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Arts & Life

These Historic Kansas Businesses Survived The Great Depression And World Wars, But COVID-19 Is Testing Their Resilience

Russell Sifers
Sifer's VALOMILK sold a variety of candy during the Great Depression. Now it sells only VALOMILK cups.

On the surface, these three Kansas businesses — all more than a hundred years old — may not have a lot in common, but they all say customers want two things right now: comfort and escape.

Russell Sifers thought his family's company had seen it all since its opening in Iola, Kansas, in 1903. He's the fourth-generation owner of VALOMILK Candies, located in Merriam, Kansas, since 1985. But, as seemingly every business owner has observed, no catastrophe in living memory has been anything like that caused by the coronavirus.

Sifers grew up hearing horror stories from the Great Depression and has tried to insulate his business accordingly. For instance, neither he nor the business carries any debt — he says that he heard too many tales of folks losing it all to a bank.

He also grew up with this historic truth: “The two items in the Depression era were movies, so that people could escape their misery for a quarter,” Sifers says, “and candy, which was a treat. We think of it as comfort food today.”

Sifers' grandfather did really well during the Depression.

"This is totally different in that it’s not just the stock market that’s going down," Sifers says. "The country is shut down; we’ve never had this happen before.”

Going to a happy place

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Stafford County Flour Mills
Stafford County Flour Mills grinds Hudson Cream Flour in Hudson, Kansas.

Though their common longevity remains, industries that thrived during the Depression by offering much-needed respite from disaster now struggle.

However, one company that offers a timeless staple has actually seen an increase in business.

Gustav Krug and Otto Sondregger opened the Stafford County Flour Mills in 1904 in Hudson, Kansas. Customers know the mills by the flour's brand name, Hudson Cream Flour.

Except for about a year after the original mill burned down in 1913 and the new one went up in 1914, the mills have been in continuous operation.

Stafford County Flour Mills
The original Stafford County Flour Mill, 1904

General Manager Reuel Foote says they’ve been unseasonably busy since Gov. Laura Kelly issued the stay-at-home orders in March.

“This year with this virus, the retail side actually increased in March and April to levels that we would maybe see in November and December,” Foote says. “We’re running at capacity and basically putting it all in two-pound and five-pound bags.”

When customers were either unable to find flour in stores or were too frightened to enter a store, Hudson Creams’ online sales skyrocketed — from four or five sales a week to 200 sales at its peak. Now they’ve leveled off to about 100 individual online sales per week.

Foote says since March they've shipped five semi-loads of flour a day — that’s 40,000 five-pound bags of locally milled Kansas wheat — around the country.

Office staffer Brenda Grabast fields calls from customers who want their flour delivered and hears how they're using it.

Aside from making their own bread, some regulars are teaching their kids to bake. One mother even told Grabast the flour is part of her at-home science curriculum.

However, what stands out the most is those who need flour to go to their “happy places."

Grabast says that baking is “something they know how to do that they’ve done all their life, and it’s comforting to them to bake when they’re not so sure about what’s going on and how it will directly affect them.

“If they’re worried about their health, they can bake and feel safe; it’s comforting.”

Escaping their misery

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Russell Sifers
The Sifers Candy Company's original location was in Iola, Kansas, in 1903.

While people want the same sweet comforts they sought during the Great Depression, they're not getting it by buying VALOMILKs. “We’re on life support almost,” Sifers says.

He's not alone. The Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute surveyed 120 chocolate-based businesses and found that, even at the end of March, a fifth of them faced the threat of permanent closure.

Sifers says his biggest client is Cracker Barrel, but he hasn’t had an order from the national chain since March 12; customers can enter the Cracker Barrel stores where the candy is shelved but not most of the restaurant dining areas, so traffic is down.

Summer is usually his slow time anyway, because chocolate doesn’t do well in a hot UPS box. “I’m just holding my breath to see can we make it 'til the cool weather returns in the fall,” he says.

Affirmation that we're alive

Anne Kniggendorf
Travis Grossman is the executive director of Theatre Atchison which runs Atchison's Fox Theatre.

That other Depression-era pastime — escaping into a movie — is still alive and well, albeit on the small screen.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the average person now watches eight hours of streaming entertainment every day — double pre-pandemic numbers. That same average person also has log-ins for four separate services.

However, “there are things you can get from a movie theater that you’ll never be able to get on Netflix: the opportunity to be surrounded in sound and deafened out by action,” Travis Grossman says.

Grossman is the executive director of Theatre Atchison, which owns the newly remodeled Fox Theatre. The theater opened in 1912 with live performances, then alternated between silent films and live theater until around 1930, when Fox purchased it.

In 2011 the venue closed its doors, forcing movie lovers to neighboring cities for evenings out.

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Fox Theatre
Atchison's Fox Theatre has had several owners and several reopenings over the past dozen decades. This photo shows the crowd at its 1949 reopening.

So, Theatre Atchison decided to bring the community together to raise the $2.5 million needed for a proper remodel. It reopened as a non-profit in March 2019 with three screens in auditoriums of varying sizes.

Just shy of its one-year mark, the screens once again went dark.

Grossman says he'll reopen with movies they’d purchased back in March, "Emma" and "I Still Believe," then move to much older offerings for a dollar or two while customers get their bearings.

He’s very eager to see people back in those brand-new seats, nestled among their families, neighbors and friends.

“You have a chance to sit and watch something and react with other people at the same time. You’ve got this opportunity to cry, laugh, gasp, scream if you’re scared, with a bunch of other people,” Grossman says. “That is the affirmation that we’re alive.”

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