Life at the corner of John Wayne Drive and West Court Avenue will change for the first time in 83 years when the owners of Winterset’s Ben Franklin variety store retire five days before Christmas.
The store opened there in 1939. Winterset High School sweethearts Dave and Judy Trask, both 76, bought the store in 1978 and have spent 44 of their 56 years of marriage tending to it.
Now they want to travel and most of all spend time with their four grandchildren. So their store will become one more casualty among a dying breed.
Ben Franklin stores used to dot town squares and main streets across the country. In their heyday, in the 1970s, there were 2,500 stores nationwide and more than 100 in Iowa. Some were in cities, but most were in small towns. When the Trasks close their store Dec. 20, just two of the venerable five-and-dime stores will be left in the Hawkeye State.
“There comes a time…,” said Dave Trask, standing behind a watch repair stand near the front of the store, holding his wife’s hand, recently.
“It’s kind of like when you graduate high school and go to college,” Judy Trask told the Des Moines Register.
Ben Franklin stores claim to be the nation’s second-oldest franchise, behind only Singer Sewing Machine retailers. Founded in 1877, they became America’s local place to get candy, curtains and thousands of other items.
At the start of the year, Ben Franklin stores were still open in Winterset, Eagle Grove, Nevada and Sheldon. Like the Trasks, Nevada Owner Fred Samuelson retired when he closed his store Nov. 23.
“In the 1950s, they were just growing,” Dave Trask said. “Almost every county seat had a Ben Franklin.”
The watch repair bench behind Dave Trask used to sit a few feet to his left. His father owned a watch repair business that opened in 1956 on the town square next to the existing Ben Franklin store. When the Trasks later bought the Ben Franklin and a business that had moved into his father’s old space, they knocked out a wall and put their craft department in the old watch repair shop.
“I got a picture of myself washing the window out there when I was 11,” Dave Trask said. “Got another one last year.”
Judy Trask grew up on a farm near Winterset. Her husband grew up five blocks east of their store. When they were 14 years old Dave Trask played the drums in the Winterset High marching band. Judy played saxophone.
“We like to say we caught each other’s eyes across the room,” Judy Trask said.
After attending the University of Iowa and working for a retailer in Iowa City, Dave Trask was drafted into the Army. He served two years in the Army Signal Corps and repaired radio-relay equipment for a year in Vietnam. In 1978, they bought the Ben Franklin in Winterset and moved from Fairfield where they owned a store.
They had a son, who now teaches in Milwaukee. Their daughter works at a website design business in Des Moines. Like countless other Ben Franklin store owners they raised their kids in the store.
“We’re business owners instead of managers,” Dave Trask said. “We’ve spent most of our lives here.”
Today two other families own the remaining Ben Franklin stores in Iowa.
Phil Warnke, 63, and his wife Lori own the Sheldon store. Warnke’s wife grew up in Hospers. He grew up in Sandborn. For a time they lived in Sioux City, but 32 years ago they wanted to be closer to their families. So they bought the Ben Franklin that, in some form, has been in Sheldon since 1890, Warnke said.
“This is home. This is where we belong,” Warnke said. “It’s like we’ve been on vacation for 32 years because we’re right where we need to be.”
Jason Gochanour grew up working in a Ben Franklin store his father Alan owned in Tama. Over the years the Gochanours owned Ben Franklin stores in Waterloo and a store at the Park Fair Mall in Des Moines.
Today the Gochanours own the Ben Franklin store in Eagle Grove. They also own Larson’s Mercantile variety store in Clear Lake, a former Ben Franklin whose previous owner changed the store’s name.
Ben Franklins may be fading, but the name still carries cache. Owners that stick with the name do it because they say people there are loyal to the brand.
“That’s what the town has identified us to be for all these years,” Warnke said. “Even if we changed it to something else they would’ve always said ‘the old Ben Franklin store.'”
People from across the country traveling through Winterset will stop at the store, just to see a Ben Franklin still in business said the Trasks and their employees.
“They come in and say it’s a step back in time,” Dave Trask said.
On a recent Wednesday morning, customers filed steadily into the Trasks’ Ben Franklin in Winterset. Neon blue and yellow signs in the windows advertised “RETIREMENT SALE,” “LIQUIDATION” and ‘EVERYTHING MUST GO.”
Ben Franklin stores are not Walmart. Products cost owners more so prices are higher. The stores do not have every product larger retailers have, but they do have a little bit of everything.
