150-year-old Vermont general store on the U.S.-Canada border sees its final days

Ethan Bakuli
Burlington Free Press

NORTON - There was a time when the cash register at the Nelson Company store was likely to have as many Canadian loonies as U.S. dollars.

People could stop by for a jug of milk, pick up their mail, fill up their gas tank, or look up property records. At one point, the store even housed the local blacksmith shop.

Situated near the 45th parallel north, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, and straddling the U.S.-Canada border, the Nelson Company store in its prime served patrons both sides of the invisible country line.

The Nelson Country Store in Norton, Vt., located right on the U.S.-Canada border. Up until 2017, travelers from both sides of the line could pass by the country store and its main road before barriers were put up.

Why is the Nelson Company store closing?

For over a century, the general store welcomed its customers with American and Canadian goods. Residents of Norton and Stanhope, Quebec, routinely commingled with ease, hopping over the border to attend one another's churches.

Today, the building is set to be demolished in the forthcoming months. The passing of the last family member who owned the store, the barricading of the store's adjacent street between the U.S. and Canada, and the building's weakening structure have brought its storied history to a close. 

The multi-purpose store straddles Norton, Vermont and Stanhope, Quebec

The Nelson general store follows in a long but steadily waning phenomenon of border houses built on the 5,000 mile-long border, including the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line in Vermont.

"(The store) had Canadian goods on one side of the store and American goods on the other side," said Ervin Steinmann, property owner of the American side of the general store and longtime friend of the Nelson family.

"It had been there for so long that it originally had the American flag and the Union Jack, which was the flag of Canada up until 1965."

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Although the business hasn't been running for years, what's left inside the Nelson general store today is a vestige of an early time. The Nelsons were meticulous about hoarding knickknacks and materials over the years, Steinmann said.

An empty cash register, abandoned miniature shopping carts, worn safes and cleared-out shelves all allude to better days. In a recent salvaging job, Vermont Salvage saved some of the store's prized furniture and exterior doors but left much of the space scattered with loose papers and boxes.

Built as far back as the 1860s, the store was a staple in the area. At the time, Norton boasted a steam-powered sawmill, an economic hub for the town of roughly 200 people.

In 1885, family patriarch and entrepreneur Wilmot G. Nelson jointly bought the property with Albert McLean, rebranding it as the Nelson Company store, and continuing to cater to customers on both sides of the border.

Wilmot was a central figure in the developing town, Steinmann said, serving as the town's moderator and first selectman, as well as a postmaster, blacksmith, butcher, deputy sheriff, and circuit judge. 

A portrait of Wilmot G. Nelson, who purchased the Norton, Vt. general store on the U.S.-Canada border in 1885. To the left of his portrait is a photo of Miriam Nelson, his great-granddaughter.

Under the Nelson family's ownership, the general store kept its centrality in the community.

The store rests next to an old four-bay car garage and blacksmith shop, as well as a house built for the growing family and an apartment building on top of the store. As the site of the post office and town records, the store was an active part of the small border town's daily affairs and the site of many town stories.

On an April night in 1906, burglars attempted to rob the post office located inside of the Nelson family store. 

"Tools were taken from the blacksmith shop and the front door of the Nelson Company's store was forced open," an article from the Stanstead Journal, a Quebec weekly newspaper, at the time.

The safe inside of the store's post office was "blown open by nitro glycerine," damaging the store's interior as well as some town records. But in lieu of a large cashout, the burglars were said to have only gotten away with "$10.00 in pennies from the post office funds, watches and other articles" taken from the store.

"The burglars undoubtedly expected to secure town and post office funds but these are not kept in the store."

The last storekeepers

Among the Nelson family members, the duties of upkeeping the store were passed down over two generations.

Steinmann alongside his wife met the remaining members of the Nelson family in the 1970s, when both were regular attendees at a Baptist church in Dixville, Quebec, 10 minutes away from Norton.

The couple and the Nelson family members — siblings Ruth, Miriam and Bill — grew closer. Over time, the Steinmanns asked the Nelsons to be their children's surrogate grandparents.

By 2006, the siblings asked Steinmann if he would oversee the property on their behalf, with the condition that the siblings could live there "as long as they were able to."

"They decided it would be a good idea for us to have the property," Steinmann said.

"The deed said all the land up to the Canadian border, and that meant half the store."

Ervin Steinmann, longtime friend of the Nelson family, holds a portrait of the family-owned country store in Norton, Vt. The store has sat on the United States-Canada border as far back as the 1860s, but is set to be demolished in the near future.

A lasting legacy in a small town

By the late 1990s, the store was on its decline. While the Nelson family continued to operate the store, it saw fewer patrons. Eventually, the store's pump station was removed from the property, followed by the town office in 2004. 

In recent decades, the roof leaks when it rains and the worn wooden floor has buckled.

"The store has fallen into terrible disrepair," Steinmann said. 

On a relatively quiet May afternoon, the tepid Coaticook River still flows between both countries. A winding street, aptly named Nelson Road, is a stone's throw away from the town's U.S. customs office and takes one to the family property.

Many of the essential town services that occupied the Nelson family store are now spread out along nearby Vermont 114, from the post office and town clerk office to a country store and gas station.

The Nelson family store, as well as the Nelson siblings themselves, predate the construction of the local U.S. Customs and Immigration office, which was built in 1933.

Despite the store's eventual demolition, the legacy of the Nelson family still remains intact in the small border town of no more than a hundred people. 

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For 53 years, Miriam Nelson served as the town clerk, operating out of the family store up until she retired at 81-years-old in 2003. The decision marked not only the end of an era in the community of then-214 people, according to a wire report at the time, but also an end of a family dynasty. 

Since 1885, the same year her great-grandfather Wilmot G. Nelson purchased the town store and the year the town clerk position was created, only three people held the post; Miriam's great-uncle Albert McLean, her father, Edward, and herself.

At the age of 99, Miriam, the last remaining Nelson family member died in September, leaving behind the estate.

"Nothing will be allowed to be built on that location ever again," Steinmann said. "You can't do that with half a store."

At the end of the road

Increasing entry restrictions by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection over the years have stymied development along the borderline, as well as open traffic between country lines.

Today, the connectivity of the border towns is still evident. Historical records for Norton, Averill, Vt. and Stanhope, Quebec are housed in Norton's lone municipal building.

Until recently, Steinmann added, people could drive or walk back and forth between Norton, Vt. and Coaticook, Quebec "with no problem". Where Nelson Road ends in the United States, is where Rue Principale begins in Canada.

But in 2015, U.S. Customs officials sought to place a barricade on the road adjacent to the family store. The change was met with reluctant approval by the Nelson siblings, particularly Bill.

"He just objected violently," Steinmann recounted. Bill had just turned 100 in 2014, and prior to being admitted to a local nursing home, protested the need for a barrier.

"'I've been here 100 years and we never needed a boundary and we don't need one now.'"

Before placing the barrier down, however, customs officials went to discuss it with Bill.

"They went to the nursing home and explained to him the need for it and that it was going to happen," Steinmann said.

"(Bill) certainly did not have the legal right to stop it, but they had a moral responsibility to the Nelsons who had the store there all those years."

Contact Ethan Bakuli at (802) 556-1804 or ebakuli@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @BakuliEthan.