Benn Curtis hangs up his apron after 58 years at City Market

Another chapter closed in the long history of City Market last Saturday. Owner Rolland Benn-Ingles Curtis - or just Benn as most people know him - retired after 58 years of serving the community.

Curtis, 73, began working at the store in 1964 when he was almost 15 years old after much discussion with his father, Rolland. Had Curtis not agreed to work at the store, its story could be much different today.

"He said, 'If you're not going to work in the store, I might as well get rid of it ... and you're on your own,'" Curtis said, recounting the conversation he had with his father. "The store was doing very well, and I decided I couldn't let an opportunity go by like this, so I dedicated my life to it."

Curtis's father came to Alaska in 1935 and worked in Juneau for a year. The opportunity to buy City Meat Market in Wrangell became available in 1936 and Rolland Curtis bought it. At that time, it was located in a building where the downtown pavilion is now on Front and Lynch streets.

In 1952, when a fire wiped out downtown buildings, City Market was lost in the devastating blaze.

"We lost our home and our business all within the twinkle of an eye," Curtis said. "All that was left were charred pilings. I was only 3 years old. I remember that night like it was only yesterday."

City Market began its second life in a small house located where the shop's liquor store is now. The man who lived there owed Rolland Curtis for his winter grocery bill. "Dad knew this fellow very well, and he said, 'I'll forgive you your winter grocery bill, plus give you $1,000 for your house," Curtis said. "The guy said, 'OK.'"

Inside the house was gutted and City Market began operating in the small space. The larger grocery store was built in 1958 and was half City Market and half hardware store and machine shop owned by Einar Ottesen, Curtis said.

Eventually, Ottesen moved his operation "uptown" to McKinnon and Front streets, and City Market took over the entire building.

Curtis' father retired in 1980 at the age of 76 and remained the president of City Market Inc. until his death in 1985 when Curtis became the president of the company.

Though the store has gone through changes over his time there, Curtis said probably the biggest change he's seen is in the way freight gets received.

"When I started, the old steamships came in every other week and unloaded," he said. "We had flatbed trucks, and we'd go down and take a forklift and put (the groceries) on (the trucks), drive them to the store and unload them."

Now product comes in on a weekly barge and gets delivered to the store by an Alaska Marine Lines truck.

Things like dirt streets and raised wooden sidewalks have also gone the way of the steamships, but Curtis' approach to the business is very much like his father's.

"He's generous to a fault," said Jake Hale, store director for City Market. Hale said Curtis will help those in need where he can. It's a trait Rolland Curtis had as well, according to his son.

"My dad, if somebody came to him and said, 'I have no money, but I need food. I got two little kids and a wife.' My dad would say, 'Don't worry about it. Get what you need, and you pay me when,'" Curtis said.

Though Curtis does admit that times have changed and "people are not on the honor system like they were 50, 80 years ago." Curtis' son, Rolland Wimberley, said his dad has a "big heart."

Niki Blake, the office manager at City Market, said she will miss working with Curtis, and working at the store with him is partly why she and her husband returned to Wrangell. "I love working with him," she said, admitting that he needs to be able to relax. "He's been here for so long, and after 58 years, he needs to be able to retire. He's worked hard."

Wimberley worked in the store when he was younger but left to pursue a law degree. He's recently returned to become vice president of the business. It's Curtis' hope that his son will be the third generation "Rolland" to run City Market.

"(Rolland) has worked in the store before," Curtis said. "He's not new to the business. He knows and understands everything, and he's not scared to ask questions. He's very intelligent. I think we've got a good mix there."

Curtis has been easing into retirement since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, going into the store less and less. Still, when asked what his plans are for retirement, he isn't quite sure.

"I have no idea. Just putter around," he said. "I'm sure my wife has a whole list of stuff she wants me to do."

Shirley Wimberley, Curtis' wife, said she's trying to get him to figure out what he wants to do, though she hinted that he'll probably still go into the store on occasion to work.

What will he miss the most?

"The people. A lot of people, even today because I'm not there all the time, when I'm in the store and they're shopping, they come up to me and say, 'Oh, I'm so glad to see you're here,'" he said with a smile, adding, "All the ladies like to give me hugs and kisses on the cheek."

 

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