By Roz Kohls
Chris Lantto called his grandfather, Abraham Lantto, a visionary, although Abe probably never envisioned the store he founded in 1908 would last 100 years.
Chris is the third generation of Lanttos to own and operate the store at the corner of Wright County roads 3 and 37 in French Lake Township.
The store is celebrating its 100th anniversary Saturday, Sept. 13, with a party, hayrides, hot dogs, bratwursts, and drawings for prizes.
Chris attributes the success of the store to its constant diversification over the years.
“You can’t have your feet in cement,” Chris said.
Lantto’s was a general store, that not only traded with the local indians at French Creek, but also featured shoes, sugar, salt, coffee, spices, chaps, hardware items, suits, yard goods, coal, live chickens and eggs that were bartered by customers, and eventually, gasoline.
In the early days, the farmers survived by selling ginseng to the Chinese for medicine. After they used ginseng to pay for their land, farmers grew all their own food, and made their own homes, barns and furniture.
“You sold what they couldn’t grow or raise,” Chris said.
Most of the customers were dairy farmers, so Lantto’s didn’t sell milk until Chris was in the fourth grade, he said.
Abe came to the United States with his family from Finland when he was 3 years old. He and his family lived on the north end of French Lake.
Abe was a “mover and shaker,” Chris said. His first store was in Annandale. His mother drove him by horse and buggy to Annandale, where he stayed until she picked him up at the end of the week.
Abe learned early the importance of transportation to a business. He later became a major advocate of the railroad in Wright County, Chris said.
Abe’s two brothers, Alex and Jake, wanted to get out of the store business at their store in West Albion. Abe took over their store for a short while, but then Alex wanted back in, Chris said.
Abe had a chance to buy a store in the town of French Lake, already in operation by Enoch Bergstrom of Cokato. The original store was at the northwest corner of the intersection in 1908. Abe paid $800 for it, and the interest on the loan for the purchase had to be paid up front, he added.
Chris now has the original documentation for the purchase framed and displayed at the new Lantto’s store at the southeast corner of the intersection.
The town of French Lake developed just north of the intersection, and contained not only a bank, but several stores, a church, school, blacksmith, saloon, barber shop and creamery.
Chris’ dad, Ernest, was born shortly after the Lantto family moved to French Lake from West Albion. All of the Lanttos worked in the store. Chris believes the store began selling gasoline in the 1920s, he said.
The gas was pumped by hand into glass tubes marked for gallons, Chris said.
Then, tragedy struck the town of French Lake in 1928. Ernest was threshing in North Dakota when it happened. An early morning fire started at the AW Nelson store on the north side of town.
The townspeople had just enough time to carry out the display cases and fixtures from the Lantto’s store, when it and the entire town burned to the ground, Chris said.
Abe asked Ernest to come back to French Lake to rebuild the store. Fortunately, several items were saved from the fire, and are now displayed as antiques in the Wright County Historical Society museum.
The store was rebuilt in 1928, but the town wasn’t. French Lake was too far away from the railroad lines that went through Annandale and Cokato, Chris said.
Abe had a tough time during the Great Depression. “Business is only as good as it is for its customers,” Chris said.
But the store survived. The store’s most success came during World War II. Gas was rationed, so people couldn’t travel easily to other areas to shop. Also, the price freeze left bread at 10 cents a loaf. Customers couldn’t get basics like bread anywhere else for such a good price, Chris added.
Lantto’s eventually became a social center. It was the only place in the French Lake area that had a telephone, for example. Being a social center was a mixed blessing, though, because after Abe died, Ernest let the business slide. Ernest opened the store late, and closed it for funerals, Chris said.
Chris and his siblings also grew up working in the store. When a job Chris had in the Twin Cities with a company that moved out of state ended, Chris took over the store Aug. 1, 1976. Business had deteriorated so much, Chris was worried it wouldn’t last a year, he said.
He put in water and septic sewer for the store, and persevered.
Business turned around when Tom Thumb started a convenience store in Cokato. People got used to the “convenience factor,” and shopped at Lantto’s for convenience items, such as live bait, Red Wing shoes, deli foods, groceries, and pizza, he said.
A federal mandate required the store to upgrade its gasoline tanks. As a result, Chris opened a new convenience store Dec. 31, 1997, in the southeast corner of the same intersection, Chris said.
Chris and his wife, Vicki, have nine children, who also all helped with the store. Four of them still live in the area. Nate, Bryan and Patrick live in Dassel, and Mark lives in Cokato. Brad works at Lantto’s now.
Chris said he and the Lantto family appreciate the support their customers have given for the past 100 years.
“I’m here. Right where I want to be,” Chris said.