From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 53, No. 3, November 2017
With the plight of the Mansfield Center General Store in the spotlight lately, it seems an appropriate time to review its history and its significance to the community. Most of the following information is derived from Roberta Smith’s research in the land records and her description of the property in the MHS publication, Historic Mansfield Center (2001).
In 1886 Charles W. Weeks purchased 85 rods of land from Edwin Fitch, Jr. and the Buchanans and built a store on the site. A typical country store, it became a centerpiece of the Mansfield Center community. The second floor of Weeks’ store served as a social center and was called Elmwood Hall. Groups gathered there for social events, discussion, and the programs of the Mansfield Center Lyceum.
In 1897 Charles Weeks sold the store to John Starkweather of Willington, who sold it five months later to Alfred Oden. Mr. Oden owned and operated the store for the next thirty years. He and his family resided on the second floor and added the upper level porch to the building.
In 1899 Alfred Oden was also appointed postmaster and the Mansfield Center Post Office moved into the store. It remained there until 1954 when the current post office was built. An interesting account of an attempted robbery of the store and post office in 1906 is included later in this issue.
The next owners of the general store were Thomas Arthur Barrows and Gustav Clauson who purchased the business in 1928. After Clauson’s death, Barrows purchased his late partner’s share and later his sister, Gertrude Burnham, joined him in the operation of the business.
Willard and Ann Robb purchased the business in 1957 and continued to operate the store under the Barrows and Burnham name. After her husband’s death in 1964, Ann Robb ran the store until her retirement in 1997. She maintained its old-time flavor, and the store remained a much-loved fixture in the community. It was known for local produce and its high quality meats, hand-cut by Mrs. Robb herself. In an age of supermarkets and malls, Barrows and Burnham remained a place where locals could pick up a few groceries, grab a newspaper, and share news and gossip with their neighbors.
In January of 2000, Shafer Properties LLC purchased the store and reopened it in 2001 as the Mansfield Center General Store. It operated for a few years as a convenience store with a deli counter that offered soups and made-to-order sandwiches. There was also an antiques business in the side ell. Recently the property owners have rented the first floor to a series of other retail businesses.
Recollections of The General Store
In the April 1987 issue of The Silo, the Juniper Hill Village newsletter, Grace Homer fondly recalled her childhood visits to the general store in Mansfield Center. At that time it was owned by Alfred Oden, who ran the store from 1898 to 1928.
I remember when the Mansfield Centre (Note: Centre, not Center) Post Office was in the right rear corner of The Store. Its front partition was wood wainscoting from floor to about waist level, topped by dozens of small boxes, each with its door with lock and key, which was held by whoever paid the rent on that box. In the middle of the boxes was a barred window so the mail clerk could pass out the mail. Under the boxes was a wide shelf where the mailbags could be dumped for sorting. It also held a scale to weigh a letter suspected of being overweight. If it was, it needed another two-cent stamp.
One day my mother told me to run down to the store to see if there was any mail in our box. Back I came with the news that there was. “Why did you not bring it?” “You did not tell me to bring it.”
The Store was about the biggest building in the village. The top floor was where the Odens lived… While [they] were living there, their first child, Ruth, was born. She was so tiny she slept in a shoe box.
The main floor was a treasure house. As one entered through the double doors, the wall on the right was a series of open shelves, holding bolts of cloth, some underwear for men, socks, oil lamps and chimneys for them, lanterns, candlesticks, candles, men’s boots, both rubber and felt, and countless other necessities of country life. In front of this wall ran a broad counter, theoretically open for measuring cloth and showing goods, but it was usually loaded with things waiting to be put away.
On the left side were similar shelves for nonperishable foods, such as salt codfish, rice, oatmeal, etc. In front of these ran a counter like the one on the other side but different in its use. At the front end was the candy case with the front and top of glass and sliding wooden doors at the back. Here were the penny candies – and they really sold not just one for a penny, but several kinds sold for as many as six for a penny. What a thrill it was to put one’s nose up against the glass of the case and debate which kind gave the most for the copper you clutched in one hand.
