D&B Market of Montezuma

By Marisa Love

When Irvin "Beefy" Marrs drove into Dodge City, Kan., in his 1937 Chevy on a summer evening in 1942, he had neither love nor groceries on his mind.

Marrs dropped two of his buddies off at a dance social, and then he and another friend went to a movie. When the young men from Fowler met up at the end of the night, the boys who had been at the dance brought two girls with them who needed a ride to Montezuma.

Marrs chuckled sheepishly as he remembered the night he met his soon-to-be sweetheart. By the time he pulled up in front of her house, he was determined that he wanted to know this beautiful girl named Genevieve.

"She got out of the car and I hollered at her over the car," he recalled. "I said, 'I'll see ya tomorrow night at 7 o'clock.'"

The next evening, Genevieve looked up from serving a customer ice cream to see the good-humored guy she had met the evening before walk into her father's store. She thought Marrs had been kidding.

"Boy, she saw me and she liked-a fainted," Beefy said. "So she went home and got changed, and we went to a movie and that's how it happened."

That night was the start of more than one relationship for Marrs. He married Genevieve in 1944. It was then that Marrs became a part of the legacy of his wife's family: the store.

Although his family no longer runs the local grocery store, the building that Marrs walked into that day still stands today on Aztec Street in Montezuma as a grocery store D&B Market.

"Boy, if that building could talk, there would sure be a lot of stories," Marrs said of the building his wife's family has owned for four generations and nearly 100 years of history.

It began in 1914, just two years after Montezuma was established, when Genevieve Marrs' grandfather Eli Bargar built a mechanic shop. In 1935, Eli's son, A.P. Bargar, rolled a boxcar off the train tracks onto pipes and right down the town's main street into his shop. Bargar installed pipes inside the well-insulated boxcar, so that he could run Freon through it to turn it into a freezer.

From then on, people went to "The Garage" to have their cattle butchered and processed, buy ice, ice cream or soft drinks, and even to play basketball.

"I was sweeping the floor one day and you could still see the circle 30 years later," Marrs said. "One guy told me that if you got in the right spot, you had to shoot over the rafters to make it."

Bargar expanded his business in 1945 when he turned the back of the store into a locker freezer room.

"This was before people had ice boxes," Marrs explained.

Customers from the community could pay $15 dollars for a key to one of the lockers. They would store their meat and other perishables in this public freezer, and then get the meat when it was time to cook supper.

Beefy and Genevieve moved from Florida back to Montezuma in 1947 to work for Genevieve's father. During that time, they continued to process meat and sell ice.

"In the summertime, we would sell two semi loads of ice a week," Marrs said. "They'd come in 300-pound chunks and we'd cut it up. We sold close to a hundred 300-pound chunks of ice in a week.

After Genevieve inherited the store from her father in 1958, they added a small store to the ice and meat processing section. With encouragement from the townspeople, they converted the entire building into a grocery store in 1960.

Genevieve ran the store, while Beefy helped out when he was not working at his job delivering for the U.S. Postal Service. Their three children, Gary, Perrie and Dianna, worked in the family store as they grew up.

Beefy was walking out of a credit union meeting in Wichita on an April afternoon in 1976 when he got the news that the store had caught fire. He rushed back to his wife to find their store mostly destroyed. A short in an electrical wire caused the fire and $30-35,000 in damage.

"She told me, 'All I could do was cry,' " Marrs said. "It was just terrible."

"The North Mennonite Church came in on Friday and cleaned up the store for us," Marrs said. "I tried to give them some money, but they wouldn't take a nickel of it."

Their son Gary and his wife, Darla, took over the business after they restored the store. After Gary passed away in an accident in 1991, Darla began to rent the building out to different grocers. Genevieve passed away last year, and Beefy still lives in Montezuma.

"I wouldn't live any place else," he said. "Montezuma's been a great town. Nice clean town and good people."

The store passed through three different owners before Dennis and Becky Hitz purchased it in August 2006. Growing up in Montezuma, Becky (Unruh) Hitz never dreamed that some day she would run and own the local grocery store. Without any previous experience in sales, she and her husband were in for an adventure and a challenge.

D&B Market, named for the owners, provides food and other products for Montezuma, an agriculturally oriented town with a population of 941, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's last estimate. The store also sells food produced locally, including baked goods, whole grain flour and tortilla chips.

