1999, Brian McMahon (BM) interviewed Gary Tankenoff (GT) son of Alex Tankenoff,
original builder of Hillcrest Center. In addition to reminiscing about businesses
that have come and gone over the years, Tankenoff provided perspective of how
the Hillcrest Area evolved from 40 acres of grassy field to retail center of today.
The interview has been edited for continuity and for web format. For a full transcript
of the interview, contact the WBABA office at 651-707-7619 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am talking with Gary Tankenoff as we are parked outside of the Big Wheel Auto
Store, sitting up at the Hillcrest Center, and we are going to chat a little bit
about Gary's connection to Hillcrest, which is this year actually celebrating
I was thinking, from Radio Shack down five stores were built in 1949. And, it
went all the way to what is now Seymour's Drug Store, which when it first opened
in 1949 by Mel Roth was Cut Price Supermarket. My dad added on northward five
stores. The first tenants were Coast-To-Coast Hardware which took two stores,
Blomquist Paint Store which had another location on Payne Avenue, a barber shop,
Mounds Park TV, and I think that was it, and in 1949, '50, '51, that was it.
It took those three years to build the five stores there?
That was all that was built at the Hillcrest Center. In 1952, in the next block
south, my dad built from what is now Snyders, which in its inception in 1952 was
called Snyder Brothers a completely differently owned drug chain, Snyder Brothers
southward to a supermarket that was called Klein's Supermarket. In between there
were maybe six to seven stores and above Snyders there were medical offices. That
was completed in 1952. Then in 1955 the Hillcrest Bank Building was built, which
is now occupied by Kokkeler Jewelers. My dad and six or seven other individuals
were the owners of the bank and they got a state banking charter and they opened
the Hillcrest State Bank in 1955.
Then in 1956 there were 7 stores and 12
bowling alleys built in the block directly south of the Hillcrest State Bank,
of which I gave a picture to Brian, which shows the stores and the entrance to
the Hillcrest Bowl.
The Hillcrest Bowl was owned by Don Hafner, who became
a very close personal friend of my father, Alex Tankenoff, who started the Hillcrest
Shopping Center and, in fact, in 1971 or '72 Don Hafner ended up buying the entire
Hillcrest Shopping Center from Hillcrest Development, my father Alex Tankenoff.
Anyway, Don opened the Hillcrest Bowl, eventually expanded it, whereby my father
built sixteen additional bowling alleys or lanes on the street level, and between
Don and my father they eradicated all the retail on the main floor above the twelve
alleys that initially were built in the basement and they converted that into
what was called Hafner's, which was a restaurant/bar/liquor lounge.
expansion took place in 1962 further north on the north end of the shopping center
where my father built the Big Wheel Auto Parts and another store, which is now
occupied by the Best Steak House, and some medical above the two stores, which
initially I believe was occupied by an orthodontist. Big Wheel was an immediate
success, which on a side note, lead to many shopping center developers calling
my father for business references on Richard Schaller who owned the Big Wheel
Auto Store. Richard and I are good friends. We talk frequently about how the success
of the Hillcrest Store, which was only the second store in the Big Wheel Auto
chain, lead to forty to fifty additional stores.
The last expansion of Hillcrest
Center was directly south of what was Cut Price Supermarket, which turned into
Kingpin Supermarket, which turned into Seymours Drug and that was three large
stores that were built initially for Warner Hardware Store and two additional
I left out one additional store. In 1955, just north of the
Snyder Brothers Drug Store, my dad built a F. W. Woolworth store which was in
the Hillcrest Center for probably seventeen years and then my father paid them
to leave early and subdivided the stores for additional tenants. Woolworth, after
the first ten years, just didn't do a lot of business. I think it was the general
trend of variety stores not being a big draw for a shopping center. In its heyday,
its best years of the 1950's and 60's, the Hillcrest Shopping Center area had
the Kingpin Supermarket, the Klein Supermarket and there was an Applebaum's Supermarket
that went into the block directly south of Hafner's. Those three supermarkets
in the 50's did over 6-million dollars of business.
