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INHM: Small Town Survival and Fonk's Variety Stores

Museum Collection 4081.1

Colville, Washington welcomed the opening of a Fonk’s store 1939. Its neon sign hung on their Main Street until 2001 when it re-appeared in an opening exhibit at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture in Spokane.

A.O. Fonkalsrud already had a Montana variety store chain named “Fonk’s 5¢ to $1” in 1928, when he hired Wilbert Johnson away from F.W. Woolworth’s company to manage new stores in Washington and Idaho. At its peak, this regional chain offered a cornucopia of household necessities at branches in Colville, Colfax, Hillyard, Pullman and Tekoa, Washington, and in Moscow and Wallace, Idaho.  In its 1950s heyday, the Johnson family employed 25 to run their Colfax branch. But they could not compete with the arrival of a large shopping mall and in 2000 theirs was the last Fonk's store to liquidate - after 72 years of community service.

Credit Museum Collection 3941.2 / MAC
This penny fortune scale, made by the Watling Scale Company, stood outside the door of the Colfax Fonk's during the 1940s and 1950s. For a penny, a passerby could find out his weight and receive his fortune.

Road improvements and more affordable automobiles brought the eventual closing of many independent and family-run regional businesses after 1950, as people in small towns and rural communities began to commute to larger stores in cities like Spokane.  Retail stores, once a vital element of small town Main Street, could not compete with discount chain stores, malls, or later with shopping by phone and internet.

The Fonk’s neon sign is now refurbished and shining brightly as part of the museum’s permanent collection.The Inland Northwest History Moment is a collaboration of Spokane Public Radio and the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC), in celebration of 100 Stories, the museum’s centennial exhibition.

More Resources:
Reinartz, Kay F. The Inland Northwest: A Modern History of a Dynamic Region. Carlsbad: Heritage Media Corp., 2002.  Hometowns: Heart of the Inland Northwest (December 5, 2001 – June 20, 2004), Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, Spokane. 
Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture: Archives Collection Ms 167 Fonk’s business records.

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