According to Hitz, the hardest part about running her rural grocery store is keeping enough fresh meat and produce to give people a selection, while minimizing the amount of expired and wasted food.

Hitz welcomes requests and suggestions from shoppers as to what she should carry in the store.

"I'm willing to try anything once, and if it sells and we don't have to throw a lot of it away, then we'll keep it on the shelves," she said. "I appreciate when customers ask if we can carry something."

Of all the work involved with her job, Hitz most enjoys the opportunity for social interaction. As in many rural communities, the local grocery store is a social center in Montezuma.

"I just like seeing the townspeople, seeing how they're doing and giving them a hard time and them giving me a hard time," Hitz said, "But even when I worked out front more than I do now, I was still always the last person to know what's going on.

"It's quite amazing how sometimes it takes the ladies a long time to grocery shop because they're stopping and chatting," she said. "And the men are just as bad, let me tell ya."

The Hitzes youngest son, Kaden, is 3 years old and enjoys having a whole grocery store as a playground.

"It's very hard for him to get the concept that he can run around in our grocery store, but not other stores," Becky said. "He doesn't quite understand why he can just go get a banana off the shelf and eat it like he does at home."

Being in the grocery business has proven to be hard work, and there have been times when there was just enough money to pay the employees and restock the shelves at the end of the month.

The store brings in revenue now that the inventory is up, but keeping the local grocery store going is more than just a money-maker for the Hitzes. They are looking for a buyer for the store. The past few years, the couple has been commuting back and forth between Montezuma and Abilene, where Dennis currently works. They plan to settle there permanently.

"Dennis and I have said we won't close the store," Becky said. "We'll keep it open until its sells."

Becky views her job as a responsibility and service to the town. She recognizes how critical the grocery store is for the sustainability of Montezuma.

With the population gradually shifting to bigger cities, small towns throughout Kansas are struggling to maintain their local population and businesses. According to David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, grocery stores are critical for economic development, food accessibility and community sustainability.

In 2007, the Center for Engagement and Community Development partnered with several organizations, as well as rural grocery store owners from across the state, to create the Rural Grocery Store Initiative. Grocery stores provide nutrition, jobs, taxes and a social gathering place for the town. This program is focused on creating more efficient business models and raising awareness about the need to support rural grocery stores to promote community sustainability.

Since the project began in 2007, more than 80 Kansas grocery stores have closed in communities of less than 2,500 people. Seven counties in Kansas currently do not have a grocery store.

Montezuma's grocery store and other local businesses have not been exempt from the struggle to maintain customers and compete with big-box stores in neighboring cities. Residents often drive 27 miles to the nearest Wal-Mart in Dodge City or 45 miles to Garden City, where they can choose from Wal-Mart, Sam's Club or Target. These super-stores bring in customers from small towns with the appeal of one-stop shopping and lower prices.

"Dillons used to be a thorn in my side," Marrs said.

Before residents began traveling more and shopping in nearby cities, Montezuma successfully sustained two grocery stores.

"I just wish people would think a little more before they do shop out of town," Hitz said. "Whether it's for grocery or implements, parts, oil changes, tires, local businesses in general.

"Even if you do your shopping in Dodge, it's nice for people to know they can get food when they need something fast or there's a storm," Hitz said.

Many Montezuma residents recognize the need to support the local grocery store.

"We sure want to keep our local grocery store," Louise Thomas, a long-time Montezuma resident, said. "It's a very important part of our town, and if we don't we'll lose it. And they do such a good job. For such a small store, they keep quite a bit of things stocked. And they can't compete with the bigger stores, but with the price of gas the way it is, it is worth it to shop here."

"Are we really promoting the town if we just shop at Wal-Mart?" asked Olive Goosen, a life-long resident who shops at D&B Market to feed her children and grandchildren.

Becky understands the practical sense of shopping in Dodge City, especially since many Montezuma residents work there, but she appreciates the support that the townspeople have given the store and hopes they will continue to make an effort to promote the local economy.

"The town has been very supportive and we appreciate everything that people do to support the store, whether they do the majority of their shopping elsewhere or they just come in and get milk," she said.

Procter and partners in the Rural Grocery Initiative believe that grocery stores like this one are crucial to the survival of small-town America. Resilient communities like Montezuma are not surviving because they have the best location or opportunities. Montezuma continues to thrive because the people continue to work for the life of their city.