CASSVILLE, Wis. – Working at Okey’s Market in Cassville has been a part of Elijah Okey’s life for as long as he can remember.
“One of my first jobs (as a kid) was filling pop machines at 5 years old,” he said. “It was always cool coming down and working with my parents. I had to do a DARE essay when I was in fifth grade, and I wrote that I was going to stay off drugs so I could run the grocery store with my dad. “
Elijah, 26, has been managing his family’s 89-year-old grocery store since the death of his dad, Tom Okey, in April 2019.
“It’s kind of coincidental,” said Patty Okey, 57, Elijah’s mom. “(Tom) took it over from his dad when he was 23, and Elijah’s dad died when he was 23.”
The 12,000-square-foot Okey’s Market stocks groceries and has dedicated meat, deli and beer and liquor departments. The store launched a delivery service during the COVID-19 pandemic that extends 20 miles, serving neighboring communities such as Bloomington and Potosi.
“It’s a huge part of the community, having a grocery store as nice and as large as Okey’s,” said Keevin Williams, president of Cassville’s village trustees and a native of the community. “People come from communities all around Cassville to shop.”
The store’s business swells in summer, particularly on the weekends, as Cassville’s riverside location draws thousands of campers and other tourists.
“When we have tourist traffic and river traffic in the summer, a lot of those visitors purchase their supplies at the store, as do campers at Nelson Dewey State Park and the campgrounds that are south of town,” Williams said.
Elijah admits it was intimidating assuming the management of the store, given the larger-than-life presence of his father, who sang songs to some customers and gave the customers nicknames; served on the Cassville Fire & Rescue service; and coached youth baseball, basketball and football.
“There were hard times, and it wasn’t easy, but I leaned on my family for support,” Elijah said.
The Okey family readily lent support, as it has throughout the decades-long history of the store.
Tom and Patty had six kids, Isaac, 30; Isaiah, 29; Elijah; Andrea Gille, 24; Ezra, 20; and Erasmus, 17.
Patty, who owns the store, said all of the kids can include grocery work on their resumes.
“They all had their time working here,” she said.
The family’s tradition as Cassville merchants stretches back decades.
Walter Okey, Tom’s father and Elijah’s grandfather, joined his grandfather’s meat market at the age of 13. That store, Niemer’s Meat Market, was founded before 1900.
By the 1930s, Walt Okey decided he wanted to own the store.
“He wanted it to be called ‘Okey’s’ because that was his last name,” Patty said. “He bought out his grandfather in 1933.”
Walt’s original Okey’s Market was located at 200 E. Amelia St. The grocery store moved to its current location, 213 W. Amelia St., in 1970.
Walt’s son, Tom, took over management in 1983. Walt Okey died in 1988. Tom and Patty married in 1990. She was a teacher.
“I worked here (at the store) some when I first got married to (Tom), and I was also substitute teaching,” she said. “I got pregnant with our first child, and then I ended up staying home with my kids while they were growing up.”
Patty returned to substitute teaching when current high school student Erasmus was 3 and was watched during the day by a grandmother.
“Then, eventually I started working part-time here again,” Patty said. “I had been back here doing quite a bit for three years before Tom died. Then, when he died, I had to quit everything else to spend more time here. Luckily, Elijah has been (working full-time at the store) since high school. “
Tom’s sister, Barb Willis, also helped with the transition. Barb trained Andrea to assume her role of bookkeeping and other duties.
“It worked out because Andrea got out of college and Barb wanted to retire,” Patty said. “I still have one in college and one in high school, and they help out.”
Andrea is now married and a mother.
“Andrea has a 6-month-old baby, and she had him here every day once she was able to come back to work,” Patty said.
Andrea’s son is named Walter Thomas Gille, after Andrea’s grandfather and dad, and is a hit with the store’s customers when he makes appearances in the market.
“They all love seeing him and talking to him and watching him grow,” Patty said. “It was like when (Tom and I) had kids. All our kids came here and (the customers) saw them grow up. The kids felt like part of (customers’) families because they know them so well. “
Cassville, with a population of around 900, sits about 18 miles west of Potosi and around 30 miles south of Prairie du Chien on Wisconsin 133. A ferry across the Mississippi River links Cassville with Clayton County, Iowa, from spring through early fall.
Elijah said Cassville’s relative isolation in western Grant County both helps and hurts the store.
“We’re far away from competitors – if we were closer to a bigger town, the Walmarts would draw people away – but we’re cut off by the river, so we can’t be reached on all four sides (of town). . ”
Patty said staffing can be a challenge, too, for a small-town grocer in a relatively isolated location.
“We often have to do more ourselves (as family members) and put in more hours (because of staffing shortages),” she said. “We lost a deli person and it took us quite a while to find a replacement, so I stepped into that role.”
As for the future, the third generation of Okeys could eventually move from store management to ownership.
“Elijah wants to own the store himself eventually, perhaps within the next five years,” Patty said.