Butler County's last small grocery store faces uncertain future
This quiet town nestled inside the triangle between Wichita, Newton and El Dorado is struggling to keep its grocery store.
Wilbur’s Market has been in business for 24 years, but a Kansas Department of Transportation road project on K-196 threatens its survival. The project to build three new bridges over Diamond Creek, Whitewater River and Dry Creek began in February. It is expected to be completed by late November, depending on weather.
But that may not be soon enough.
“We’re down over 20 percent in business over a year ago,” says owner Will Carpenter of Towanda.
Sometimes the money left after monthly bills to pay the store’s five employees is about $1,000. Last year, it was nearly $5,000.
“People don’t think about the future,” Carpenter said. “They are concerned about when that door opens buying a gallon of milk, a bag of ice or chips for supper. They don’t think about tomorrow if that door is closed.”
Wilbur’s is the last locally owned small grocery store left in Butler County.
Across Kansas, grocery stores are the economic engines that drive small communities. The presence of a store can determine whether a town lives or dies.
About one-fourth of supermarkets in Kansas communities with fewer than 2,000 people have closed since 2007, according to the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University. There used to be 213 grocery stores in small Kansas towns; now the number is closer to 160.
“I’m sorry to hear that Potwin (may be) joining the ranks of Kansas small towns without a grocery store,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which works to preserve rural culture in Kansas. “In a town of less than 500, it’s a tribute to the owner that the store stayed open this long.”
More than 66,000 residents live in Butler County; between 450 to 500 people live in Potwin.
In the best of times, Carpenter said, the store would gather customers from neighboring Whitewater with its 750 residents and then from rural farms. But the state bridge construction has turned the six-mile shot from Whitewater to Potwin into a 15-mile gravel road trip.
“I don’t think I have a single customer who doesn’t shop somewhere else,” Carpenter said.
And that’s normally fine, he said.
“All I need is enough to pay bills and employees,” he said. “I’m not taking it personally. People are saying we don’t want to shop there. It is not a personal thing. I’m not mad about it.”
On a good day, more than 150 people used to come through the store’s doors. Now it’s less than 100.
The town’s mayor wants to believe there is still hope.
“If he can hang in just a little longer, I am hoping there may be some good news,” said Potwin Mayor Dean Schmidt.
Schmidt said he has been in negotiation with Windmill Ranch, which is switching over from a cattle feeding operation to a dairy. With that, the mayor said, there will be more employees. Potwin now has 28 empty houses and he said some of the new employees might choose to live in his hometown. But that transition could take two years.
“If you could add another 20 people, that would help him a bunch,” Schmidt said.
Carpenter, a former state lawmaker, said he would decide about the store’s future in the next few months.
“It’s hard to attract people to small towns,” he said. “Rural Kansas, whether we like it or not, is in decline.”
There was a time he owned three grocery stores, all in small towns: Towanda, Florence and Potwin. Only one is still open.
He sold the one in Towanda when a Walmart was built on the west side of El Dorado.
“A lot of times in life, it isn’t what you have done but what you haven’t done,” Carpenter said. “I always wanted to own a little chain of grocery stores. That was my goal. But life doesn’t always turn out like you think it will. For five years, I had three stores and I ran between Towanda, Potwin and Florence. It was a 75-mile round trip and I ran it five days a week — a lot of times six and seven times.”
Carpenter is 61 now.
“When the Walmart Super Center came in to the west side of El Dorado, I closed Towanda and moved all the groceries to the other store. A year later, I closed Florence.”
He says a small town grocery store is not just a place to pick up a bag of ice, gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.
The grocery store is a place for people to catch up on one another.
It is a way of life.
“It is an information center,” he said.