Later on in the 70's,
north of the Hillcrest Center, Kroeger's opened a gigantic supermarket, which
really never did that well. In the late 70's the Hillcrest State Bank bought the
building from Kroeger's and moved the bank from where they were into the former
Kroeger's Supermarket, which I was the director of the bank at the time, greatly
expanded the bank and its business and serving the entire community. At that time,
John Kokkeler and his wife, Jean, moved their jewelry store into the former bank
building. When I drove down here to meet Brian I was both surprised and shocked
to see that the Norwest banking cooperation, who recently purchased the MidAmerica
Bank chain, has closed the former Hillcrest Bank location on North St. Paul Road
and White Bear Avenue. So it is the first time probably in 45 years that this
immediate area has not been served by a state or a national bank institution.
My father also developed one small block on the west side of White Bear Avenue
where the Boler Car Wash is. I am not sure of the date. It probably was in the
late 60's. He built the car wash for a fella named Joe Boler and we also sold
land, or he sold land, to City Service corporation which built a service station
on the corner there on the west side of White Bear Avenue. For probably close
to 40 years it was occupied and operated by a person named Lee Nocken, who then
opened, in addition, Lee's Auto Parts in North St. Paul. I believe Lee Nocken
is still living, as I believe John Kokkeler is from the Kokkeler Jeweler's, Carlton
Russ, who had a photography store in one of the original 1949 spaces
Well this history is a wonderful tribute to your memory, Gary. Really, that is
remarkable and I am glad I had the occasion to chat with you and go over some
of that. By any slim chance, do you happen to remember the architect that your
father may have used?
GT: Yes. The original architect
was a person named Leonard Johnson who was on the mezzanine floor of the Hamm
Building and he was, in those days, in the late 40's, early 50's, he was an old
timer. The original builder of most of the buildings all through the 50's was
a fella named George Andreen, who had his own construction company, and he did
all the construction for my father all through the 50's, I believe until the addition
onto the Hafner Bowling Alley.
BM: Gary, do you
know how your father started with this particular location and this idea for a
strip mall, which was a relatively new building type? First of all, I mean, we
had progressed post war to this type of setback retail with the parking in front
and this must have been one of the first examples of that. Do you know how that
all came about?
GT: Yes. He bought, through his
friend Roland Thompson; he bought forty acres of a grassy field on the southeast
corner of White Bear and Larpenteur through Clap Thompson, which was a real estate
company. It was then platted whereby Clap Thompson sold off house lots east of
Craig Place, which happens to be my brother's middle name, and
and surprisingly enough, even in those days, my dad and Roland Thompson reserved
enough land directly to the east or behind the stores that were going to be built,
for rear parking, for rear loading and unloading and the possibility of shoppers
entering on both the west and the east side of the stores. They named the place
Gary Place, which was really the dividing line between commercial zone and residential.
[named after Gary Tankenoff]
BM: And how did
they happen to select the Hillcrest area?
I am not sure. The name of our company is Hillcrest Development and that of course
was taken from the Hillcrest Country Club. My dad happened to be president of
Hillcrest Country Club in 1948 and perhaps he took the name Hillcrest Shopping
Center from the country club as he did for the name of our company.
And when all this was going on you were in your late teens, I think, and were
GT: Yeah, I was helping by cutting
the weeds behind the shopping center, sometimes delivering leases, talking to
the tenants, finding out how things were going, being a listing post for suggestions,
trying to get new tenants even though I didn't know that much about leasing space.
I did have a hand in leasing from probably the 60's through the 70's while we
owned the center. .
BM: Now, do you think your
father intended to have all the stores look to be a similar style or was it...?
Now, I think I had heard that one of the drug stores, or some of the stores here,
were originally built and owner occupied, built by the owners, or am I incorrect
GT: The only one that was built by the
owner was the first supermarket which opened as Cut Price Supermarket and then
it was Kingpin and that was owned and operated by Mel Roth, who eventually in
1961-62 opened up the Shopper City discount store a block away north of the Hillcrest
Shopping Center - and he closed the Kingpin Supermarket, which was a near disaster
for the rest of the shopping center because it remained, all of a sudden, a supermarket
that was probably doing, at that time, 3 million dollars worth of business, closed
its doors and nothing opened up.
