September 19, 1982
Unflappable: Ethel Jondreau isn’t worried by Blueberry crime, red tape
By Sylvia Wier
News Tribune & Herald
BLUEBERRY, Wis. — Ethel Jondreau is one tough cookie.
The 76 years, the sometimes-soprano wafting voice, the 5-foot-minus height are all disguises. You don’t want to mess with Ethel.
“When the guy couldn’t pay for the gas,” she said, “I told him, ‘I knew you were a crook the minute you came in the door.’ I asked him what his name was and he was dumb enough to tell me. And I said — since I knew the name when he said it — ‘Now I know you’re a crook.’ ”
“But he came back with the money.”
Between 6 and 6:45 a.m. every morning for the last 32 years of mornings, Ethel Jondreau has opened the door to the Blueberry Store just outside Maple, Wis., on Highway 2. It’s open Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Easter, any holiday you name.
The door stays open until 11 p.m., maybe midnight. If it’s 2 a.m. and you need a jar of mustard, Ethel will probably open the door for you anyway.
No big deal. “The house is right in the other room,” she says.
The hours? “If I was out of here, what would I do? I’d be stuck in an old nursing home.”
From atop her stool perch behind the front counter, Ethel runs the general store, pumps gas, fights off robbers and bullies, and yields an attentive ear to every hard-luck story and its hard-luck teller.
About the robbers and bullies…
One day, seven years ago, Ethel heard a shot from down the road. Ethel, thinking it was the kids next door playing with some leftover Fourth of July fireworks, didn’t make a big deal out of it. But a little later a lady friend called about Irene Carlson, the widow next door who ran the Blueberry Antique Shop.
The lady on the phone explained that she and Carlson were supposed to go shopping, but Carlson hadn’t shown up yet. So Ethel and her friend went over and found Carlson lying dead inside the door, shot.
“Everyone at the funeral home said to me, ‘Move out of that place,’ ” Ethel recalls. (Ethel never did and she has her own ear-bending theories as to the why’s and who’s of the murder.)
Another time, she was on the phone with her daughter (“She talks for hours,” says Ethel) when she felt that something funny was going on in the store.
“I walked in there and these guys were in the store and said, ‘Hey, lady, this is a stickup.’ I said, ‘You won’t get much.’ And they said they just robbed so-and-so. Well, I don’t get excited about nothing. So I talked to them.
“And we talked and they said, ‘We intended to rob you, but since you’re such a nice lady, we’re not going to.’ ”
(Ethel figures that not getting excited probably kept her from getting robbed. She suspects Carlson “probably threw up a fit” and that accounts, in part, for her murder.)
There are the other stories: about the two would-be robbers she made fix the window she broke through, about the bureaucrats — from city attorneys to state licensors — she’s challenged.
“When the guy from the state told me I needed a license to sell rubbing alcohol and aspirin,” said Ethel, “I just took those bottles into the kitchen and said I would use them. He said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t keep them in there.’
“I said, ‘Who are you trying to kid?’ Nothing can stop me from going out and buying a hundred bottles of aspirin if I want and putting them in my house. I asked him how much a license is and he said $25.
“Gee whiz, you might as well live in Russia. … You even have to pay to go to the toilet.”
Although Jondreau grew up in Blueberry, she didn’t start working at the store until moving back to Blueberry in 1950 after living in Minneapolis and other parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The store owner’s health was failing and Ethel was going to help out temporarily.
“Instead of 32 hours, it’s been 32 years,” she said.
She first lived with her daughter in the house attached to the back of the store and was paid $48 a month. When Ethel started to make a living off the store, she told the owners they wouldn’t have to pay her anymore.
The original owners eventually died, but the family kept the store — and Ethel.
She remembers Blueberry when there were “loads and loads” of blueberries, five saloons, a barbershop, four trains a day and a hundred townspeople.
The blueberries are pretty much gone (no forest fires to stimulate their growth anymore because of the Department of Natural Resources, says Ethel), as are the saloons, barbershop, trains and all but 28 of the townspeople.
And bread is no longer 15 cents and the case of pop that cost the Blueberry Store 50 cents in 1950 is $7.20 now. (There is one exception, though — the Blueberry Store still sells penny candy.) Gone are the store’s vegetable, meat and bakery sections.
“The milkman used to come once a day,” Ethel says somewhat incredulously. Now it’s twice a week
“It isn’t the same as it used to be,” says Ethel, not reluctantly, but matter-of-factly. “… They (the government) let everything get out of hand. They should have froze everything right after World War II.”
But Jondreau, in her front-row seat behind the counter, does not fret about the past or let the Highway 2 motor parade of life pass her by.
With people “coming and going all the time,” in the store and for card games in back at the house three or four times a week, there’s not enough time to sit around and talk about the good old days.
“Quit working?” says Ethel. “No. I enjoy it too much.”
Ethel Jondreau retired from the store in 1990, when she was 83, telling the News Tribune’s Sam Cook that year that “I’ve enjoyed every day of my life.” (According to that column, she started working at the store in 1948.) She moved a couple of miles away, to the farm where she grew up and where her grandchildren were living.
At the time, the new owner of the store building told the News Tribune that he planned to move an antique shop and welding business there.
Ethel died on June 8, 1996, at the age of 89.
As far as I know, the store building still stands along Highway 2 at County Highway O.
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