This counter and the one across the back were used a lot to put up orders and bag things sold, not by the pound but by the bag. Sugar, for instance, sold, not at so much a pound, but by the quarter bag’s worth.
The back room housed not only the meat room, but also the barrels of molasses, kerosene, and such. It had a huge walk-in refrigerator where Mr. Oden’s partner, Gus Clauson, kept the sides of beef, pork, veal, and lamb. In the basement, was a thriving business in feeds for cows, oxen, chickens, etc.
Many of the store’s early fixtures, including the original post office desk, now reside at our Society’s museum. Willard and Ann Robb gave them to the Society when they modernized the store in 1962.
Burglary Shot by Postmaster
The following article about an attempted robbery at the general store was published in The Hartford Courant on August 2, 1906.
Burglars broke into the store of Alfred Oden at Mansfield at 1:30 this morning. The store is also the Mansfield post office. In gaining entrance the men had to break the bolt of the front door and this aroused Mr. Oden, who lives above the store. Mr. Oden, who has been visited before by burglars, woke up the other members of the household and then secured a shotgun. With the gun loaded he went to the balcony above the veranda and waited for the men. During this time the burglars were working on the safe, which is an old one. After applying the explosives they left the store and one man hid behind an elm tree directly in front of the store.
After the charge had gone off, the man behind the tree looked around to see if the noise had disturbed any one and as he did so Mr. Oden blazed away. The man was seen to reel and fall to the ground. Mr. Oden heard some one say “Come on, Joe,” and he then went down stairs on to the veranda of the store, expecting to find the man he had fired at. Instead he found a derby hat riddled with shot and a pool of blood.
The shot had struck the man on the top of the head and it is believed he was carried away by his “pals” to the woods. The man was badly wounded, and he was traced for a distance of about a quarter of a mile north by the blood in the road. Here the trace was lost and it is believed that the men had a companion waiting there with a carriage. The men did not take anything from the safe for immediately after the explosion they made their hurried departure on account of the shooting.
Mr. Oden notified Captain Richmond of the local police force and he gave orders to his patrolmen to look out for the men. All the physicians in the neighborhood were notified, for it was expected that one might be called to attend to the injured man. During the day two state policemen and Deputy Sheriff Grant were at work on the case. The post office department at Washington notified Mr. Oden that a man would come to Mansfield from the Boston office to work with the other detectives on the case.
The contents of the safe consisted, aside from personal effects, of $200 in money and stamps belonging to the government. This was strewn about the floor in front of the safe by the explosion. The door of the safe was badly damaged.
During the forenoon two men were taken from a freight train at Stafford and held pending the arrival of Deputy Sheriff Grant and the state policemen. They went to Stafford later and looked the men over. One man said that he lived at No. 20 Stone row in this city and that his name was Frank Keirans. The other was a stranger and gave a fictitious name. Captain Richmond investigated the assertion of Keirans that he lived in this city and found that it was not so. The men were held and may be committed to jail for trespassing on railroad property, so as to have them if wanted.
Two young men applied at a saw mill in Mansfield and asked for work on Monday. They were told that no more laborers were wanted and they went away. Later it was found that they had broken into a shanty occupied by some of the employees at the mill and had stolen a lot of clothes. They were not seen after that. They are supposed to be the ones who did the job at the store. It is expected that the burglars will be caught on account of the injured man. That he needed medical attention is certain and it is thought that this necessity to get some one for their companion may show where they are.
There were two follow-up articles published in The Hartford Courant on August 4 and August 6. The suspects held in Stafford were cleared and the men who stole clothing at the saw mill in Mansfield were never found. Police concluded that the would-be robbers had escaped across the border into Massachusetts and perhaps there sought medical help for their wounded partner. The case remains unsolved. According to family lore, the bullet-ridden hat long hung on the wall in Alfred Oden’s store as a conversation piece and as a deterrent to other would-be thieves. The family still owns his shotgun.