That time my family owned a grocery store (and no one remembers)

September 6, 2018

That time my family owned a grocery store (and no one remembers); family history, ancestry, genealogy

The three most frustrating words you run into when researching a memoir are these: I don’t know.

Or “I don’t remember.” Take your pick. Either way, they present a real splash of ice cold water over your head.

A significant portion of the creative nonfiction memoir I’m writing, called Maintenance of Way, covers events involving some serious wrongdoing by members of my family in the mid-1950s in Cincinnati, Ohio. During that time, my grandparents experienced quite an upheaval in life; tectonic forces which acted as a prelude to the suffering inflicted upon a young woman.

Those events in my family’s narrative include a tragic stillborn baby boy, the alienation of my grandmother’s mother, my grandfather’s mysterious re-enlistment into the Marines six months after the end of the Korean War (and nine years after he last served as a Jarhead), and my family’s ownership of a grocery store.

Yup. A grocery store.

This detail I’ve found deeply fascinating. Probably because no one remembers a damn thing about it. Honestly. Hardly a word or anecdote survives. You’d think ownership of a grocery store would stand out in somebody’s memory, but as I investigated, no one can recall much about it.

But the grocery store likely served as scenery for some consequential moments.

I first discovered the existence of the grocery store during research into newspaper archives. I expected to find my grandfather prominently featured in the crime blotter of the Cincinnati Enquirer, but instead, what met my eyes was an advertisement for something called “United Trading Stamps.”

The ad appeared on Page 10 of the March 20, 1953 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Among the stores listed as providing these stamps — a lot like modern day loyalty cards every grocery store has now, something that sucks you into being a loyal customer (but let’s be honest, we don’t mind as long as we get 15 cents off every box of Cheerios) —  was “Pidgeon’s Market.””

“Holy ****!” I blurted out in front of my computer. Of all the legends passed down to me, never once did a story include Pidgeon’s Market.

You could presumably shop for produce, cereal, eggs, a chuck roast, and a healthy selection of cigarettes to go along with your staples, at 4213 Glenway Avenue, the main drag through Cincinnati’s historic Price Hill neighborhood. Further research found Pidgeon’s Market perfectly situated among a Sears & Roebuck, a gas and oil station, a diner, and other businesses, plus a short walk from where my grandparents lived at the time.

genealogy, family history, memoir, writing, Pidgeon's Market, Price Hill, Cincinnati, History, United Trading Stamps
An ad in a 1953 Cincinnati newspaper listing the long-forgotten Pidgeon’s Market as a place distributing “United Trading Stamps.”

As much as I can tell thanks to old city directories, the grocery store opened after the unexpected death of Ben Pidgeon, my great-grandfather, in January 1952. My best assumption here is his widow, Amy, needed income and something to occupy her time, and my grandfather, already employed as a railroad conductor, was always scheming for new ways to bring in additional income.

Why groceries? I don’t have a clue. Nothing in my family’s story suggests anything remotely close to having the expertise to a.) own a business b.) understand supply logistics c.) understand the nuances of selling perishable goods.

They were railroaders. Not people who asked if you wanted paper or plastic.

A year or two into the enterprise, my grandfather threw everyone a twist. Bud unexpectedly left for the Marines in January 1954, not only leaving his newly pregnant wife and young daughter for a return to military life, but he abandoning his 54-year-old widowed mother to run the store on her own.

I never said he was a saint.

Then, Pidgeon’s Market closed. The property appeared to switch hands to an optometrist in 1958, and so Pidgeon’s Market became no more.

Nothing remains. What I wouldn’t give to even have a sign of the old business in my possession. But there are no photographs, either.

Today, nothing even the building has disappeared. The property’s now a parking lot squeezed between a bank and a graphic T-shirt shop, both of which enjoy the security of iron bars on the windows.

A search of newspaper archives, unfortunately, brings me nothing.

But I want to know about Pidgeon’s Market, not just because I’m naturally curious about such things, but because the tale of this grocery store could add context to the overall story in Maintenance of Way. See, the grocery store operated right when Bud, after returning from the Marines, carried on an affair with a teenage girl, a relationship that lead to the birth of my father.

Did the girl shop there? Did she work there as a clerk? Even if she just popped in for a soda pop, a pack of gum, and a little flirtation with my grandfather, in his 30s at the time, what an incredible backdrop to the story.

So if anyone from Cincinnati or the Price Hill neighborhood has anything on the short-lived Pidgeon’s Market, I would be so grateful to see or hear about it.

Otherwise, it’s another part of the family history cloaked in mystery, and we’re well stocked in that aisle.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. Contact him at dave@writingintheafternoon.com

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