Only a memory – The M&R Store

    A full-service gas station and a grocery store in the late afternoon shadow of Crowheart Butte once graced the highway between Morton and Crowheart. M&R, named for Mary and Ray Hartman, who started the store, was a haven for local farmers, ranchers, and tourists on the road west from Riverton to Dubois.

    For locals, it was on the south side of the highway between the Wyoming Highway Department historical market at the pullout below Crowheart Butte and the log house once owned by Charles and Ina Smith

    “M&R had basic groceries. They were one place you could get the freshest eggs,” Roseanne Riley said. “Jay and Lavina Sanderson ran it when I was a kid.”

    Riley grew up near the store and was a frequent customer.

    Jay Sanderson outside the M&R – h/t Kathryn Sanderson

    “My parents and my older sister Gail moved to the store in the summer of 1960,” Kathryn Sanderson said.

    They officially opened on July 1, 1960. The three acres surrounding it and the store were leased from Nita Large.

    Ken and Mary Richardson owned the store before them.

    “When my parents decided to leave the store, we sold the inventory and business to them,” Sanderson said.

    Today, there are only two service stations between Riverton and Dubois, the first heading west at the Kinnear Store and the second at the Crowheart Store.

    From the post-World War II period to the late 1960s, gas stations dotted the landscape, with pumps at Gardner’s Market, M&R, the Burris store, and the two that remain.

    “George Girard, at the tire store in Riverton, was our supplier; we were a Phillips 66 station originally,” Sanderson said. “George agreed to give my parents a loan to buy inventory to get the store started and get gas.”

    Lavina Sanderson outside the M&R Store – h/t Kathryn Sanderson

    Girard was an influential businessman in Riverton and the father of well-known Riverton attorney Nettabell Girard.

    “We lived there from July 1, 1960 to May 1968,” Sanderson said. “George was our dealer most of the time until Ron Bailey took over. We had regular and ethyl, a full-service station.”

    The M&R pumps were innovative for the 1960s, equipped with vacuum hoses hanging between them. Innovative for the service station industry, but hard work for the children of Jay and Lavina.

    “We’d vacuum tourists’ cars when we’d fill them up,” Sanderson said. “I was 10 years old when we moved there. I learned how to pump gas and check oil. My mom was 4’11 ½”. My dad built her a box so she could reach the middle of the windshield to wash them.”

    One of the attractions for local farmers and ranchers on cold winter mornings, and anytime they wanted a little conversation was the free coffee offered at the store in a big 32-cup pot.

    There were five Sanderson children and all of them graduated from Morton High School.

    A family gathering at the M&R store when an aunt and uncle came to visit – h/t Kathryn Sanderson

    Carol in 1956, Noel and Donna in 1958, Gail in 1964, and Kathryn in 1968. The older three never lived at the store, but Gail and Kathryn did.

    Gail was tragically killed in a car accident when she was 20 years old.

    The rural store community has many connections. Crowheart Store owner Lloyd Haslam graduated with Donna, and Lavina worked for Earl and Stella Gardner at Gardner’s Market.

    “Mom learned how to work a store at Gardner’s,” Kathryn said.

    “The first year we were there, Mom and Dad stayed and grew the business,” Kathryn said. “Dad got a job with the Morton school driving from Crowheart to Morton and worked at the bus garage.”

    Living at a store meant long days with occasional late nights when regular customers might need something after hours.

    “Mom gave us the choice of working in the store or cooking supper,” Kathryn said. “Gail always cooked supper.”

    They had regular local customers, but some tourists who traveled to Wyoming every year made it a point to stop, too.

    “A few stopped more than once,” Kathryn said. “We had an outhouse, which was an experience for those people.”

    The stores of the 1950s and ’60s in Wyoming always had a candy counter, and M&R was no exception.

    “The first thing I remember about the store, there was a bulk box of chocolate covered vanilla cream candies, left over from Vanita,” Kathryn said. “It was just there and I had access to the candy counter.”

    A popular place for area children, the candy counter inside the M&R – h/t Kathryn Sanderson

    Jay and Lavina gradually built up their business. They had both local and regional suppliers.

    Bread arrived from Riverton, and milk did too from Meadow Gold. Tweeds Wholesale of Riverton supplied candy and drug store items, like gloves and toothpaste and sundry items.

    “A salesman from Idaho. He’d come through, and we’d order canned goods from him, and a delivery truck came the following week,” Kathryn said.

    While the coffee pot was the focal point of the adults, the pop cooler was where the kids headed.

    “We had a pop bottle case with water in it that you had to reach in and pull the bottles out,” Kathryn said. “There was a case on the side for used bottles.”

    The pop came from a distributor in Riverton.

    “Dad sold tires from Jack Girard,” Kathryn said. “They brought the tires out with the gas. He built up a good tire business and repaired tires.  He didn’t do much other maintenance besides tires.”

    The meat came from Logan Packing.

    “We drove to Riverton to get it. A quarter of a beef, chicken, and pork chops, 40-pound packages of hamburger,” Kathryn said. “Mom, Gail, and I would pack the hamburger into patties, six to a pack, and put them in the freezer.”

    There was a meat slicer for custom orders of bacon, cheese, spiced ham, or bologna.

    “We cut slab bacon to order. There was a big brick of American cheese,” Kathryn said. “It was all cut on the slicer, and then we weighed it and wrapped it in butcher paper. I learned how to do all that.”

