Davel’s: The start of a Stratford institution
By Kris Leonhardt
In 1872 the Robert Connor family made its way into the Wisconsin north woods from Stratford, Ontario. There they settled in the Auburndale area and along with Robert’s brothers, John and James, opened a trading post and began clearing land.
The Connor brothers’ enterprise developed into a lucrative lumber company. Once the land had been stripped of its timber, however, James and John headed north.
Robert, learning that the Milwaukee Lake Shore and Western Railroad had plans to build a line from Wausau and Marshfield, purchased land in proximity of the proposed right of way.
There the Connor family established a saw mill that was supplied by three lumber camps. In time a small village developed around the R. Connor Company enterprise. Affectionately named after the Connors’ former Canadian home, Stratford soon saw the introduction of the R. Connor Company Store as well.
George Davel was hired to work in the Company Store in 1898. He was later sent to work in Connor’s Auburndale store before returning to the Stratford store to become manager. In 1928 Davel would become the sole manager for the Connor family’s entire line of stores.
After the Stratford Connor mill was closed, the Connor Retail Yard was sold off, and the Connor family left Stratford.
“My grandfather bought the business from the Connor Company,” said Davel’s granddaughter Mary Kraus. “Then my dad and my uncle joined the business.”
In 1936 Davel purchased the Company Store and renamed it George Davel & Company. His sons, Arthur and Reuben, later joined him and would take over the entire business following his death.
The store was also home to a post office, bowling lanes, tavern, and the Marathon County office of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service.
In 1959 tragedy struck as fire erupted in the massive 100-by-110-foot structure.
“It was Nov. 15, 1959,” recalled Kraus. “We lived in this building. This was my home, and it burned down.
“I was a senior in high school. I was with girlfriends. It was a Sunday afternoon. We saw this smoke and heard the siren, so we went to see where it was — come to find out it was here.
“Nobody could get in. Nobody from Stratford had any type of gear to go into a smoking building, so they basically had to let it burn. That’s what I did.”
The family lost everything.
“We weren’t the only ones living (upstairs),” explained Kraus. “There were other families living up there.
“Because it was November, they couldn’t rebuild because it was winter. All that was left was a few brick walls. The front was completely gone, but then in the spring (of 1960), they started to rebuild.”
The interior and the damaged walls were restored, and the store opened once again.
“We always said it was the start of a Walmart,” laughed Kraus. “When we came here in 1972, we were still selling clothing and knickknacks and shoes. Then we dwindled it little by little.”
Mary and her husband Ken Kraus had been living in Janesville, where Ken worked for General Motors. They returned to Stratford, where they went into business at Davel’s supermarket with Mary’s father, buying out Mary’s uncle, Reuben.
“Then in 1977 (my brother) John came and took over for my dad,” recalled Mary. “He had been working in Whitewater as an engineer.”
Over time John, Mary, and Ken made the grocery area bigger and added on a bakery and deli. While the store still offers a variety of items, the clothing and shoes have been removed.
In February 2009 Ken retired from an active role in the business, and Kraus’ son Mark came on board.
Today, as a new generation takes a major role in the Davel’s business, the store is celebrating its 80th year at the corner of Third Avenue and Elm Street.
In keeping with tradition, the store retains the Davel family name, offers hardware and miscellaneous household items, and continues to make deliveries.
To commemorate its longtime presence in Stratford, Davel’s will be running specials during the month of October.