BM: Now, but,
you didn't own it at that time? Am I correct? It was not your...?
No, but there was a clause in the deed when my dad sold Mel Roth the land that
said he had to own and operate a general food market. Mel then opened, instead
of 15,000 square feet that his store comprised, he opened a 25,000 square feet,
a superette store called General Food Market, which was a clever way of trying
to get around the restriction.
your father could have bought the property back?
No. He could have, but Mel didn't want to sell because Mel didn't want a supermarket
there competing with his Shopper City. Mel Roth and my father went to the Minnesota
Supreme Court on two different occasions arguing about the legality of everything
and finally I made a compromised deal with Mel because he didn't want to operate
the General Food Market even in 25,000 square feet anymore.
Had he rented out the remaining portion?
No, it was empty. And I made a compromised arrangement with Mel whereby he would
have to use the entire store for retail, and as long as it didn't compete with
any of the existing stores in that block, and he then chose his brother, Seymour
Rothstein, to open a drug store/superette type operation in the entire building.
BM: With the lawsuit, was your father's intention
to force him, Mel, to keep the food store there, or was it that he wanted to acquire
the property then? What were the terms of the covenant, it was a covenant I guess.
GT: It was a covenant and my father was intent
on enforcing the covenant that there should be a supermarket. Unfortunately, the
wording was general food market, but there should be a general food market as
Kingpin or Cut Price operated. So it was never really resolved and in those days
that was really the bad feeling between Mel Roth and my father, Alex Tankenoff.
I came in and I guess sort of smoothed it over and we ended up having a retailer
operating in that entire store. The merchants north and south of the store were
BM: Gary, I had also heard that this parcel
may have its own water or
GT: My father
dug a well, I believe, in 1951 while he was building the Snyder Brothers to Klein
Supermarket block, and all the stores had water cooled air conditioning and we
were, for a time, in the well business, in the water business.
For parcels other than this, as well?
Everything that we owned got water from us. Not drinking water, but water to run
their air conditioner, because our rates were much cheaper than using city water
and they didn't have to pay sewer charges or anything.
Now that's amazing. That is amazing. How did you guys figure that one out in terms
of the economics of that?
GT: My dad did.
Was it at the time(in operation), do you recall, when you sold it?
When we sold it to Don Hafner it was in operation.
But that was not drinking water, am I correct? You always had city drinking water.
That is really very interesting. When you moved up to the bank, the Hillcrest
and there was a Kroeger's, they had the big arch in the front of the Kroeger's.
I have seen pictures of the original Kroeger's and I have also seen pictures of
the early Hillcrest Bank there which retained the arch.
The head of the bank, I will state, that the Hillcrest Bank and the success of
the Hillcrest Bank was due to a number of individuals, but I had to name one individual
who was terrific as far as being a supporter of the entire Hillcrest Shopping
Center area, it was a fella by the name, and a good friend of mine, Roland Nordlin.
Rollie was president of the Hillcrest Bank for probably close to twenty years
and they were glorious years where the bank probably increased in assets and deposits
from 8 to 10 million to close to 40-some-million dollars.
And were some of the original charter board members pretty active for the long
haul there or was that
GT: Yes, but I
would have to say that the bank was, the main success of the bank was due to Rollie
Nordlin and a fella named Bill Smith, Roy Wiemier, Howard Erickson. We had people
that worked there for close to twenty years. They started and they ended their
careers at the Hillcrest Bank. It was like family.
a picture from the Minnesota Historical Society)
GT: Here is the Kingpin
Supermarket and here are the four or five stores along side of it that were filled
in 1949. Here's the Woolworth store on the corner.
Yes, I did see that. Woolworth is freestanding.
The two stores on the south side of Kingpin and Cut Price Supermarket
These two stores, it was Crest Restaurant and before the Crest Restaurant opened,
when the building was being built, for about the first four years it was called
Lee's Café. Lee's Café, Mrs. Lee also owned on the corner of 6th
and St. Peter in Saint Paul and it was a first class famous restaurant that was
famous, unfortunately for my waistline even then, for pecan pie. Then there was
a junior department store that opened next to it called Howard Owns.
