and well appointed”. He became a member of the school board of Omena, joined the Omena Congregational church, and over time was able to buy up 80 acres of land. “Progress and character may be termed the keynote of his character” the 1903 Sprague’s History declares.
Two years after opening his Omena store, Paul married again to a Leland township woman named Christina. They had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood: Robert, Walter, and Ernest.
Over time, Paul Barth’s most faithful customers seem to have been among the farmers, Indians, and other permanent residents. They visited the store more often than the summer folks so he tended to carry the things they would need. Farmers grew and canned most of their own food and butchered their own meat. Barth carried the staples they could not supply themselves like flour and sugar. He also carried big rounds of cheese, rings of bologna and barrels of crackers. The crackers he would measure, weigh, and package for each customer upon request. He carried overalls, shirts and blue jeans, sold tobacco. As most general stores did in those days he had a large candy jar on the counter. People sat around discussing local gossip.
Paul bartered with the Indians rather than selling to them on credit as Anderson’s Store did. He gladly took handmade braided rugs and woven baskets in exchange for items as they were popular with the cottages and resorters. Paul refused to sell them until July 1st however, which he determined to be the beginning of the summer season. He evidently wanted everyone to have an equal chance at the choice. He probably also enjoyed the only time a line was ever waiting for him when he unlocked the door in the morning.
Paul and Store Grow Old
Paul was the owner of the Barth store for 47 years. As he grew older, his store gradually began to be filled with things that had long since gone out of fashion but were still serviceable. A giant pin cushion filled with long hat pins that would have been wanted by the resort people in the early 1900s was still on the counter well into the 1920’s. By then large hats were no longer fashionable. The store had no electricity, and was wholly dependent on the light from the front and back windows and kerosene lamps. It seemed dark and gloomy when you came in from the sunshine outside.
Paul died in 1936 at the age of 77 after suffering a stroke. C. E. Wheeler described him in a letter written that June saying “I think we will all miss him and his quaint philosophies. He was a really good if not particularly active man, not geared to the life that was going on around him.” He is remembered sitting at the counter in the back of his store or on the bench on the stoop, inscrutably viewing the activities of the summer evenings in Omena.