Depression-era values sustained local business
David W. (Bill) Carenen operated at grocery store and meat counter at 611 Union Street, Hannibal, Mo, from the mid 1920s to the mid 1940s. CONTRIBUTED PEGGY CARENEN RICE
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
HANNIBAL, MO. - David W. (Bill) Carenen wasn’t a tall man - standing at just 5-foot-7 when he registered with the government at the start of World War II. But he cast a long shadow in his blue-collar neighborhood on Hannibal’s South Side, and as a Union Street grocery merchant for more than two decades.
Backed by staunch investors and regularly supported by loyal customers, from the mid 1920s to the mid 1940s, he maintained a full-service market at 611 Union, featuring a meat counter that was second to none.
But his store was more than a place to buy groceries. He offered credit to his best customers, who settled their bills on payday. He offered a special service to the hundreds of railroaders who were his neighbors – he kept money on hand to cash their paychecks – knowing that those same railroaders received pay above and beyond that of factory workers, thereby could afford the goods he sold.
He was a successful merchant, but he didn’t stand alone in his success. He treated people right, and when he needed help in return, help was there for him.
Bill Carenen’s granddaughter, Peggy Rice of Kansas City, Mo., had the foresight to audio record her grandfather’s stories during a visit in the 1980s. Peggy’s daughter, Vickie Tran, recently transferred the tape to MP3 format, and much of the information for this story is taken from Bill Carenen’s own words, spoken at the age of 89.
David William Carenen was born Aug. 28, 1895, in Meyer, Ill., to James A. and Florence Pickett Carenen. Meyer is across the river and to the north of Canton, Mo., and is located in Adams County, Ill.
The canning industry utilized the newest in technology during the last decade of the 19th Century. The trend was turning away from produce raised and preserved at home, and toward mass-produced canned vegetables that could be purchased directly from the grocer’s shelves.
In 1893 – just two years before Bill Carenen’s birth – Canton, Mo., housed its first canning plant, fed by local and area farmers who raised canning plant gardens and sold their produce to the plant.
This plant created a general boom in Canton. Nine modern dwellings were constructed in the small town in 1893, costing about $2,000 each. In addition to the canning factory, the town boasted a new opera house, and talk was circulated that a second canning factory was planned.
Florence Pickett and her husband, James Andrew Carenen, movied from Meyer, Ill., to Canton, Mo., during this time, moving their belongings and their young son, Bill, across the Mississippi via ferry to Canton in 1895.
The Pickett/Carenen family owned the majority of a whole block in Canton at the time, on Second Street, where the high school would later be built.
Bill Carenen started school in Canton, but his Lewis County education was short-lived.
“Harvest season was about over; Pop had one good eye looking for a job. He had built a new house over in Canton, it sat about that high off the ground. Pop worked for the railroad.
“When Pop heard they were going to build a cement plant at Hannibal, he and my Uncle Robert – my grandmother’s brother - went to Hannibal on a freight train. They took a day off from the section crew.” When they got to Hannibal, they learned that a crew was surveying the land south of Hannibal to build the plant. When they inquired about jobs as carpenters, a man in charge said “Yes, I’ll give you both jobs.”
“So Pop went right back to Canton. He quit his job, and rented the house. He put the old cow on one end of a freight train car. We sat down on chairs by the door … and the chickens were on the other end. He found a house to rent in Hannibal, and we moved in. He worked for the cement plant until they had built two big plants. Then he went to work for the CB&Q.”
At the railroad, James A. Carenen worked for “a bow legged man named Herman Zimmerman.”
Meanwhile James Carenen’s son, Bill, went to work at Hannibal’s Star Shoe Factory when he was 13. Bill later described himself as “a skinny legged boy.”
After two years at the Star Shoe Factory, the leather dust got into Bill Carenen’s lungs. The doctor recommended he quit that job and find a healthier line of work.
He quit his shoe factory job, and then walked down to the railroad yards to tell his father he had quit.
“Mr. Zimmerman,” he said, when arriving at the railroad yards on South Main Street. “I’m looking for Carenen. I’m Jim’s boy.” He told Mr. Zimmerman that he had quit his job. “Right now, I don’t have a job; but if you were a carpenter, I’d hire you. You got tools?”
“I worked for him for two years, until he got an order to cut the force. The old man actually cried when he told me,” Bill Carenen said.
But don’t fret, because Bill Carenen said he was never out of a job for more than two days in his life.
By 1922, he was managing the meat department for Henderson and Sons grocers and feed, located at 625 Union in Hannibal.