To the south? Crest was to the north?
and then Howard Owns junior department stores was right next to Lee's and then
there was a space of about 145 front feet that was vacant between the Howard Owns
and the Woolworth, then you had, it used to be I think called block 7, Snyder
Brothers to Klein Supermarket. That also had a Hillcrest Liquor Store in it next
BM: Klein's being on the south?
The Hillcrest Liquor Store did so much business that when their lease came up
they bought a piece of land on the west side of White Bear Avenue and built double
the size store. Klein's quickly leased the Hillcrest Liquor space and expanded
BM: Hillcrest Liquor was a subtenant
GT: No. It was a tenant of ours.
When they moved and built their own building
Oh, Klein's expanded their own
expanded into there. Then next to the liquor store was Gruber Hardware. That is
where Gruber Hardware literally started in the Hillcrest Center and after probably
about 20-some years they moved to a larger freestanding building about two blocks
north of Larpenteur on White Bear Avenue.
And whatever happened to them? Do you know?
They sold out to Consolidated Foods and then Country Club Supermarket took it
GT: Ok. North of Gruber was in about 1000 square feet was John Kokkeler,
John and Jean Kokkeler. That is where they started their jewelry store. Up until
then, John had been a watchmaker, south of Hillcrest Center. Also in that block
there was a baby store at one time, there was a cleaner. There were various tenants
but they all did well because it was anchored by Snyder Brothers Drugstore, which
was one of the first drugstores to go over a million dollars in about 1954, and
Klein Supermarkets, which were doing close to two million dollars in the early
50's. Everyone prospered in that block.
Two good, strong anchors there. Now, did most of those smaller stores, did they
go right through from east to west? They took up the entire depth of the building?
GT: Right, and that parking lot in that block
was always jammed. It was always filled. Then when you throw in the Hillcrest
Bank, which opened in 1955, the spillover from the bank parking and Klein parking,
parking then became a real premium.
That used to be Clark Service Station.
And your father sold that to
GT: To Clark
BM: So that was a separate parcel.
Yes, right. By the way, every time my dad sold property, it was a big error in
judgement. But at the time, he needed the money to build other stores, but he
made a mistake when he sold the service station to City Service, the land
BM: Which was directly across from
BM: Now, how long was that Clark's
thing there? Was it there for the whole time you had owned it?
The whole time we owned it. I am not sure what's there, if anything is there now.
BM: It is a parking lot now.
Was your original intent, in looking at what I call now the Hafner's block, the
Hillcrest Bowling and the Kokkeler Jeweler there, was the original intent to actually
connect those things on a north/south axis?
Because the original picture that you brought me really starts to show for the
first time the fronts of the stores facing north.
It wasn't built to add on, on top. It was eventually thought that if Hafner was
successful they would L-around, which he was, and that is exactly what happened.
We added sixteen alleys and then he took all the stores on the main floor and
converted them into Hafner's Restaurant.
Now look at this. This is an aerial photograph showing probably a good sixteen
square blocks or something like that. Just on the north part
My father originally owned certainly all this land containing the houses. These
are the home sites.
BM: So why wasn't that built
on first? Because you thought you might expand there?
Hindsight being 20/20, today, all the stores would have been built here and you
would have a tremendous parking area. But this in its day, again, in the late
40's, early 50's, had tremendous parking, certainly more parking than Highland
Village. Highland and Falcon Heights on Snelling and Larpenteur were probably
the first suburban shopping centers. This was probably the second or third and
providing much more parking than the others.
The fact that your family lived in Highland, was that possibly the inspiration
for the idea of the setback mall, do you think?
I think it was. It probably could have been.
Now, across the street from the Klein's there is a huge empty lot. Do you remember
some of the development on the west side of the street there?
There was a Standard Oil station that was built. Most of the land directly west
of that block was owned by a real estate developer named Fred Herring. Fred also
was an originator in the Hillcrest Bank. Fred ended up being a lot smarter in
the long run because what Fred did, he would lease the land. He leased the land.
