NICOLLET — From the earliest days of Schmidt’s Meat Market in Nicollet, the husband and wife who opened it in 1947 worked as a team.
Gerhardt was the butcher. Esther was the bookkeeper and homemaker.
Esther died Saturday at Monarch Meadows Assisted Living in North Mankato. She was 105.
She and Gerhardt worked between 60 to 90 hours every week at the start, wrapping meats by hand some nights once all the other work was done.
“They’d wrap until 10 or 10:30 at night,” Gary, their oldest son said Tuesday. “I remember there were a lot of those nights.”
Gary and his brother, Bruce, were never too far away from the operation as kids. They were 7 and 1 when the meat market opened, and the Schmidts lived above the store for their first 21 years in Nicollet.
The market has expanded several times since those humble beginnings. The sons took over in 1975, before Gary’s son, Ryan, assumed ownership in recent years. Gerhardt, meanwhile, still helped out at the shop into his late 80s before dying in 2008.
For all the hours Gerhardt put in over the years, the sons said it was their mom who deserves credit for encouraging their dad to start his own shop back in 1947.
“She was the primary impetus as well as support convincing dad that to get ahead in life they were going to have to take a risk and start their business,” Gary said. “I would give her credit for giving him that needed push and confidence that they could do it as a team.”
The story of how Esther and Gerhardt came to own the meat market that still stands today is marked by chance and trust.
The two met at a dance in Arlington, then were married in 1935 in Gaylord. He worked as a meat cutter while she plied her trade at a canning factory.
At her prompting, the husband and wife took off in their car from their home in Arlington one weekend in 1947 to scout out a location for their shop. They went through one town after another before ending up in Nicollet late one Saturday.
The butcher shop they found there was perfect. It had living quarters above it, which meant the cash-strapped couple wouldn’t need to buy a house, too.
By chance, the owner of the butcher shop at the time wanted to sell — his wife, a city girl, didn’t much care for small-town living. The problem was, the couple needed a cosigner to make the purchase.
The owner called a local farmer, Arnold Schoenrock, who he knew wanted a meat market to remain in town. Schoenrock met the Schmidts that same night, took one look and decided to co-sign the purchase at the bank on Monday.
From there, the shop took off.
“And the business has never had a backward year since they started,” Bruce said.
For the market's first few decades, Esther kept the books, worked retail and filled in wherever else needed.
Esther’s involvement in the business waned once her sons took over in the '70s. Yet even until age 93, she continued to help with accounting during peak venison season and holidays.
Gary, Bruce and Ryan remember her as a meticulous woman who could whip up a meal in no time, loved a good card game at the cabin, and danced the fast polka as good as anyone.
She’s also remembered for her early life in Gaylord. She was the first in her family to graduate high school, this despite being tasked with caring for her sick mother and grandmother as a teen.
“You can imagine a 13-year-old girl taking care of both her grandmother and mother and her house,” Bruce said. “She was tough.”
The toughness continued well into her twilight years. She remained in her home until age 101 before the move to Monarch Meadows in 2012. Bruce and Gary said her death at 105 was of course sad, but she lived a full life and they were glad she wasn't suffering anymore.
Asked what they attributed her long life to, her sons said it must have something to do with the meats.
“It’s the summer sausage,” Bruce said, laughing.
“Meat three times per day,” Gary added.