One Christmas Day, Jack Henderson called him down to the store.
“I’m going to have to cut you $10 a week,” Jack said.
“I was getting $30,” Carenen said, and he knew his boss couldn’t run the meat department without him. “He didn’t know the tail end of a cow from the neck.”
“You ain’t going to take no ten dollars off of me,” Bill Carenen said, then settled his $4 grocery tab with the store owner and walked out the door.
Dr. Arthur B. Blue, a well-known Hannibal physician, operated his medical office in the neighborhood. Soon after Carenen left Henderson’s employment, Dr. Blue approached Bill Carenen.
“I was up to the store and asked about you,” Dr. Blue told Henderson’s former meat cutter. “Hell, you got all the friends up there, they don’t have friends, they’re all your friends.”
Dr. Blue told Carenen he should go into business for himself, and pointed to a vacant building across the street with weeds growing around it, located at 611 Union Street. Tom Wooten had previously operated a grocery store in this location.
“Get you some paint and get started building shelves,” Dr. Blue said. With Dr. Blue’s backing, Carenen opened his store circa 1925.
“I didn’t have too much customers the first day. A nickel or a dime a day I’d be tickled to death. One by one they came themselves; they became Bill Carenen’s customers. I’ve been in business myself ever since.”
“Dr. Blue never asked me for a note or mortgage or anything. I was thinking today how lucky I’ve been.”
After five years in business, Carenen set up his usual weekly deposit at his bank, which included about $900 in checks.
“The bank (where I banked) went bankrupt (in 1930). * They locked up the next morning. I was in the meat business running a grocery store. I had $20 in the till. You have to have money to operate a store.
“I got a call from Farmers and Merchants Bank in Hannibal. Old Hodgdon (Frank T. Hodgdon, vice president and cashier for Farmers and Merchants Bank and Trust Co.) himself. As near as I could recollect, I‘d never been in the bank, never spoke with the man, but I found out. I didn’t have no more idea than a rabbit as to why he wanted to see me.
He motioned me to sit down in a chair. His exact words as near as I can remember, ‘I hear you could use some money.’ He never told me who told him. Somebody set up a meeting. I needed money to pay my help, pay my bills. An angel came by and after that we were very good friends. I was back in business; I was working seven people.”
After a routine trip to the bank to make deposits and withdraws, Bill Carenen’s brother, Art, called him to the store’s back room, where he kept the cash in an old egg case.
“We’ve got a bale of $20 dollar bills too much,” his brother said.
“I went over it and took it out of the egg machine; I called the bank. I said I want to talk to Mr. Frank Hodgston. Pretty soon he came to the phone.
“This is Bill Carenen. When you check up tonight, if you’re short, we think we have some money that belongs to you. So the bank closed at 4 o’clock, about 4:30 the old man called me up. ‘You wouldn’t by chance have a bundle of 20 bills?’ he asked. ‘One of our girls is short that much.’
“I’ll bring it to you in the morning,” Carenen said.
Move to Madison
Eventually, Bill and his wife moved back to her hometown. Bill bought a 121-acre farm in 1950. “I give a check for that farm,” he said. He operated that farm with the same business sense that he used to run his store.
“I knew people who lost their farm, because they would go out and buy their wife a diamond or take a trip. They get a check for $3,000; but it would be 365 days before they would get another bean check.
One of Mr. Carenen’s loyal employees was Ernest E. Tribble, the store’s driver. Peggy Rice and David Carenen, Mr. Carenen’s grandchildren, remember he was always known as the “delivery boy,” even though he was a man. Mr. Tribble’s daughter, Elaine Tribble Bland of Hannibal, fondly remembers both her father’s years with the store, and Mr. Carenen’s grandchildren.
* Three banks in Hannibal closed their doors circa 1930: the Farmers Bank at Oakwood; the Hannibal Trust Company, and later the Mark Twain Bank. Source: The Story of Hannibal by J. Hurley and Roberta Hagood.
The right side of the two-story red brick duplex building (at 625 Union, at left in this photo) housed the Henderson and Son grocers and feed, in 1922. David W. (Bill) Carenen was the meat manager for the store, before leaving and opening his own store at 611 Union. That building has been torn down, but the lot is visible at right. The last business to occupy this space was Logue Printing. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Pictured are, back row from left, David William Carenen, James Carenen Jr., and William Roscoe Carenen. Front row, Helen Feihert Kuhn, Florence Pickett Carenen and Nellie Carenen Feihert. Photo taken in 1938. CONTRIBUTED VICKIE TRAN