For resale mostly? For the gas station?
think it is where White Castle is. Anyway, Fred would lease the land for twenty
years, which was a lifetime; live to see the twenty years and all of a sudden
he ended up not only with the land back, but with a building on top of it. My
dad did it the hard way; he built the buildings and created the value. Fred really
didn't create much value but ended up doing very, very well and owning it after
twenty years and getting land payments.
have pictures that I have tracked down from the construction of the Iowa high-rise
which show the Hillcrest in the background, so there are details, but they are
quite interesting and it may be the only pictures that still exist, unless I can
track down some of the names that you described here. Ok, that is a picture from
the Historical Society showing the Hillcrest State Bank. It looks like it was
at the time of a police accident of some sort.
It was the main floor. The basement had the safe deposit box and the bookkeeping
BM: Now, was that the style that
was pretty much what was found in the northern portions of the
BM: Very much part of the 50's,
kind of streamlined style. That is a photograph that is available. I have seen
that original. Now here is some Xerox copies showing, from the files/archives
of the Saint Paul Public Housing authority, showing the site of the Iowa high-rise
before there was any building, but it shows some good pictures of the
Now you can see, in the background, Country Club. At the time when this picture
BM: Let's see, does it have a
GT: This was the back of Lee's.
This is the Henry's Hamburger. There was a Henry's Hamburger that leased land
from Herring. Here is Standard Oil. Here is the building we are parked in front
Yeah, the last building, which was a two-story.
I think it is '68 because here is Big Wheel.
Now that is a two-story structure here.
because there were medical offices above.
I guess if you back up you can see that.
Here is the door, going upstairs.
BM: Ok. There
is a photo showing the original Jerry's. That is not the structure that is standing
there. I am desperately looking for pictures showing that structure in its earlier
stages, when it was all drive-in stalls. So those are some of the pictures that
I have tracked down. Now, there is a building right across the street as I look
around here, it is now the barbershop and it used to be Gloria's. Is that pretty
much the way the front of the buildings looked?
GT: And where Mattress Liquidators is, used to be, we built the building,
or my dad built the building, I am not sure of the date, but it was Gold Eagle
BM: And that was your building?
That was our building. My dad built it right at the time he was building the car
wash for Joe Boler.
BM: Let me go back to that
aerial photograph for a bit here. Those houses there, do you know much about how
that development occurred? Any of the developers that might have been involved
GT: Not really, because the only housing
that we ever had anything to do with was the extra land that Clap Thompson sold
as house lots.
BM: Did you build those houses?
You sold them off individually?
GT: We sold the
land off individually.
BM: Now, I have lots of
other pictures showing that site around the Iowa high-rise. Those were all dirt
roads at that time.
The Crest Restaurant was owned by a fella named Mel Grossman and I think when
Mel died his widow ran it for a couple of years and then the lease came due and
they closed it. Before Crest, as I mentioned, it was Lee's, which was a big name.
Where the Lincoln Pawn and Jewelry, that used to be a pure oil station. As you
pointed out, Jerry's is completely rebuilt.
So what they must have done is filled in the front of it obviously for seating
but I gather at one time that was quite the gathering spot, huh? Lot of fond memories
there from some of the old timers.
were part of the original stores built in '49, so the first two bays were Coast-To-Coast
BM: You know, this is the first time
I have noticed this. There are slight breaks in the front to kind of articulate
the different stores.
GT: And they painted the
bricks white. Now this, this used to be a barbershop at one time.
Ok. So this is 1664, which is now the Hair Junction, still is.
It is interesting. I can remember the fellas name was Merit and he had two chairs,
one for himself. This is back, again, in about 1949 or '50. He had one chair for
himself and on Saturday, which was known as Kids Day, he hired an extra barber.
I used to see on Saturday, a line waiting to get in. He finally came to my dad
and asked to get out of his lease because he couldn't stand the business. It was
too busy for him, too much business. That is an unusual story. You know Lundquist
Paint was in one of these stores.
And Mounds Park TV, radio and TV, was in another store. This store, this was the
Kingpin or the Cut Price Supermarket.
Now, to have a couple of supermarkets going at the same time in such close proximity,
that must have been quite a battle.
This was owned by Mel Roth. Where the Salvation Thrift Shop
This, the thrift store, was Howard Owns department store.
Ok. Howard Owns? O-W-N-S?
