It won't be long and the cousins will be greeting each other at Spengler's in Napoleon, a place I've known of my whole life and "the oldest continuing business in Napoleon, Ohio," as author John Jaqua claims in his comprehensive book on the history of Spengler's. I came across it on Ebay during a late night search, and was thrilled to win the bid.
Published in 1992 to commemorate Spengler's 100th anniversary, Jaqua's book tells the story of the grocery/ saloon from its very beginnings. It's a remarkable story of one German immigrant, William Spengler, and his emigration from Prussia through the port of Hamburg to New York City, arriving at the end of the Civil War in September 1865. From there, he went directly to Defiance County where he and his family lived with Uncle Ludwig who had come to the U. S. five years before.
The family soon moved to Florida, Ohio, where William's father set up his own tailor shop. When William turned 21 in 1877, he moved to Napoleon and began a job as a clerk in the grocery store of Gustave Kohler and by 1879, they became partners in the business. Their grocery was located in the location of Wendt Shoes. But in 1882, the partnership ended when Gustave bought out William for $2250 and they went their separate ways. William took $1600 and bought a farm in Monroe Township, but with the rest he opened a grocery store in competition with Gustave and located about across the street from the current Spengler's.
In those days, it was customary for a saloon to be located at the rear of the grocery, so William procured his liquor license and the business did well. (Jaqua points out that there were 20 saloons in Napoleon in 1887! The largely German population of the county loved their beer.) In 1892, he moved his business to the current location and the building became known as the Spengler block.
Jaqua describes the building throughout its hundred year existence - the spittoons and the centrally located heating stove between grocery and saloon, for example. At one time, a large mural of Gettysburg, painted in 1887, graced one long wall to honor all the Civil War veterans in the county. The decorative "steel ceiling" was put into place some time in the 1890's.
In my memory, I can envision a swinging door between the grocery and the saloon, the barrels of bulk items like peanuts in front of the counter, the large wheels of cheese, the big glass jar of dill pickles and the produce stands in the front of the store in the summer filled with sweet corn and other local goods. Dad loved to buy his horehound candy there by the pound. Later on, when food was served in the back, it was a lucky day when one went there to get a double hot dog on rye bread and a root beer.
I loved that Jaqua included in his book a column from 1973, written by Mary Alice Powell, the the former food columnist from the Toledo Blade. Fred Freppel was the owner at the time; you might recognize his face on the front of the book.
"December 30, 1973
Prettles and Oats are his Pride
Bushel baskets filled with black walnuts, hickory nuts, and apples in front of Spengler's on Main Street in Napoleon, O. were the first inklings that here is something special among grocery stores.
Inside, the feeling of nostalgia continues and the first-time visitor is aware somebody really cares that the past is preserved in the present. That somebody is Fred Freppel, who is known far and wide for a unique grocery store that boasts restaurant, just as unique located in the back of the store.
It wasn't easy, but well illustrates Mr. Freppel's determination to attain his goals in food merchandising. Prettles is a butchering-day meat, made of scraps of both pork and beef, seasoned with salt, pepper and allspice, and extended with steel-cut oats. The meat and seasonings were no problem, but steel-cut oats (as opposed to rolled oats) were not to be found in this part of the country. After letter writing and several telephone calls, Mr Freppel found them in Cedar Rapids, Ia., and he now not only buys enough for his own prettles-making, but sells the oats by the pound...
Spengler's is probably best known for its bean soupl and chili and in sandwiches, the hot dogs, the kind with skins, come two in a whole wheat bread sandwich. The roast beef, served in a bun, has the aroma of high quality meat...
The prices? Everything is 60 cents at Spengler's. Whether you have bean soup or a hot dog, it's still 60 cents - 'makes it easier to figure that way,' Mr. Freppel says. Coffee is still a dime there, but Mr. Freppel says his beer is far better. He has a fetish about good beer and was quick to list the three attributes of draft beer: Clean equipment, making sure the beer is held at a constant, cool temperature, and selling a lot of it before air gets into it.
The restaurant sings of the good old days. The booths and tables and chairs were purchased in 1933 and the back bar dates back to 1889. Mr. Freppel is up on his dates because he began working in the store in 1929 when it was operated by Ernest, Herman and William Spengler. He became owner in 1959. Ray Detterer has been cooking the restaurant foods since 1945, but when he is on vacation, Mrs. Freppel steps in to make some of her German specialties. One is baubalaspitule, which takes all day to prepare and cook. It is a sauerkraut and ham rolled in homemade noodle dough and cooked in the ham broth - a German version of pigs in a blanket.
Mr. Freppel may boast beer, but the cheese he sells is his real pet. As a boy, he worked in a cheese factory where his responsibility was aging the cheese. He buys from the same Indiana source many other northwestern Ohio stores do, but he tends the cheese with loving care, turning it every 24 hours and keeping it at room temperature. A wheel of cheese is on the grocery store counter where you pay, but there isn't a lot of room there. Customer's selections share space with large cardboard boxes of chocolates, gallon jars of shelled black walnuts, and other old-fashioned delights.
As for the prettles, if you buy a pound, the directions are to fry it without shortening until it sticks, then turn it over and fry it until that side doesn't stick and keep it up until neither side sticks. Or you can let Mr. Freppel tell you himself. He's at the grocery store-restaurant Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m."
I think when I go into Spengler's next time, I'll see it with different eyes, imagining all that Napoleon institution has seen in its 120 years of continuous operation. It's a survivor, that's for sure, and I always look forward to visiting there.
If you have a favorite memory of Spengler's, please leave a comment!