Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fort Custer General Store owner Charlene Warren (center) talks with her husband Harvey (right) and Joe Malensek during her retirement party Monday afternoon. Landa Uffelman, set to buy Fort Custer General Store, helps a customer with a purchase Monday afternoon. She has been helping her grandmother Charlene Warren run the store since age four.

Fourth generation buys secondhand store

‘Biggest little store in Montana’ sold after 39 years
The “biggest little store in Montana,” as described by its owner Charlene Warren, will be changing hands soon as she transfers it to her granddaughter Landa Uffelman. Hardin’s Fort Custer General Store – stocked with everything from Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls on the shelves to Montana Mosquito Skinners by the cash register – has been a part of Warren’s life since long before she and her husband Harvey bought it in 1978.
 
“I moved in here when I was 15 years old,” she said. “I’m 72 now.”
 
Uffelman will be remodeling the store – “new floor, new walls” – and update the variety of items offered. Drawing from her agricultural background, she intends to change the building’s name to The Farmer’s Daughter General Store.
 
As with “Grandma’s store,” Uffelman said, she wants her version to offer people “that unique item” they’re searching for. 
 
“I was working this summer and this guy came in for a vintage metal lunchbox,” Uffelman said. “What do you know? Grandma had one.”
 
Warren also brought home a box from an auction house with another unexpected item. This one turned out to be less useful in the realm of sales.
 
“It was Christmas and I was decorating the window, and noticed this long stick in there,” Warren said. “I called my husband and asked, ‘Hey, is this a flare for the railroad or something?’ He said, ‘No, it’s a stick of dynamite and it’s leaking fluid. Do not put it down.’”
 
Fortunately for Warren, Harvey retrieved unexpected explosive and set it afire in a safe area.
 
“I threw it in the box,” Warren recalled from before she knew what it was. “It’s a wonder I didn’t take the whole building out.”
 
Shelves were sparser and further apart than usual Monday afternoon during Warren’s retirement party, partially owing to a 70 percent sale she had been offering for months to clear out the area. In addition to cake and ice cream, she and Uffelman passed out commemorative Fort Custer General Store mugs to the flow of residents passing by to chat.
 
According to Warren, she “couldn’t have been so successful without my wonderful husband, family and loyal customers over the years.”
 
“I’m kind of nervous; it’s kind of bittersweet,” Warren said of selling the shop. “I like my job and I love the people. That’s what I’m going to miss the most: the people.”
 
She had been reluctant to retire for the past five years, she continued, but “this winter, when it was 27 below, and I was shoveling snow…it’s time.”
 
Warren’s parents Alice and Camiel Pattyn bought the building in 1959 and opened the Wee Bite Café the following year. She lived upstairs with her parents, Warren said, and helped with the café while attending Hardin High School.
 
“It was cool,” she said of living in a store. “It was kind of a teenage hangout; it was fun.”
 
The store first crossed into its current status in 1965, becoming Hardin’s Secondhand. Her family added a backroom the building in 1966, one year before her mother died.
 
Twenty years later, after purchasing the building – then called the Bargain Hut – Warren changed the store’s name to Fort Custer General Store. By 1993, she added more merchandise on the second level and moved out.
 
Carrying groceries to the top of the building could be a pain, she explained, and she wanted to have a lawn.
 
Like Warren, Uffelman also grew up in the store, helping her grandmother “count back change to customers” since the age of four. Once she finishes her elementary education degree, she intends to move back into the second floor.
 
“It’s a big project, a lot of money,” Uffelman said. “I hope it works out.”
 
Fort Custer General Store, set to be renamed, is located at 206 N. Center Ave. in Hardin.
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