Wabash landmark ends 68-year legacy

by Adam Smith

Anyone who has driven up and down State Road 15 has surely noticed a small, white store on the edge of the Honeywell Golf Course with a sign that reads, “Chippewa Bait: Mom & Dad’s Legacy 1946”. That legacy drew to a close as demolition of the store began in the early morning, Saturday, June 7. Emotions were high, especially for owner Sharon Lewis, as her family helped her clear out the building where her family has opened up shop almost every day for 76 years. She summed it up as “the end of an era”.

Lewis recalls that she was two years old when her parents, Harold and Ruby Roser, bought the Chippewa Gas Station in 1946 and changed the name to the Chippewa Gulf Service. Eventually this landmark would become, simply, “Chippewa Bait”. On top of the original gas station and convenience store, the Rosers added in a restaurant and bait shop, run by Ruby and Harold, respectively. Sandi Kastner, Lewis’ sister, likens their parents’ business to a modern day mini-mart. She remembers the time before the Wabash Country Club served food when they would call Ruby and ask her to fix up some hamburgers for them to serve.

The lives of these two sisters have been inseparable from Chippewa Bait for as long as they can remember. Shortly after their parents purchased the business, the family moved into a mobile home behind the store until 1958 when Harold bought the home next door to their little shop. However, the sisters say they spent more time around the store than in either home.

Kastner remembers sleeping under the counter on the shelves. Their mother used to keep the restaurant open until midnight to serve chili to the truck drivers that would come by and the girls would wait for everyone to be fed before crossing the yard to their home to sleep the rest of the night. When they outgrew the shelves they moved onto cots in the backroom.

Besides sleeping in the store, their first jobs were also at Chippewa Bait helping their father, an avid fisherman, with the bait portion of the store. “When we first learned to count to 100,” Lewis said, “Dad put us to work counting red worms.” On nights after it had rained, some of the family would walk across the greens of the Honeywell Golf Course to gather up night crawlers that could also be sold as bait.

The effect that this store had wasn’t lost upon the younger generation, as it has remained a family affair. Rodney Crist, Lewis’ son, had similar experiences to his mother’s when they would visit the store. He said that “when we came to visit Grandma and Grandpa, we were put to work.” He believes that the hard work and dedication put into the store’s tradition by his grandparents and his mother has translated into his personal philosophy today as the owner of his own business. All of his memories of Grandma and Grandpa Roser took place inside Chippewa Bait because in all reality, it wasn’t just a business, it was a way of life.

The patrons who would make their way into Chippewa Bait from Anderson to Indianapolis and beyond throughout the 68 years of its existence would often find themselves coming back again and again. The hospitality shown by its owners surrounded every aspect of the store and proved to be irresistible.

Strangers found themselves becoming an extension of the Roser family through good food and even better conversation on subjects from this year’s crops to the presidential election to Ruby’s homemade pie. These regulars would become such fixtures in the store that they would start lighthearted squabbles whenever someone was sitting in the “wrong” seat. A group of these regulars, some of who have been visiting since the opening in 1948, met at the landmark for the last time on June 3.

The Rosers ran the store until Harold’s passing in January 2005. On Memorial Day of the same year, Lewis and her late husband, Robert, reopened the beloved gathering place at the request of many old customers who stopped in. Tragedy struck when Robert passed away after a battle with cancer and Lewis was forced to, once again, close the store after a short three and a half years. She thinks of that time as having been one of many blessings in her life. After his passing, their neighbor, Bill Evans, got permission to open up the store again to serve coffee. The “family” that had grown out of their regular customers took it upon themselves to help out and ensure that Chippewa Bait would remain a place where all could enjoy a cup of coffee and good conversation.

The sole piece to be preserved from the building is one of the original windows. Although it may not look like much, this window is rich with emotional value. Lewis shared that it provided her father, who loved bird watching, with a view of his garden where he had a bird feeder posted. She says that the garden was always filled with flowers that he was very passionate about. The window will be refurbished and moved to the home of Lewis’ son, Scott Crist.

“It’s time to close this chapter in the family history and to open a new one,” Scott says, “We’re sad to see it go, but we all know it’s time.”

Posted on 2014 Jun 10