By David Knopf, News Editor
World War II was winding down when Kenneth Norris went to work for Vester Cox at the Elkhorn store.
The store is closed now, but the building still stands at the southwest corner of Highway 10 and Route N, near the turnoff for Elkhorn Road.
When Norris worked there, the store sold everything, from Phillips 66 gasoline to cigarettes, candy and food, to the one-gallon sorghum buckets Cox ordered from Kansas City.
Customers could buy or sell cream, eggs and chickens, and Cox, his wife and Norris enjoyed neighborly relations with the customers.
“The way it worked when I lived there, people would stop and put a dollar of gas in their cars and leave their cream and eggs there, and also leave an order for groceries,” said Norris, who worked for the Coxes for three years starting around 1944.
Customers could head to Richmond on other business and stop by on the way home to pick up their groceries.
“It was just a convenience store, really,” said Norris, who now lives in Richmond. “Everybody trusted everybody. There was no hanky-panky going on.”
Norris recalled that gas was just 20 cents a gallon then.
Billy Robison, a longtime resident whose grandfather bought property in Elkhorn in 1954, remembers how the store sold groceries, guns and ammo and had gas pumps out front.
“In 1970 or ’71, I was going down to Warrensburg for college and I paid 17 cents a gallon for gasoline at that store,” he said.
The little general store measured just 15 feet by 25 feet, Norris estimates, before Cox doubled its size with a storage area for grain.
Over the years, it has changed shape and hands many times, Norris and others recall, going through a list of owners that included Frank Clark, Harold Williams, Gordon Irons, Sherman Dooley and Leland Jones, as well as other members of the Jones family.
“When Sherman Dooley was there, he put in processing to slaughter cattle and hogs and all,” Norris said.
Ray County Assessor Kent Wollard remembers his family using the processing service.
“I remember going over there when I was a kid and having our beef slaughtered,” he said.
Today, most people who remember the store describe it as a meat market – a place where you could buy meat, but also bring your livestock to be slaughtered and butchered.
By 1973, it was called Joe’s Midway Market.
Its background as a meat market was still evident when the current owner, Dale Hillegas of rural Orrick, bought the building from the Bank of Orrick around 2007. The previous owner, an Excelsior Springs man, ran it as Elkhorn
Meat Processing, Hillegas believes, before defaulting on the mortgage and losing the building to the bank.
“Since I moved here in 1990, it set a few times and had a few different owners,” he said. “I think it was run under the same name by a few different owners.”
Operating as Elkhorn Cabinet, Hillegas used the building as a workshop for custom cabinets. He also employed the space for a sideline, Elkhorn Rustics, making pieces of ranch-style furniture.
Traces of the processing service were all over when Hillegas acquired the building. In addition to a loading dock and meat coolers with wooden shelves that were rancid, he found a lagoon out back that was used to handle animal waste.
Electricity didn’t come to Elkhorn until around 1951, Norris said, so the Coxes used a wind generator on the roof of a storage garage to charge batteries and provide power for the store.
Hillegas had four employees at the height of his cabinetry business, but when the economy petered out he let his help go and moved whatever woodworking he still did to his farm.
“I don’t miss the work,” he said, laughing at the memory.
The only visual evidence of his business is a heavy walnut and white oak sign that’s inside now, but used to hang on a metal frame outside. A small sign for Elkhorn Rustics remains on the side of the building.
Inside, there’s a photocopied page on one wall from the 1973 edition of the Ray County history. It provides a little information on Elkhorn’s history, including a town plat and the fact the township was established as Crab Orchard in 1843.
Hillegas said he read somewhere that the first satellite post office outside of Richmond was located in Crab Orchard. He speculates that an older section of the his building – at least part of its basement foundation – could mean the satellite office was part of the store, or at least in the same location.
There’s no evidence of that in courthouse records, which don’t go back nearly as far as the 1840s, when Hillegas believes the satellite office was created.
Highway 10, the road that links Excelsior Springs, Richmond, Hardin, Norborne and the Carrollton area, followed a different route when the Elkhorn store was in its prime. It veered to the south, Norris and Robison say, running along a hedge row and by a building that once served as a stop for the Butterfield Stagecoach Line.
That building, converted to a home, is no longer standing, Robison said.
“I can’t remember the year, but it burned,” he said.
Robison and Norris also remember a tavern that was located on the south side of the road, west of the Elkhorn store.
“There used to be tavern there and (the) Bargers owned it,” Robison said. “I can vaguely remember that building and it had a big set of elk horns on it.”
The Ray County history book doesn’t say when Crab Orchard officially became Elkhorn, but it does mention the set of horns, although in a different context.
“Elkhorn received its name from the elk horn that was nailed above the store for years,” the book says.
It’s not certain if there were horns on both the store and tavern, or just one.
Norris remembers the tavern building well. It’s gone now, too.
On Sunday afternoons, he said local musicians used to gather with their instruments and drink beer. He remembers one occasion where a fiddler threw his instrument to the ground, shattering it.
“All that held that thing together was the strings,” he said, laughing at the memory. “There’s been some wild goin’s on there in Elkhorn.”
Maybe the wildest took place in the early 1940s, Norris said, when two men became engaged in a fight over a woman.
“There was a guy shot and killed there,” he said. “The guy had a .410 shotgun cut down to a pistol.”
It’s quieter now in Elkhorn, but the building that was once a focal point for activity in the community still stirs up memories.