By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN “The old store has a lot of memories,” said Chris Lantto of the old building in which his store was located, kitty-corner from the current Lantto’s Store.
“If I dream about the store, it’s in the old one, not the new store. I grew up there with my brothers and sisters,” he said during a presentation which took place Oct. 6 at Temperance Corner for the Cokato Finnish-American Historical Society.
Showing slides of historic photos, Lantto told the history of French Lake and Lantto’s Store, which is located at the intersection of Wright County roads 3 and 37.
“It’s nice to be able to say something about something I know a little bit about,” Lantto said as he began his presentation. “If I don’t know you, maybe you’ll become customers someday and I’ll get to know you better.”
Lantto is the third generation to own and operate Lantto’s Store. His grandfather, Abraham was the first owner, followed by Lantto’s father, Ernest.
The operation was taken over by Lantto in August 1976. Three of his sons, Bill, Mark, and Pat, work at the store full time. His son, Nate, works a shift each weekend.
As he talked, Lantto filled in the history with his memories of growing up with his father operating the store.
For instance, there was an older Finnish neighbor who came to visit his family often. “She only spoke Finn . . . about a hundred miles an hour. I don’t know how anybody could understand her,” Lantto said.
The home where Lantto lives presently is built on the foundation of the Farmers State Bank of French Lake, which burnt down (probably in the early 1920s).
French Lake was originally settled by French and Irish immigrants, then the Scandinavians started moving in, and the French and Irish moved towards Maple Lake, Lantto said.
The immigrants left behind a Catholic church building without a congregation to fill it, which was rolled to French Lake on logs to serve the Scandinavians, who had been meeting in homes and schools.
The church served the congregants of the Cokato, French Lake, Albion, American Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church who lived near French Lake and had been meeting in homes and school houses up to that time.
Lantto’s grandfather, Abe, was one of three brothers who came to America from Finland with their parents and became storekeepers.
Before owning the store at French Lake, Abe operated a store located on the northeast corner of present-day Minnesota Highway 55 and Wright County Road 24 in Annandale, Lantto said.
His wife, Lina, would bring him to Annandale Sunday evenings, and he would stay in Annandale until Saturday afternoons, when Lina would go pick him up again.
Abe’s two brothers owned a store at Albion (the building is still standing). When they wanted to quit the business, they offered it to Abe.
However, one of Abe’s brothers wanted back into the storekeeping business, so that is when Abe bought the store in French Lake in 1908.
In those days, the store only sold what couldn’t be raised or grown by the local farmer, such as hardware, sugar, coffee, spices, yard goods, shoes, and clothing.
The store also candled eggs, and sold chickens and ice. The ice was from French Lake itself, and was stored in an ice house behind the store.
Being a progressive individual, Abe twice invested $1,000 in the Soo Line Railroad, as well as going to St. Paul and lobbying for a highway going through French Lake from Glencoe to St. Cloud, according to Lantto.
He lost his money on the railroad investments, as it never did come through French Lake, Lantto noted.
However, Abe was successful in routing Co. Rd. 3 through French Lake. It was originally supposed to go somewhere else, Lantto said.
When Lantto’s dad, Ernest, was 21, there was a fire in French Lake that destroyed most of the town, including Lantto’s Store.
Townspeople were able to save the merchandise and the cases it was stored in, before the building was destroyed. Those cases are now at the Wright County Historical Society.
Before the fire, Ernest had left French Lake with a group of men, traveling the country to find work in places like Detroit, New York, and Chicago.
“They lived on oranges for a week in New York,” Lantto said. “When they came back to French Lake, they used baler twine to hold the car together, but they made it.”
At the time of the fire, Ernest was in North Dakota harvesting wheat, after picking rocks in Montana.
Abe sent for him to come help get a new store going, Lantto said.
While the new store was being built, Abe set up shop in the schoolhouse until school started, and then moved his business into the town hall.
“By then, it was evident the railroad was not coming (through French Lake),” Lantto said. “Nobody else rebuilt, but my grandfather did.”
When the store started selling gas, it used an old hand pump.
“David Bajari has the pump I didn’t realize its value and gave it to him,” Lantto said. “Now, I’d like to have it back. He’s fixed it up real nice.”
After Abe died, Ernest ran the store for the estate for a number of years before he finally bought it.
“He regretted that. Those were good years, he should have bought it sooner,” Lantto said.
Ernest was born during the Depression, which “really leaves a mark on you,” Lantto said, noting that Ernest would use the adding machine paper over again four times to save on waste.
He made sure every penny counted, and was able to send his children to college, Lantto said.
Lantto remembers Ernest going to customers’ homes because he had overcharged them a dime.
A smart man, Ernest was able to add five columns at once. “I can do it, too,” Lantto said, smiling. “But it works better if I say it out loud.”
In the early days, everybody was dairy farmers, so the store did not carry milk. The Lantto family had its own cows to provide milk, Lantto noted.
When the store started selling milk, Lantto’s mom, Emma, gave Ernest a choice, saying “either the cows go, or I go.” Soon, Matt Lantto came and picked up the cows, bringing them to his dairy farm.
Lantto’s oldest brother, Stanley, had the job of cleaning the spittoon when he was young. “That was gone by the time I came around,” Lantto chuckled.
For a few years in the 1990s, it was fun for Lantto’s Store to host sleigh rides, but it turned out to be too much liability, Lantto noted.
He told the story of the last year of the sleigh rides, when a young team on training bits became spooked, and 80-year-old men were jumping off the sleigh or out of the way.
The team eventually crashed into the corner of the new French Lake Town Hall, and put an end to the winter fun.
French Lake today
Pointing out several businesses, Lantto noted that “French Lake, today, is more than you think.”
French Lake boasts the Country Snip ‘N Curl beauty shop, French Lake Auto Body, French Lake Curb and Gutter, French Lake Butcher Shop, an entertainment venue Weber’s Deck, and, of course, the junk yard.
“There are 35 employees at the junk yard, and they all come to the store for breakfast and lunch,” Lantto said.
The junk yard also fills all its trucks at Lantto’s, “and you know the checks are good,” Lantto commented.
Weber’s Deck also draws large crowds Sundays in the summer, and the host reminds people to stop at the store on their way home.
Lantto noted that in order to stay in business, he had to diversify. “I don’t get a thousand customers a day, and the banker thought I was nuts when I diversified,” Lantto said.
The store now offers plenty of hot, fresh food, bait in the summer and one month of the winter, and Red Wing boots.
Paying tribute to his employees, Lantto noted, “No man’s an island; he can’t do it himself.”
All of his children have worked at the store, and it remains a part of their life, whether they have moved away from it or not, he added.
“I’m happy and thankful we can work together,” Lantto said. “As long as I don’t get too much in their business,” he added with a smile.
In order to keep good help, they have to be paid well, Lantto noted.
He also acknowledged his wife, Vickie, who has helped him succeed by raising nine children (eight of them boys) during his long hours at the store.
“She didn’t put up with monkey business,” Lantto said. “Raising boys can be hair-raising at times.”
Because many people stop at Lantto’s to ask where someone is buried, the cemetery lists from local cemeteries are linked to the store’s website, www.lanttos.com.
“My brother put a lot of time into that,” Lantto said.
Lantto ended the presentation with an interesting tidbit of information.
“When I was young, we made 10 cents for each 30-cent gallon of gas,” Lantto said. “Now that gas is $4.10, we still only make 10 cents per gallon.”