NEW WESTON — If one has ever seen the 1946 William Wyler classic film, The Best Years of Our Lives, the nostalgia of sitting on a stool by the soda fountain, watching people come in and out of the shop with a smile and friendly hand-wave, is a quality that we search for, in today’s world, but often find lacking. Yet, if we are fortunate to find a place where people greet each other by their first names, and take a genuine personal interest in family and community affairs, then we must cherish such a place, for in it, we discover the true reason why all hearts come home, — especially for the holidays. One such special corner of the world is Harry Birt’s Store, in New Weston, Ohio, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Brad Birt, the current owner of the store, is the grandson of the store’s founder, Harry Birt, Sr., enjoys greeting people in the store, and sharing the many memories of his family’s legacy in Darke County.
JW Birt, Brad’s great-grandfather, was a Jellico mountaineer, working at the sawmill. He dreamed of starting a business of his own in the booming economy which resulted from the expanding railroad lines throughout the Midwest and South in the early part of the 20th century. JW, his wife along with their five sons and a daughter, eventually landed in Ohio. JW Birt, Harry Birt, Sr. and Frank Birt, decided to put down roots in Burkettsville, a small railroad town with promising prospects, Soon afterwards, Harry, Sr. became the railroad depot manager in Coldwater. Upon hearing the “buzz” among people that a local store closing, JW purchased the inventory and hired a wagon and team, or “huckster wagon,” and opened up a traveling Dry Goods and Grocery Store.
The current home of Harry Birt’s Store came when Harry Birt, Sr. (Brad’s grandfather) rented and eventually acquired an apartment building which was part of the old Peter’s Hotel, located in New Weston, after having met and fallen in love with Hazel Peters, the hotel owner’s daughter. Many interesting stories are told about the Peters Hotel, which was considered a “community hub” in the old days; it is rumored that one may have caught a glimpse of Miss Annie Oakley, sitting in front of a potbelly stove, waiting for the next train to come through town, and hearing all the latest local news. When Harry, Sr. first rented out a space in the Peters Hotel apartment, there were three other grocery and dry goods stores established in town. He considered selling his inventory; however, as fate would have it, the other businesses closed soon thereafter, and Harry Sr.’s was the only business left standing. Thus, Harry Birt’s Store came to reside in New Weston, near and amid the grounds of the old Peters Hotel in 1920.
Buying in bulk was the mainstay of grocery stores back in the 1920’s and 30’s, with vinegar being sold in 100 gallon barrels and other common staples, such as coffee, flour and sugar, being hauled in by the load. Busy shoppers would hand their lists to Harry, Sr. (the town grocer), and he would retrieve, measure and weigh the goods in the store.
“Through the years, it was important for people to be able to count on their neighbors. We didn’t have the choices that we have today,” said Brad Birt, current owner and grandson of Harry Birt, Sr. “Many stores were closed on Sundays so people could go to church and rest. So you had to count on the local store to help out if you needed something. That’s what we are –like family, a community of people who help each other out.” Birt added, “That’s why we’ve been here for 100 years!”
Brad’s father, Harry Birt, Jr., was the first Birt to make candy a mainstay item at the store. After having served in the Merchant Marines in World War II, and the Coast Guard during the Korean War, Harry Jr. returned home to Ohio. His father, Harry Sr., asked him to “help out” at the store. It was Harry, Jr. who suggested that Harry Birt’s Store expand its fresh fruit and candy selections. Moreover, it was Harry, Jr. who made the weekly “runs” to neighboring states, such as Michigan (for apples), Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, traveling with wife, Barbara, and Brad, at six months old, in the family’s station wagon. “We still call our customers by name, children and grandchildren. You are not a stranger for long here, at the store,” said Brad.
While the first sweets offered at Harry Birt’s Store were candied orange slices, white peppermint lozenges, and chocolate drops, the selection has grown over the years, offering well over 500 varieties of candies all year round. Every year, Harry Birt’s Store introduces special, one-of-a-kind treats and chocolates for the holiday season. “Be sure to come in after Thanksgiving to try the new holiday candies,” said Brad, adding how many Darke County residents say Harry Birt’s Store brings back special childhood memories. “Treat people how you would want to be treated. Have a good product and a reasonable price,” added Brad. “It seems to be working!”
Visit Harry Birt’s Store at 501 East Main Street in New Weston, Ohio, or on the store’s Facebook page, or call 937-338-3111.
Carol Marsh covers community interest stories and handles obituaries for Darke County Media. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 937-569-4314.