In one corner sits a copier where people can make photocopies. In another customers can cut curtain rods to size. Store employees will make keys and Dave Trask will fix watches using the same watch repair bench where his father once repaired watches.
“One of the lessons we learned early on was that you need to have a ‘power department’, or something that you’re better than anybody else at,” Dave Trask said.
Ben Franklin separates itself from its competitors by bringing hard-to-find items into rural areas like toys, said Warnke from Sheldon. Warnke’s store offers custom photo framing in its art gallery. Gochanour’s store in Eagle Grove sells Hallmark products.
“We’re able to provide products and services that wouldn’t normally be available in a town our size,” Warnke said.
Winterset’s “power department” is its craft section. Hundreds of bundles of fabric in a rainbow of colors line the walls and aisles of the Winterset store from floor to ceiling. In one pile sits fabric covered in Easter Eggs. On another wall hangs fabric with an Apollo Astronaut bouncing on the moon’s surface.
Judy Trask loves helping customers make quilts from things they find after cleaning houses.
“That’s what I’m going to miss the most,” Judy Trask said. “That was just so cool to work with them, find the fabric that goes with it, draw it on a piece of paper and sometimes give them cutting instructions.”
Walmart co-founders Sam and Bud Walton operated 15 Ben Franklin stores in Missouri and Arkansas in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The Waltons took their knowledge from the chain, founded Walmart in 1962 and then went to the same rural areas that Ben Franklin served.
“Mr. Walton quite honestly had a pretty good marketing plan. He stayed away from the urban areas initially and went into the rural market,” then Ben Franklin franchising director John Ptacek told the Des Moines Register in 2002. “That’s the single biggest factor that has done away with the downtown Ben Franklin stores.”
Today Dollar General is the biggest threat to the few remaining Ben Franklin stores, Gochanour said. A building spree that started in 2014 began an expansion plan to rural areas similar to Walmart’s. But Dollar General goes into rural markets far too small to support Walmarts.
Because of that, Dollar General got a reputation for driving local retailers and grocers out of business.
“It’s such a small footprint that they can put a store anywhere, and they do,” Gochanour said of Dollar General. “They’re such a large corporation. Their margins are a lot better than us.”
It’s not easy for remaining stores to stay in business. The original Ben Franklin chain went bankrupt in 1996. Wisconsin-based Promotions Unlimited licensed the name until it, too, went bankrupt in 2017, but it provided no corporate support, Gochanour and Dave Trask said. Now a Hawaii entity licenses the name for $1,800 per year, but still provides no corporate support.
So the stores operate independently; cobbling together their merchandise selections from various distributors. Dave and Judy Trask source many of their products from Variety Distributors in Harlan.
“(Ben Franklin stores) just could not generate enough volume out of the smaller stores to make it worthwhile,” Dave Trask said.
Shelves in the back of the Trasks’ store sit empty, startling signs of their pending retirement. Already they sold about three-fourths of their remaining inventory. Now they are selling everything, including the garland once used to decorate the store at Christmastime.
“We haven’t seen this since we moved in,” Judy Trask said. “My urge to fill them back up is still there.”
“We wanted everything full. The walls were covered with merchandise all the way to the top. This is an unusual feeling,” Dave Trask said.
For years the Trasks have been floating the idea of retiring, said Juanita Fettkether, who spent 36 years working at Ben Franklin, and Terri Lenig, 61, who is in her 10th year working there.
Dave and Judy Trask only arrived at their decision to retire when they recently got an offer to buy the building that they could not refuse.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” Lenig said.
“He says it’s going to be a good fit,” Fettkether said.
Another retail store will take the place of Ben Franklin. Lenig may continue working there. Fettkether is not sure what is next for her. At age 70, she still wants to work part-time to stay busy.
“It’s been my home away from home,”Fettkether said.
Dave Trask will not say what store will take the place of Ben Franklin, but his employees have faith it will be good for them and Winterset.
“He wouldn’t sell it to just anybody,” Lenig said.
For the first time since they bought the store, Judy and Dave Trask will not work on Christmas Eve. Usually they cook breakfast for their employees, work until 3 p.m. and reminisce with them during the day.
With about two weeks left in business, Judy Trask felt excited about retirement, but said this Christmas will feel strange.
“That will be very hard,” Judy Trask said. “It will be different.”