    They offered cookies, bread, milk, meat, cheese, canned goods, and candy bars, along with coffee and friendship.

    “We had a table and a couple of chairs for guys to visit. Mom ran the store by herself in the winter,” Kathryn said. “We lived in the back with a curtain to separate us from the store. A lot of times when the ranchers came in for cigarettes and coffee, Mom would work in the back.”

    While most of the customers were from local farms and ranches or tourist families traveling to or from Yellowstone, there were school trips that stopped.

    “Once in a while, we’d get a whole busload of kids on a trip,” Kathryn said. “It was a big rush.”

    Many regular customers stopped just to get their cars vacuumed while getting a little gas.

    “I was so envious of people who could have a family vacation,” Kathryn said.

    Running a family store is as time-consuming as owning a restaurant, motel, or dairy farm; the days are long.

    “We closed Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving. Otherwise, we were open early in the morning,” Kathryn said. “In winter we’d close at 6:30 or 7, in summer we might be open until 10:30.”

    There was a bell at the pump, and early morning or late at night, that bell might ring.

    “If they needed gas, we had a gas bell and Dad would come out and fill up their car,” Kathryn said. “We had two bedrooms and a living room and kitchen. We had a building on the side.”

    Times were different in rural America in the 1960s. Trust among neighbors was common, and so was silver in the coins.

    “We had charge accounts, we kept accounts with receipts. A lot of the local people bought from us,” Kathryn said. “The only time we saw paper dollars was in the summer. People paid us in silver dollars. We had silver dollars and 50 cent pieces from all the local people. We’d see paper dollars when the tourists went through.”

    Gas and cigarette sales had to be separated from the food items in their records.

    “Mom did the books, and I did them after taking accounting classes,” Kathryn said. “Most of the time I liked working there until an ex-boyfriend showed up and I’d have to pump gas for him.”

    There were local characters that had fun with the tourists.

    “Hugo Bonatsie was fun. He had braids and a big black cowboy hat,” Kathryn said. “He’d come up pretending he couldn’t understand English.”

    Memories of what once was can be shattered by reality.

    “I’d show friends this was where I grew up. We had a circular driveway,” Kathryn said. “We need to tear that building down; it’s so dilapidated. I pulled in last fall on the way to Dubois and, oh my God, it was gone. The teacher who owns it now finally tore it down.”

    The only thing that remains from her childhood is the lilac bush that was outside her bedroom window.

    Crowheart Butte dominated the view from the M&R Store – h/t Randy Tucker

    “It seemed like such a small place,” Kathryn said. “We had two picture windows that looked out the front; in my mind, it was big, but it really wasn’t.

    Kathryn graduated from Morton in 1968. The other children were already gone.

    “My mom and dad made a decent living there. The business had grown well, they needed to hire help during the summer, but they decided they didn’t want to get into that,” Kathryn said. “The first year after they left the store, they went to Ethete and became house parents at St. Michaels.”

    When the Sandersons packed up, Ken and Betty Richardson took the store for three years.

    “We took it over from them in 1968,” Ken said. “We left the store in 1971.”

    The Richardsons had plans for the store, but they were tenets, not owners. Nita Large still owned the property.

    “We wanted to make some changes in the store, Nita didn’t want us to do it, she still owned it,” Mary said. “We weren’t doing anything drastic, we thought it would make things better.”

    The M&R kept the name, and the fuel still came from Ron Bailey in Riverton.

    They changed to Clark’s Meat House and had groceries delivered from Casper for a while.

    “We found out we could buy it cheaper at Ben’s Super Market (Riverton) than we could from our supplier out of Casper,” Betty said. “So, we bought supplies from Ben Moss.”

    They remembered the antics of one customer well.

    “One of the customers would charge all month at our place, then the next month they’d go to the Crowheart store and charge there,” Betty said. “We always knew it would be another month before we see them.”

    Ken was farming while trying to run the store, leaving it to Betty when he had to plant, harvest, or irrigate. He worked for School District #6 as well.

    “I drove school bus for so long, I lost my mind, and then I couldn’t hear anymore. I lost my nerve and I quit and here I am,” Ken joked. “I go out looking for my mind now and then and I couldn’t find it.”

    “I enjoyed running the store, but we still had the farm and Ken had things he still had to do,” Betty said.

    When the work became too much, they tried to find employees.

    “We tried to hire a young couple, they were looking for a job, and we tried to help them out. They did some weird things, they were California,” Betty said. “One bedroom had a lot of papers we had to keep, records and things. We didn’t have time to do anything with them. They proceeded to burn them.”

    The couple didn’t work out.

    “Everything he used he broke, so Ken had enough and sent them down the road,” Betty said.

    Unable to find help, and not allowed to make the changes they wanted, it was time to quit the business.

    “We decided we didn’t need to be there if we couldn’t do what we needed,” Betty said.

    Earl and Nita Large ran the store for a while, and then they leased it to Albert C. Cook, who came from Chicago for a short time.

    Conditions changed in the world of country markets. Large chain stores like Pamida, Gambles, and K-Mart began to arrive. The highways to Riverton and Lander improved and the customers began to just drive by leaving just a handful of what were once the heart of Fremont County communities.

    The lilac bush and the view of Crowheart Butte are all that remain.

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