GT: Yes. The fella,
I can't think of his last name, but his son was named Howard and I don't know
where he got the Owns. This was built; here was the Crest Restaurant.
Oh, it is actually the southern portion of the thrift shop was the Crest
GT: Right. This was the Crest Restaurant.
Did they have two bays?
GT: They had two bays
and it went all the way back.
BM: That is quite
a good-sized restaurant.
GT: This was Warner
BM: Now, the original overhang, do
you think the canopy was pretty much the same size here? These are probably the
original posts, would you say?
GT: These are
the original posts. This sidewalk, colored sidewalks, this to the corner was Woolworth's.
Then my dad, I am not sure when, it was probably in the middle to late 50's, it
was a lot of money in those days, had constructed a huge pylon sign with a clock.
It was very unusual in those days, so you could tell time.
This was Snyder Brothers Drugstore. Their business was tremendous and finally,
well my dad built on two different times to expand the store
Kept adding to the depth.
GT: To the depth, where
they went nearly all the way to the street, and they finally took out the counter.
I mean they, there was a young fella who was a partner in Snyder Brothers who
really operated this store, and his name was Nacie Shapiro and he took more of
an interest in this store, and he was a pharmacist, and he always would be here.
This store was his baby.
This is one of the first drugstores in Saint Paul, not downtown, in the suburbs,
to do over a million dollars worth of business. It was unbelievable.
store used to be Bonnie's Shoe Store.
GT: Yes. Bonnie's was a chain of about
five shoe stores in the 60's and 70's, locally owned. They did a lot of business.
I think, I am guessing, that they are completely out of business, that they have
closed all their stores. This was, I believe, could have been John Kokkeler's
This small store used to be Keye's Carryout Chow Mein. I knew and I met Harold
Keye. It was one of the first leases that I did and it was a takeout chow mein
place and we got to be good friends.
GT: This used to be, I mean a long time
ago, the Hillcrest Liquor Store. This is the area that Klein Supermarket expanded
Interesting. The White Castle was much later I guess, or not much later, but...?
Ok. That was Standard Oil.
Ok, where the Certicare is now, was Standard Oil.
That was a G&K, where Pizza Man is.
Man, what was G&K? Was that a service station also?
No, no. That was laundry, G&K saves the day. They're in industrial now. They
don't have laundry/dry cleaning
That was the G&K, that was the Standard
Oil. Where VIP, was Lincoln Savings and Loan. It was a small savings and loan
that opened up.
BM: Now, there was also a gas
station out here in the front, and
Yes. That was Sinclair. That was Clark's.
And where Hafner Center, was never called Hafner Center and it opened up and it
was a strip shopping center that had Applebaum on the far south and Guertin Drug
on the north.
Guertin that started out down on 7th and White Bear?
I don't know if they had moved up but they had like three or four stores and frankly,
everyone there tried, you might say, to live off of what was happening up here.
Now where the glass and mirror, that is the original, the gray building is the
original Lee City Service, it was called. That is the land that my dad sold to
the city service corporation and then Lee Nocken was the operator for twenty-some
Uh-huh. Now that is the Boler next to it, which was also built by your father,
is that right? He built the building for that purpose.
Yep. It used to be called Hillcrest Car Wash and now it is called Boler Express
Here where Payless Shoe Store is, used to be the Woolworth Store, which in its
day, 1955, was quite an achievement to get a national tenant.
This was built later as part of the last strip, the last fill-in, for Warner Hardware
Stores. They were a local chain of about fifteen stores. It was sort of, they
were considered, you might say the Home Depot of the 60's.
Just north of the center, where the Big Apple Bagels, there used to be; now that
is in Maplewood. It used to be called Hillcrest Bar and Grill. It was a, you could
get hamburgers and hot dogs and they poured a lot of liquor.
That might still be there. Garrity's, it is now Garrity's perhaps?
And a family named Meister used to own the land and they also ran the bar and
restaurant. This was way back. Al or Alfonz.
Now, there is a parcel just to the right of Big Apple Bagels, well in between
the car wash there. It is kind of empty. Do you know what the deal is on that?
