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Former grocery store offers tale of American dream

The former Gensky Grocery Store at 423 E. Miller Street in Jefferson City has been the meeting place for Lodge No. 9 of the Capital City Lodge of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.

The former Gensky Grocery Store at 423 E. Miller Street in Jefferson City has been the meeting place for Lodge No. 9 of the Capital City Lodge of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. Photo by Kris Wilson.

An immigrant love story, a neighborhood staple and a safe place in a tumultuous social era — the two-story brick commercial building at 423 E. Miller St. truly is a Jefferson City Landmark.

For the first 50 years, it served as a neighborhood grocery store.

“Grocery stores once were important neighborhood institutions: They were within comfortable walking distance from one’s home, they were operated by trusted neighborhood residents, and they were as much places of social interaction as they were places of business,” said local author and historian Gary Kremer in his “Heartland History,” Volume 1.

In its next half-century, it has been the meeting place for Lodge No. 9 of the Capital City Lodge of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. And for 16 years, it also housed a doctor’s office.

An immigrant love story, a neighborhood staple and a safe place in a tumultuous social era — the two-story brick commercial building at 423 E. Miller St. truly is a Jefferson City Landmark.

For the first 50 years, it served as a neighborhood grocery store.

“Grocery stores once were important neighborhood institutions: They were within comfortable walking distance from one’s home, they were operated by trusted neighborhood residents, and they were as much places of social interaction as they were places of business,” said local author and historian Gary Kremer in his “Heartland History,” Volume 1.

In its next half-century, it has been the meeting place for Lodge No. 9 of the Capital City Lodge of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. And for 16 years, it also housed a doctor’s office.

photo

Courtesy of Henry Gensky

Henry Gensky remembers growing up in his family’s grocery store, a neighborhood staple.

The gable front and continuous, slender brick columns supporting the recessed front porch are in the Missouri-German vernacular architectural style, with touches of Craftsman style, according to the nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, approved in 2001.

One block from the eventual Lafayette Street interchange with U.S. 54 and the proposed firefighter’s museum, the building has been at the center of its neighborhood for nearly a century.

The American dream

Eleven years after immigrating from Bevern, Germany, and apprenticing with his uncle, Henry F. Gensky opened his own grocery business in 1915 in the 200 block of Jefferson Street.

Only a year into pursuing his American dream, Gensky was injured seriously in a horse and wagon accident delivering groceries.

Two years earlier, he had contracted tuberculosis and was treated at the state sanitarium in Mount Vernon.

He would marry Stella Schmidli, whose family rented Henry Gensky a room during his recuperation after both incidents.

His landlord Joseph Schmidli was hired by Joseph Pope (grandfather to City Councilman Bryan Pope) to build a brick building at 423 E. Miller St. with a retail space below and living quarters above.

At Joseph Schmidli’s encouragement, Henry Gensky rented the building, living above and opening the H.F. Gensky Grocery Store below.

He hired Stella Schmidli as store clerk, again. And within the year, the pair married and purchased the building from Pope — under Stella’s name since Henry was not yet a U.S. citizen.

Upon entering the store, customers were immediately drawn to the oak display case that ran along the south wall for nearly the length of the building. Canned goods and

other boxed items were stocked on floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the case, which also served as a counter.

A raised, glassenclosed portion of the case displayed cigars and candies. Coffee, flour, dried beans and other miscellaneous items were stored below in pull-out bins.

To the left of the entry, fresh produce was displayed in wire and wicker baskets. A meat and dairy counter, advertising “City View Dairy” products, was situated centrally, according to the register nomination.

For the next two decades, Henry and Stella Gensky provided goods to their neighborhood, roughly between Lafayette Street and Clark Avenue and north to McCarty Street.

And their children — Ruth and Henry, known then as “Sonny,” — grew up in the neighborhood, where they walked to piano lessons and enjoyed summertime ice cream gatherings at neighbors’ homes.

In front of the store was a great place for riding tricycles and playing hop-scotch, the younger Henry Gensky remembered. And in the back was a firm piece of ground for playing jacks.

Through the years, several distinctive characters from the neighborhood made a mark in Gensky’s memory.

“Money” Bledsoe was a large, jolly fellow whose pocket change would fall on the floor when he laughed. And Arthur Cole would sit on the weight scale in the back of the store to eat the sardines and crackers he had just purchased.

A third individual would always buy a bottle of Vess soda. But what Gensky recalled, as a young child, he admired his aviator-style cap so much that he begged his mother to get him one.

Gensky also remembers the “traumatic affair” when the store was robbed, causing his father to install steel bars on the back windows. Apparently, the thief was motivated by the slot machine in the back.

The elder Henry Gensky died in 1936, when Gensky was a boy. But his mother continued to operate the business for another five years with the help of her sister Edna Manes.

The next eight years, she rented the store to two other proprietors.

Extended heritage

Gensky remembers watching his grandfather Joseph Schmidli build a brick, twobedroom addition to the back of the store about a decade after it was built.

Joseph Schmidli was a Jefferson City native and prominent stone mason. He is credited with work on more than 400 local buildings, including the Missouri Hotel, now the Baptist Building; St. Mary’s Hospital and the West End International Shoe Factory, formerly JCD Distributors.

And he brought the cement business to the Capital City at the turn of the century, laying the first sidewalks in 1898.

Joseph Schmidli learned the value of solid craftsmanship from his father, Peter Schmidli, a carpenter.

Peter Schmidli, who immigrated from Switzerland in 1867, brought his family to Jefferson City to work on the Central School Building, the first to house 12 grades locally.

Afterward, he was hired to build a similar Mansard-style roof on the Missouri Governor’s Mansion.

More notably, Peter Schmidli carved the railing for the mansion’s iconic, grand staircase.

Several of the commercial facades along High Street still retain wooden ornaments carved by Peter Schmidli.

Early photos and antique, handmade furniture remain in the family from those early generations of builders, Gensky said.

Serving all people

Another tradition passed on through Gensky’s ancestors was racial acceptance.

In an era where segregation was common, the Gensky Grocery Store served the surrounding neighborhoods — including The Foot and Lincoln University.

When not in school, Gensky remembers riding along with Earl Williams, the store’s delivery man. Like playing with children in the neighborhood, Gensky said he did not think anything of the fact that they were black.

“African-Americans were a fair part of the trade,” Gensky said.

When Mrs. Gensky decided to sell the building, it was to Lodge No. 9. Later, Dr. Charles Cooper practiced on the first floor from 1966-82.

Capital City Lodge No. 9, like other Prince Hall-affiliate Masonic lodges, promotes the welfare of society through the reaffirmation of traditional values and it is essentially an organization for blacks, according to the national register nomination.

Like black churches, lodges have been a key component to maintain the heritage and development of the black community.

Although Masonry has been in the United States since 1733, blacks were excluded from the early Massachusetts A.F. & A.M. brotherhood.

As a free, property-holding black immigrant, Prince Hall petitioned the British Lodge No. 441, a traveling military lodge, when he was denied admittance to a Boston lodge in 1775.

With 14 other black associates, Hall served as Master of the African Lodge No. 459, formally constituted through the Grand Lodge of England in 1787. And in 1827, it became the African Grand Lodge No. 1.

The local lodge was established in 1867, soon after the Grand Lodge of Missouri was established.

The organization’s first meeting room was at the site of today’s Jefferson State Office Building. Minutes from 1948 record that the lodge owned the building and rented an unused room to the Elks Lodge and the American Legion.

When the Capital City Lodge No. 9, with membership open to all races, moved to the Gensky Store, it had 57 members.

The organization continues to serve the community through scholarships and meeting the needs of individuals.

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