(Above) The Nolt daughters all help out packaging, pricing and filling the shelves of the family store. They are front: Karen, age 7, Janette, age 11, back, Lisa, 17 and Elaine, age 13.
(At right) The outside of "Dutch Valley Store" is a plain gray building. The inside is packed with groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables, sewing notions, material, cheese, sausage and milk, plus a huge variety of fresh, natural, bulk food products. The country grocery is owned by Pennsylvania natives, Anna and Ivan Nolt and their family of five.
"There's a white cardboard sign on the door which simply states, "Dutch Valley Store" and underneath that, hours are written when the store is open. There's no neon sign, no big cement parking lot, and the location is a long hike from an interstate. On a drive by the location at 1030 Walnut, a gravel road southwest of Elma, the little grocery store might easily be mistaken for a country repair shop, which it was originally. But, it's what is packed inside that makes life in a rural neighborhood much more convenient, especially for the neighboring housewives.
"The "Dutch Valley Store" is a duke's mixture, general store. It is a concept of natural, fresh food items, bought in bulk, then weighed and repackaged in smaller quantities that is popular among Mennonite grocers. The store is owned by a Mennonite family, Ivan and Anna Nolt and their four daughters and one son.
"Mennonite girls are taught to cook with basic foods. It's a style of cooking that has kept very simple, home cooked, hearty food on our dinner tables for a long time. Much of it is homemade from old recipes handed down through the generations of Mennonite cooks. Girls learn at an early age to make homemade noodles, jams and jellies, soup mixes, puddings and almost everything you will find in a their cupboards. Like everything else, cooking has advanced to Mennonite specialty factories that now make authentic foods, package them or send bulk and sell to stores such as ours. The word that comes to mind is natural. Most all of our foods are in the most natural state which is void of lots of preservatives you find in many commercial food products." Anna began.
"When we do go out to eat," daughters, Janette and Lisa chimed in, "Pizza is our favorite food to order!
"I search through hundreds of vendors until I find products I think my customers will appreciate being able to find here in the Midwest. Anna continued.
"Being out here in this rural location, I have to provide something special to get customers to come out. We like to think of it as a rural, country store that can offer enough supplies to fill a week's worth of groceries, or just a quick fill in item a neighbor might need in a hurry.
"Years ago, almost every little stop in the road had a general store. They slowly disappeared here in the Midwest. This is that same type of store you might have had down the road if you grew up in the country.
"Our family is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We were farmers and ran roadside fruit and vegetable produce stands, most of which we grew ourselves. Lots of the fruits and vegetables are not possible to grow here. We have a shorter growing season and not nearly as much customer traffic. But, I insisted on having soil grown tomatoes, which I now grow in our own hothouse and sell. They are delicious and if I start them in the hothouse in April, I'll have tomatoes by June or July. I buy the big, sweet onions from back east, and when I get a order of these in, they sell out right away. We get crates of peaches from Illinois and Missouri and they make the cool, entryway room smell just delicious. We grow melons, peppers and some zucchini, but it's just a different growing season than I am used to. Winter is not quite as cold and spring comes a little earlier in Pennsylvania. One thing we don't sell is flowers. We have plenty of greenhouses in the area who I don't want to compete with.
"Our family moved to Iowa in 1997. It was a land of opportunity. The Lancaster area of Pennsylvania is getting more and more crowded and very commercialized. Farming there for us is nearly out of the question. When I first saw where this acreage and building was, I was quite worried that if I started a country store here, nobody would find me. Those worries were quickly put away when the store got going, as neighbors were really happy to have supplies close by. When I first went to town, I hardly knew anyone. Now, with all the traffic that we have to this place, our family has become very well acquainted in the neighborhood.
"We have lots of suppliers, but the main support system is the Dutch Valley truck that comes out from Pennsylvania and supplies bulk food stores such as ours and others in the area. It is Mennonite owned, and is a big blue semi, you can't miss it. They haul the bulk products, plus now, sausage, meats and cheeses, which we were really happy to get. When the truck comes, that's when our four daughters really help out by weighing, bagging and pricing and filling the shelves.
The Dutch Valley truck does his delivery route, then stops at Grain Millers in St. Ansgar and takes a load of cereal product back east.
No country store would be complete without some little toys for kids. I have another source for toys and sundry products that comes in by UPS. When they deliver, our daughters think it's just like Christmas when they open all the little items and put them out.
"Another line I will have very soon is fresh bakery goods. I have a young Mennonite neighbor who is just completing her state inspected commercial, baking kitchen and she will be bringing in fresh baked pies and baked goods daily. She was formerly a manager of a bakery out east, so she comes with lots of experience and talent. We're really excited to have her nearby.
"A very popular corner of the shop is the fabric, sewing notions and clothing accessories area. As you can see by a little disarray of the fabric bolts, it's especially busy in January when lots of housewives are sewing or making quilts. We also stock a few clothing accessories like socks, gloves and mittens, handmade baby bonnets and we carry authentic Amish ladies bonnets and Amish men's hats, which come from Pennsylvania.
"My husband, Ivan, has a small repair shop as well as bicycle sales and repair shop in the other half of the building. It's sort of quiet now, but in the spring and summer, he has lots of activity with the bicycles.
"We now have nearly 80 families of our order which have moved to this area from Pennsylvania. Lots of families still have many relatives and friends living out east, especially in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. There is a new bus service which now comes out weekly or monthly from Lancaster, picks up and delivers passengers. It's a great way for families to keep in touch. Our daughters just recently returned from a week-long trip to visit their grandparents in Pennsylvania.