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This post is proof positive that preserving Riverton history is not simply the exclusive domain of this historical society but works best when it taps into new community resources and becomes a collaborative effort.
This bit of Riverton history is owner Willanne Szulczewski‘s first-hand origin story for the original New Leaf and Plant and Gift Store at 606-608 Main Street.
Some months ago I posted a color slide image of the Collins Building and asked for “A little help…” with tracking down some more information about the brick building that dominates the intersection of Broad & Main Sts.
Bill Moore, the administrator of Riverton Public School in the Wonder Years, a private Facebook group, was one who responded by sharing detailed recollections of some businesses that were headquartered there.
Curious, Bill wrote to Diane Pahl, sister-in-law of Willanne Szulczewski, the former proprietress of the original New Leaf, hoping to get some inside info on how the original plant and gift store started. But he heard nothing.
No judgment – people are busy, or at least, we all were before many of us were told to stay at home. Remember those days? If you are one who still works on the front lines of this crisis, “Thank You!”
Fast-forward to now – with COVID-19 social-distancing guidelines resulting in many people being hunkered down in their homes – and possibly feeling a bit nostalgic.
The old email gets rediscovered and is forwarded to Willanne; she responds with a torrent of information and two dozen heretofore unseen photos – at least not seen here!
Her origin story for The New Leaf follows.
When we started The New Leaf it was in the old J.T. Evans building at 603 Main Street.
Jack Laverty and his partner John Shea owned it at the time. Shea’s business was Center Motors. He had mostly old cars behind the building.
Harvey and Mary Hortmann had a gift store called The Loft in the building on the second floor of one of the sections near the war memorial. They were very nice people, and they helped us to get started and put us in touch with Jack Laverty.
The original section where we started The New Leaf was up for rent and Jack Laverty was kind enough to give us a chance when really most people thought we would fail. Mr. Laverty was a man who loved Riverton, and he liked the idea of what we wanted to do. We really give him a lot of credit for giving us a chance. He had other options.
Hortmann’s store sold general gifts. We opened The New Leaf in 1976 as a plant store with really no connection to them. We did not buy their store, and we carried merchandise that was totally different so as not to compete with each other. They closed at some point, not too long after we opened.
When we first opened Mr. Laverty had offices in the same building for his business. We started in one large room that fronted Main Street, and eventually expanded into a back room for greeting cards, and then into the garage next store when we opened our garden center section.
Other businesses that were there at the same time included a beauty salon, a dress shop, and a furniture store. Gary and Mary Chiaccio were the owners of the furniture store.
A lady named Florence owned the beauty shop. There also was an office that was not retail. I forget what the man’s business was. He was a salesman and often on the road. The beauty shop and the salesman’s office were there before us. The dress shop and the furniture store came after we started up.
As our business expanded, we were running out of room, and at the same time, Jack Laverty and his partner had the building up for sale.
Across the street was Freeman Hunter‘s furniture store. He had run the store for many years but passed away, and the building was for sale. That was 606-608 Main Street. With the building we were in up for sale, and the need for more room, we decided to look into buying Freeman Hunter’s property.
The story with that is interesting. His heirs were particular about who bought the building. They did not want someone coming in from out of town, buying it, and turning it into something that would make a profit, but perhaps not be the best thing for the town.
So along with a bid for the property, anyone who was interested had to submit a detailed description of what you were going to do with the building. The description played a large part in who they would choose to be able to purchase the building.
It actually was basically two buildings that were joined together. One side was the store, and the other side was a house. As a part of their stipulations for getting the property, we also had to promise that we would live in the house.
The buildings had great bones but were in need of lots of work…..really an incredible amount of work. But we were young and energetic and a little naïve, and we put in a bid and proposal. We were fortunate to be the ones they chose to buy the property. At some point in the spring or summer of 1979, they allowed us to go into the building and start working on it even before we purchased it.
In the meantime, Mr. Laverty and his partner sold the old J.T. Evans building and were to have settlement on our building. I believe that the settlement was set for July or August. Our store was still up and fully running in that building and the new owners were happy to have us there until we moved, and they had plans for what they wanted to do.
In the early morning hours of the settlement day, we got a phone call from a friend that the J.T. Evans building was on fire. By the time we got there, the building was engulfed in flames.
It was a huge fire, and the building and everything in it was destroyed. I can still picture standing across the street, and feeling the incredible heat from it.
We and several other people, along with the owners, lost everything, The fire was suspicious, but that is another story, and nothing was ever proved.
We were scheduled to go away that day for a few days for a sailing regatta, and go we did. By the time we got back, everything was bulldozed and gone.
We started in working to get the store at 606 Main up and running. The work was overwhelming.
The tin ceiling alone took hundreds of hours to restore. It was beautiful, but the paint was hanging off it everywhere, and the scraping and repainting were physically grueling.
We had no money, so everything we had to do ourselves with the help of family and some friends. It was a very difficult time and as I said before, we also had to move into the house next store at 608. That was in worse shape than the store.
We lived in very bad conditions for a couple of years. BUT, we were able to reopen the store in November or December of that same year -1979- and slowly started to build up the business again.
There are so many great stories tied in with The New Leaf. We were always incredibly grateful to the people of Riverton and the surrounding towns who supported us and allowed us to have a successful business where really no one thought we could. We owed it all to the loyalty and kindness of our customers.
Twenty-seven years after we first started, we sold the business and properties, hoping we fulfilled the trust that people like the Hortmanns, John Laverty, and the heirs of Freeman Hunter had put in us.
Ray and Willanne Szulczewski
We at the Historical Society of Riverton hope that you enjoyed this nostalgic look back to a Main Street business that remains a fond memory for many residents.
Today, Dana Feigenbutz owns and operates The New Leaf Tea Room and Gift & Gift Shoppe, which Phyllis Rodgers started previously.
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You kids of all ages, stay safe. – JMc
Revised 4/4/2020: corrected a couple errors this editor made in transposing the original story and changed a sentence to improve clarity
Added 4-4-20: Years ago our friend Celeste Kuensel had an Easter tree decorated with wooden ornaments she had bought at The New Leaf. We decided to start one for our kids. Who else still has something that was bought at Willanne and Ray’s New Leaf?