General store delivers the goods

The Bluffton City General Store in central Alberta stays true to its motto: ‘if we don’t have it; you don’t need it’

BLUFFTON, Alta. — Experiencing Bluffton City General Store is worth the short detour into the hamlet off Highway 20 in central Alberta.

Upon entering the slab-clad, tin-roofed building, it takes a moment to absorb the sheer quantity of items and visual stimuli.

In general store fashion, there’s a little bit of everything — gas, groceries, cold drinks and hardware. But there’s also so much more — fishing and hunting licences and gear, knives, crossbows and arrows, camping equipment, fireworks, liquor, jewelry, auto supplies, metal signs, toys, and digital accessories. Their unofficial slogan, “if we don’t have it; you don’t need it,” seems entirely reasonable.

An adjoining tea-house/community hall welcomes those with time to sit and visit. It’s where farmers and townspeople often gather to catch up on local news or attend meetings.

“Some of the regulars come in every day,” said Julie Graham who owns the store with her husband, Chris.

The store is a museum of sorts. Starting from the ground up, Graham mentions the gentle dips in the cement floor, which mark bays that once held milk trucks during the structure’s original use as a garage in the 1940s for the Bluffton Creamery, which for a time was the largest independent creamery in Alberta.

The owners, Montalbeatti Bros., housed a snow plow there in addition to the eight milk trucks serving the area. The snow plow kept the rough roads open during winter.

As well as picking up milk, the cream trucks often delivered groceries en route to the isolated farm families.

The Montalbetti creamery burned to the ground in the late 1940s and was replaced by a creamery built by the Central Alberta Dairy Pool.

Historical memorabilia, including a 1938 Montalbetti Bros. grocery store flyer and an early 1960s aerial photo of the hamlet, decorate walls in the teahouse. There’s also a laminated page dated February 1963 telling of the building’s use as a macaroni factory.

In the early 1960s Ed and Leola Montalbetti renovated the garage, turning it into a pasta factory. Machinery for Golden Grove Foods Ltd. was imported from Italy and installed under the supervision of an Italian engineer. The macaroni, spaghetti and vermicelli were sold primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Seven staff handled a daily output of 3,500 and 4,000 pounds. The semolina and hard spring wheat was sourced from Calgary and Lethbridge.

Staffing the store today are Chris and Julie Graham, their son, Robert, and employee Ashley Schlotter. Robert resides in the living quarters in the back of the store and takes on the role of 24 hour security detail. | Maria Johnson photo

The Montalbettis, ready for retirement, sold out and moved away in 1969. The pasta factory closed.

The building went into use as a Ponoka County shop, housing equipment such as school buses, snow plows and garbage trucks.

Ponoka County sold the building in 1991 to Al and Betty Dube, who renovated again. The following year, they opened Bluffton Gas & Go.

“It was just a big, old empty building and after we cleaned out the dirt we discovered it had a cement floor,” Betty Dube said.

The couple put in the gas tanks and car wash. They stocked animal feed, vet supplies, a bit of hardware, and later a concession and liquor.

“We developed as we went along,” she said.

Dube said that as she and Al were getting along in years it became too much and they sold after about five years. Al died in 2012, and Betty lives in nearby Rimbey.

The store changed hands several more times until the Grahams came on the scene in May 2015.

Chris had been working in the oilfield and was concerned about job security. Julie wanted to semi-retire from a busy job in a nearby hospital kitchen.

“Now I work more than I ever did.”

The couple’s son, Robert, works with them and resides in the back living quarters.

“He’s our 24-hour security guy,” Julie said.

“We thought about a business like this because I grew up in a store.”

Bluffton City General Store owner Julie Graham, left, and her employee, Ashley Schlotter, enjoy some early afternoon southern sun. | Maria Johnson photo

Her parents ran the General Store at Scapa, Alta., a now abandoned community near Hanna, Alta. She went on to say, tongue in cheek, that her husband wanted to move to British Columbia, so that came to pass when they opened the Bluffton City General Store.

Years of the Grahams’ collections and memorabilia are on display at the store — taxidermy mounts, historic railway lanterns, demolition derby trophies and more.

Retired farmer and Bluffton Chamber of Commerce president Larry Hansen is among this afternoon’s coffee klatch, as is Cheryl Sutherland, a Chamber of Commerce director.

Hansen, who’s lived here his entire life, said the business has grown exponentially since the Grahams took over.

“There’s only one thing that makes a small business successful and that’s service,” he said. “You can’t compete with the Costcos and the Walmarts on volume or purchasing power. The only advantage you have is service.”

Sutherland agreed.

“Chris and Julie cater one to one,” she said. “They know every person that comes in here. and they know what they need.”

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