Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An old-fashioned grocery store, moosehead and all, thrives in Ellendale August 5, 2011

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg's Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine.

WHEN ANDREW LERBERG bagged a moose in northern Minnesota in 1919, the animal was brought by rail to Ellendale and the moosehead proudly displayed in the family’s grocery store.

Ninety-two years later, that moosehead still hangs at Lerberg’s Foods, above a framed photo of Andrew with his trophy and above processed fruits and vegetables stacked on grocery store shelves.

Look down the grocery aisle to your left and you'll see the moosehead that is part of Lerberg's lore.

Ross Sletten, who purchased the business in 2007 from Andy Lerberg, will tell you the moosehead came with the store and that originally the rifle used to shoot the animal rested in its antlers. Not any more. Times have changed.

But not everything has changed at Lerberg’s. The original tongue-and-groove maple floor, tin ceiling, small-town-friendly atmosphere and more speak to the history of this 1914 brick building and to the long-standing grocery store owned by three generations of Lerbergs—Andrew, who started the business (in another building) in 1901, Arthur and Andy.

The original tongue-in-groove maple floor in front of the meat counter.

The produce department of Lerberg's Foods.

Ross began working at Lerberg’s in 1976 and, on a recent Sunday, three of his five kids—Brett, 18, Cassidy, 14, and Noah, 12—were all working at the store that anchors a corner of the main street in Ellendale, population around 600.

This long-time employee, now owner/manager, is clearly proud of his grocery store, which he claims is the oldest grocery store in Steele County and the second oldest in Minnesota.

That’s easy to believe when you walk upon the worn tongue-and-groove floor between the narrow aisles—of which there are three—pause to appreciate the tin ceiling, and listen to Ross. He’ll tell you about the tailor who had a shop in the store’s current-day upstairs office or about the eggs, ducks and chickens locals once traded for goods.

He’ll point out the store’s original coffee grinder resting on a shelf above the dairy section or direct your attention to the original wooden butcher block back in the meat department and still in use today (grandfathered in, he says).

Lerberg's Foods owner/manager Ross Sletten points out the original butcher block, which he still uses.

Cassidy Sletten, 14, checks out groceries on a Sunday morning.

He runs a business which, on a Sunday morning, teems with customers—folks picking up a few groceries after church, kids treating themselves to slushies from the machine at the front of the store, a 9-year-old purchasing several cartons of eggs for his mom, a guy buying three bags of water softener salt.

Located just the right distance (meaning too far) from Albert Lea, Austin, Owatonna and Mankato, the store draws customers who will shop locally rather than drive to regional hub cities, Ross says. He can offer competitive prices, he says, through his supplier, Nash Finch.

A street-side sign in Lerberg's front window thanks customers for their patronage.

Already, 12-year-old Noah Sletten is thinking about his future and maybe someday taking over the business. “I think it would be kind of fun to own something old,” Noah says, then smiles.

For someone like me, who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota and frequented a grocery store with tongue-and-groove floors, a tin ceiling, a candy counter (where I bought my favorite Bazooka bubblegum for a penny), a toy rack and groceries lining two aisles, discovering Lerberg’s Foods brought back so many memories. I couldn’t get enough of this old-time style store.

The only thing missing, I told 14-year-old check-out clerk Cassidy Sletten before leaving her family’s store, was the old-style screen door that would bang behind me. She gave me a puzzled look.

“Ask your dad,” I said, smiled, and walked out the door.

Candy at the end of a check-out counter tempts kids. There are peanuts for the adults.

And right before you walk out the door, you'll see this strategically-placed rack of toys.

A side view of the grocery store looking toward the main street through Ellendale. A customer is carrying a bag of water softener pellets, stacked in front of the pop machine. The slushie slurping kids had to temporarily give up their hang-out spot so he could grab three bags of salt.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


14 Responses to “An old-fashioned grocery store, moosehead and all, thrives in Ellendale”

  1. Diane Lucas Says:

    I remember working at this store in my teenage days wrapping Christmas gifts for customers during the Holidays one year. It was a friendly store and everybody liked the Lerberg family. Andy was a few years older than I was but his sister was in my brother’s class. Neat to see something still thriving.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks for sharing your memories of Lerberg’s Foods, Diane. I, too, am glad to see a business like this continue to thrive.

  2. Karin (Lieberg) Anding Says:

    I remember shopping here with my parents when Art and his wife owned the store. One of my brothers, Sheldon, also worked at Lerberg’s when he was in high school. I made many trips to the store from the time I was a child until I left the delightful community of Ellendale to attend college and enter the workforce. I now reside in Rochester, MN.

    I am thrilled that this store is thriving and that the original ambience has been preserved. I wish the Sletten family well and am confident that the store will be in existence for many years to come.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Karin, thanks for sharing your memories of Lerberg’s Foods. I was thrilled to discover this old-time style grocery store. They are real treasures.

      • Sheldon Lieberg Says:

        3. Sheldon Lieberg says:

        Yes, I worked at Lerberg’s for several years during high school years in Ellendale. Art, Marge and the family treated me like family. I have a lot of fond memories of those years in Ellendale and working at the store.

        Hey Ross: I recognize the cutting block and I think the meat saw is also the same one as when I worked there. I also helped clean and oil the floor many times along with doing about anything that had to be done in the store, including delivering groceries around town with Andy.

        Before I left for college, a lot of my friends teased me about being a fixture at Lerbergs and renaming the store “Lerberg and Lieberg’s”.

        Good to see that Ross and his family are keeping the store going. I will never forget that moose head on the wall

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Sheldon, thanks for sharing your story about working at Lerberg’s. Sounds like a wonderful place to work.

        Ross told me about oiling the floor. Lots of history in those floorboards.

        Maybe the Sletten family should have a reunion for all former employees. I bet a lot of interesting stories would be shared there.

  3. Dave Lieberg Says:

    I remember making many trips in a day to Lerberg’s, since my mother never had a grocery list, only a classic case of sometimer’s.

  4. Diann Ptacek Says:

    My Mom used to work at Lerberg’s. Angie & I would hang out in the store with Andy, Art and Marge. They always had chores for Angie and I to do while we were . We thought it was so special to be able to “help” them. They are/were wonderful people and great friends.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree. Very nice people in the short time I spent with them. Discovering this old-fashioned grocery store made my day on that small town Minnesota tour.

  5. Ted Radke Says:

    Loved this store, Also it’s competitor Pete & Rube’s!!! Never thought these small towns would ever be on world wide media. What a way to travel and keep memories going. What would our parents think of this now? Keep this going. Good job, Thanks lotz!!!

  6. Aaron Says:

    My best memories growing up are at Lerberg’s Foods. My cousins, Angie, Wendy and I consumed many slushies during Minnesota’s hot summer days. Recently, I was able to go back to Ellendale with my children and show them the store. My four year old son, named after Andy was so proud that somebody with his name shot such a big moose.
    I couldn’t be happier that Ross took over the store. He was always there and part of the family. I appreciate the subtle changes he’s made while keeping the history of the store alive and vibrant. Thank you Ross.

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