Why that was always kind of undeveloped in here? I was curious about that.
the K-Mart used to be, right beyond that, that was Shopper City, and where the
Plaza is, is part of that whole parcel. The liquor store, I believe the Meister's
used to own a liquor store and then they built a bigger one.
Well, the guy that owns that now used to have space in the Shopper City, or whatever
it was called then, and then actually ended up buying his own lot.
But all this was add-on to Hillcrest Shopping Center. That building used to be,
instead of Pizza Hut, it used to be, what is the chicken place
used to be KFC.
Did the Hillcrest Bank actually play a significant role in helping some of the
businesses as well with commercial and development?
Oh yes. Both at different times my dad and I were on the board, Herring was on
the board, and all the merchants who wanted could get lines of credit. I mean,
we know so much about them and we were sympathetic with them, and yet there wasn't
much risk because anyone that opened up here
did well. The few that ever
left, like the barbershop, left because he couldn't take all the business. He
couldn't stand the stress. I don't know if they called it stress forty years ago.
He couldn't take the stress.
So the theory of "the neighborhood bank" was really put into practice
then and that kept the money here, it kept reinvesting in the community, in the
GT: Yes. The Hillcrest
Bank, I am digressing a little, was probably one of the first major banks, it
wasn't major, but one of the first banks to do constant promoting. Everyone knew
everyone. I mean, it was just a general family.
Oh, I get you.
GT: John Kokkeler was an old time
customer and he also owned a little stock in the bank. That was another thing
that my dad did, is he literally walked down and offered, I believe it was 100
dollars a share in those days, as the bank was being formed, who wanted to buy
stock in the bank. Don Hafner bought, the four Klein brothers, they bought
The initial bank capitalization may have been $200,000, or so.
When my dad
was going to build the two corner stores in 1962 on the corner of White Bear and
Larpenteur, he was negotiating with Champion Auto Stores for the corner store.
The Champion Auto Stores lawyer came back with about ten pages of objections to
the lease and my dad grew inpatient, and at the same time received a phone call
from a close friend of his from Minneapolis, Burton Joseph, who was a grain merchant
and was married - and is married - to Jerry Joseph, who at one time was the United
States Ambassador to the Netherlands. Anyway, Burton said, "Look I've got
a brother-in-law who is in the auto parts store, they have got one store on East
Lake Street, would you at least talk to them and give them a chance?" My
dad met with them and at the time the chain was, wasn't a chain, just had one
store, and there was a young fella who was the brother-in-law or the son-in-law
at the time named Dick Schaller. Dick talked to both my dad and I and convinced
us that he was a real go-getter and that he personally would see to the Hillcrest
Store. We both gambled, Dick Schaller gambled and the Tankenoff's gambled and
we signed a long lease, which in those days was ten years. Dick Schaller opened
the Big Wheel Auto Store in 1962.
BM: That was
the same name as the original one down in Minneapolis?
Same name. It took off. It started doing a tremendous amount of business and my
dad starting getting calls from other landlords saying, "Look, we are starting
a shopping center, like in Signal Hills or different places, and how good an operator
is this Schaller from Big Wheel Auto Stores?" My dad kept convincing other
landlords that he was good and that really was the start of the chain of Big Wheel
Auto Stores, that got to be fifty some stores. He also owned Rossi, which is the
name of his wife, and the Rossi stores I believe dealt in imported auto parts,
for foreign cars, and Dick recently sold out within the last six months.
John Kokkeler started at Hillcrest Center and when he first started he probably
had 400 square feet and had mainly, his main business was watch and jewelry repair
and he had like one or two showcases and that was it in his store. He had no room.
Then he expanded and John did so well that I think he went also into Sunray and
Apache and maybe Signal Hills after Hillcrest.
The same story for Snyder Brothers
Drug. They only had three stores. This drug store was built on in size two different
times, so it was greatly expanded.
BM: So this
was basically a full-time job for you and your father for awhile there?
Yes. We had a couple other buildings but this was the main one, but my father
was always short of mortgage money. He also was in the finance business at the
time with small loan and industrial loan offices. We ended up with twelve of them
in the state of Minnesota and we sold those out in 1963 and really after '63,
then we had the money available to build with or without mortgages. This was our
main business as far as real estate.