WASHTA, Iowa | Dawn McCrea bags groceries on a recent morning at The Mercantile, a Correctionville, Iowa, store she and her husband, Mark McCrea, manage.
The groceries aren't for her. They're not for a customer on the other side of the checkout lane.
The groceries travel with McCrea eight miles north to Washta, Iowa, site of The Wagon Wheel, a convenience store the McCreas manage for Western Iowa Cooperative Association, which purchased the old Cargo Express building site along Iowa Highway 31 in Washta.
For two months this summer, Washta and its 248 residents exist without a place where they can purchase gas, milk and bread. That changes on Friday when the McCreas open their "north branch," as it were.
"You don't realize what pain in the butt it is until you don't have a store," says Brian Stieneke, a truck driver from Washta who purchases fuel and food locally.
He plans to spend $2,500 to $3,000 per month at the Wagon Wheel. The dollars add up quickly as it takes $700 to fill Stieneke's semi.
"I've been going to Correctionville and it's only 8 miles away," he says. "But it's a pain when you always have to drive to get those things."
Things like fuel. Like coffee. Like a hot lunch.
"Our kitchen opens today," Dawn McCrea announces in Washta, not long after unloading the groceries she hauls from Correctionville.
The Wagon Wheel represents opportunity for the McCreas, who count their blessings in the steady trade they've enjoyed since opening The Mercantile on Jan. 30, 2013.
You may remember the origins of The Mercantile, one of my favorite Siouxland community endeavors in recent years.
It begins when Valley Grocery burns five years ago this month. The store remains closed and virtually ignored for years, a condition that continues to this day. (The City of Correctionville recently took possession of the store, which was donated to the city by Trevor Theelke, of Colorado.)
A peek through Valley Grocery's glass door on Monday reveals a vision of dirt, upset shelving units and a crumpled piece of paper that announces, "Closed until further notice." Vandals recently broke in and did some damage to the dilapidated interior.
Correctionville residents grew weary of a waiting game that seemed to freeze the grocery store site in a state of ownership mystery.
Locals banded together and pumped $93,000 in cash alone into the Correctionville Economic Development Corporation, which built the new store one block to the west and signed a 10-year lease with the McCreas. Much of the new store's construction was completed by volunteers who had business experience in construction, plumbing and electrical, and more.
Washta residents, according to Dawn McCrea, have supported The Mercantile from the beginning. It makes sense for the couple to repay their friends to the north.
Well, it makes sense from a moral perspective. From a financial standpoint? Mark and Dawn say they'll see about that.
"What the heck, it's only money!" Mark says with a laugh.
Dawn McCrea, a registered nurse for the past 32 years, says opening a store in Washta will give her business and her Washta neighbors a boost.
"We'll keep our products on the shelves in Washta and that keeps costs down for the people there," she says.
"Holy cow, this place is fancy!" exclaims customer Clif Cockburn, of Correctionville, as he enters The Wagon Wheel. "Washta needs a place like this."
The McCreas help oversee a cleaning project at the new site that also results in a new tile floor, new paint and more. This born-again convenience store outlet is bright, clean and welcoming, much like The Mercantile in Correctionville.
"I'm a carpenter, so I know what's been done well and what hasn't," Cockburn says. "They did a very good job with this."
Cockburn searches the shelves and purchases a snack while Dawn McCrea thanks him for his feedback and for stopping by. She then returns to her calculator, and continues to track revenue versus expense.
Taking a compliment is nice. Taking a compliment AND cash? Nicer yet.