June 10, 2021 – West Bend, Wi – A sign is now posted in the window at Apple Barrel General Store, 229 S. Main Street, in West Bend. A closing sale is slated to begin Friday, June 11 and run through Sunday, June 13.
Mitch Gundrum is the son of Jim Gundrum. He penned a couple memories about the store and his dad.
The Apple Barrel General Store opened for business October 4, 2003; I was around 10 at the time. I remember seeing a photo of a ribbon-cutting ceremony; my mom holding a pair of oversized scissors flanked by smiling city officials and such. My parents purchased the building at 229 S. Main Street in 2002, however, my memories of the building when they first bought it—and all the work they put into it—are much more vivid.
Anyone who’s visited the Apple Barrel in the last 15+ years probably couldn’t picture anything other than the bright storefront that sits there now, sunlight coming in through the broad front panes and tall windows, the solid wood counter where the old-timey cash register sits, the tables, cabinets, and displays bursting with treasures of every sort.
This in contrast with the dreary brown walls, drop cloths, and steel shelving units that had cramped the space when my parents took over. The sort of coarse brown carpet covering the front section of the floorplan my family replaced with the bright hardwood there now—uncles and grandparents hauling lumber in through the front door, my brother and sister and I perhaps being sent downstairs for another box of screws but more often than not just keeping out of the way, busying ourselves with lunches and wood scraps and playing on the rocks where the parking lot behind the building meets the river.
I remember my dad’s enthusiasm at finding the perfect 1940s style light fixtures and seeing them illuminating the ‘40s green’-painted walls with white trim for the first time.
Early on James had purchased a quantity of old wooden apple barrels from an auction, their regular presence in the to-be-opened antique and home décor shop inspiring the name, “Apple Barrel.”
In fall of 2020 he ended up with close to 50 antique apple ladders through similar circumstances, most of them tucked in the basement even now. A more poetic person might see something spiritual in that transition from barrels to ladders at the beginning and the end—to me, it’s just a reminder that he had been chasing the dream right up to the end, had no intention of slowing down, had a lot more work he wanted to do.
Just a couple of years in the Apple Barrel hosted a book signing right there in the store for, if I recall correctly, a man who was related to Schlegel (the name carved in the stone façade of the brick building) or one of the other early owners of the property when it functioned as a bakery for several decades.
He’d written a sort of memoir that included references to the building 50 years earlier, and of course, a story like that couldn’t go unexalted for my dad.
From the very beginning, I really do think it was more about the people and connections made with strangers than any of the old odds and ends that facilitated them. When we talked on the phone about the week’s happenings, they would include meeting “a super interesting customer” as often as finding a new item for the store.
Everyone once in a while, though, James would stumble across some truly exceptional treasure, the sort of thing that seemed more likely to have shown up on a Sotheby’s auction block in New York than in a barn in Jackson.
Specifically a copy of “Detective Comics #27,” featuring the first ever appearance of the Batman character and a holy grail among comic book enthusiasts, shoved into a suitcase with a handful of newspapers and abandoned in a dusty granary for decades.
Or a first edition set of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” novels.
An 80-year-old human skeleton. An 18th-century blunderbuss. After 25+ years of digging in old houses, there seemed to be an almost magnetic attraction between the man and the treasure hidden in every dusty attic, dirty cottage, and drafty shed.
More than once I asked him how he could stand to sell some of those pieces, once-in-a-lifetime finds, rather than keep them as part of his own collection. His response was always a sigh and the wistful suggestion that he couldn’t hold onto everything, that the sale of one of those diamonds was the only means of buying the next estate, or replenishing the stock, continuing the cycle.
He did have a few collections though—antique toys and memorabilia from the West Bend Lithia Brewing Company spring to mind—which makes me think the real reason James ran a store rather than a museum is the pursuit of those treasures, the digging through mounds of junk to find the hidden gems, was the part he enjoyed most; the ability to put some rare artifact into the hands of a hopeful customer was more valuable to him than having any archive of collectibles all to himself.
With his children and his friends there was no question, getting that special item into the right hands was more important than making a sale. I have tools, books, postcards, and various trinkets he would send home with me whenever I came in for a visit. In return he’d ask me to help him reset his Facebook and Spotify passwords so that he could continue posting new artifacts to the Washington County Buy/Sell/Trade page and listening to Jill Barber and Norah Jones on the store stereo.
On the Sunday before Christmas last year, dad and I woke up early to do some digging.
He’d been asked to come through the old West Bend Brewery buildings and recover whatever he could, including dozens of “Old Timer’s Lager Beer” boxes and industrial hardware from long rusted-out brewing machinery.
In the penthouse level of the brewery, a pigeon hawk that had wandered in through a crack in the siding was flying about wildly, crashing into the closed window until we were able to pry it open and flush the bird back out into the air. Some summer before that we explored an abandoned saw mill in the morning before making our way to my sister’s wedding in the afternoon.
These past six months I haven’t gone more than a day or two at a time without having the thought to call him like I used to, fill him in on my adventures and ask what new treasures he’d found since we spoke last.
I would send him some new songs to listen to while he was at the counter, ask about a book I was looking for, talk to him about my new job or my sister’s new family or my brother’s new house. I would ask him for advice on dealing with the probate process and the loss of a family member because he was the one I always went to, and there’s so much he would say whether he knew the answer or not. I would listen to every story a thousand more times. And if there were any doubt about it before it’s all gone now: the Apple Barrel was James Gundrum, his knowledge and contagious enthusiasm, his perspective and generosity. The treasure in that store was him, and I know it because it’s just a bunch of stuff now that he’s gone.
Final sale begins Friday, June 11 from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Without the Apple Barrel, the halfway home for restored and recovered history, it’s time to find a new home for all of those collected artifacts, to put them back into the right hands and keep a little piece of the treasure-in-everything perspective, a little piece of that memory, alive. I think he would’ve been happy with that legacy.