By June Allen
February 12, 2006
Anyone in Ketchikan who knew Paul Wingren, the late, legendary
groceryman, wasn't likely to forget him! That was especially
true if you were one of the youngsters from years way past who
got caught when trying to swipe empty pop bottles from crates
near the rear of his store in order to trade them in at the front
cash register for their nickel deposit value!
Wingren had quite a reputation, too, with many of the young trainee
clerks or cashiers who worked in his stores over the years. "There
are a lot of people in this town who worked for me over the years,
successful businessmen now, some of them," Wingren once
mentioned in an interview. "Well, I'm the s.o.b. who taught
'em how to work!" Work ethic was big in Paul Wingren's eyes.
"When I broke into the grocery business as a boy way back
when, we were paid by the week not by the hour - and the
day ended only when all the work was done!" He always
shared his memories.
Paul Wingren on Penny-farthing
Donor: Evelyn Valentine, Courtesy Tongass Historical Society
"To this day,' he said proudly, not long before his death
in 1989, "I have my forty-hour week in by lunchtime on Wednesday!"
Wingren's plans and accomplishments for this community he called
home were apparently so many and so varied, that they are taken
for granted and some are rarely recognized. Anyone who moved
to Ketchikan more recently than, say, thirty years or so ago
doesn't know what today's Tongass Avenue's mall area was like
"back when." The waters of Tongass Narrows lapped against
the shoreline so close to the street along there that a good
sou'easter in a heavy rain could blow a surge of water right
onto and across the street! It was Paul Wingren who started the
fill process for the big mall area little by little at
first as he could afford it, later with financing - to
make it what it is today.
And the mall itself: Port West has its initials PW on its main
entrance façade. Hmmm, interesting. Those are Paul Wingren's
Wingren, also a devoted family man, was voted "Mr. Ketchikan"
in 1987 when he was named Citizen of the Year by the Ketchikan
Chamber of Commerce for having been active in Ketchikan business
affairs for more than half a century!
Wingren was born into the large Scandinavian population of La
Conner, Wash., Sept. 15, 1908, the cute little blonde son of
Olaf and Tillie Wingren, both immigrants from Sweden. His father
died when Paul was only nine and later his mother remarried.
His stepfather was a fisherman who fished in Alaska on the troller
Hope. So Ketchikan was not a "foreign word"
in the little boy's vocabulary. Wingren thought that old troller
was still up here, somewhere.
Wingren's Prize Display
in Wingren Grocery Store, March 10, 1955
Photographer: Paulu T. Saari - Donor: Paulu T. Saari,
Courtesy Ketchikan Museums
Paul started work at a young age in his first serious job --
in a grocery store. In those days the young clerks learned to
"clean, stock, store and order" as well as arrange
nice displays, which Wingren always believed was essential in
a successful grocery business. He must have been a dependable
and hard worker, because by the late 1920s young Paul Wingren
had become a minor cog in the big corporate wheel of the United
Groceries and Markets in the Seattle area.
In late 1929 his boss asked him if he would be interested in
taking over a small branch grocery in Ketchikan for just one
year. That was at lunchtime on a Thursday, records indicate.
Two days later an eager 21-year-old Paul Wingren was aboard the
steamship Alameda, headed for Alaska.
He stepped off the ship on the downtown dock and hailed a cab
to take him to the new store location's address, 344 Front Street.
Wingren later told a story of getting a pretty good look at the
town, being driven all over before being delivered to his destination
-- less than two blocks from the dock! The location was
in the Zimmerman Building, home of today's borough offices.
The new groceryman lasted a year but that was all. By then the
effects of the Great Depression that began in 1929 had seriously
worked its way to Ketchikan. The joke in those years was that
Ketchikan folk ate so many clams their stomachs could tell when
the tide rolled in and out. And after that first lean year, Paul's
new store failed, it went broke and finally closed. But Paul
Wingren may have glimpsed his own future, because he stayed on
in his new hometown.
At that time a couple named Don and Cora Armour owned the Piggly
Wiggly grocery in the street level of the Gilmore Hotel. They
bought Paul's defunct business practically next door and became
Wingren's new bosses. The name was shortened to a generic
Even in those early years after his arrival in Ketchikan, Paul
Wingren dove wholeheartedly into community affairs. He had brought
with him to Ketchikan his family's unique and antique big-wheel
bicycle a velocipede he could actually ride! And he rode
it in every community celebration the town had, especially the
traditional big bash and parade on the Fourth of July-- Paul
dressed in a suit of stars and stripes like Uncle Sam.
To the adults as well as the hometown boys and girls from he
past, many long since gone, Wingren was the "the long-legged
man dressed in the Uncle Sam suit who rode the old-fashioned
big-wheel bicycle in Ketchikan's parades!" That well worn
costume, at some time tailored from better-than-costume fabric,
was recently donated to the Ketchikan Museum. The antique big-wheel
bicycle, originally brought to the Pacific Coast from Wisconsin
by Wingrens' father, now belongs to his son, Jerry, who lives
Wingren managed the United Grocers store until a fire in the
Zimmerman Building in 1936. The Armours decided not to rebuild,
so Wingren went to work for them at the Piggly Wiggly for a time
as a clerk.
Check out counter at
the Wingren Supermarket, February 25, 1954
Photographer: Paulu T. Saari
Donor: Paulu T. Saari, Courtesy Ketchikan Museums
But while the grocery businesses kept the wolf from his door
through those lean years of the Depression, something momentous
was happening in young Wingren's life. A lovely young woman named
Floy Close, who lived way at the other end of town at Charcoal
Point (by today's state ferry terminal) had noticed the lanky
Uncle Sam pedaling through town with a joy and energy that caught
her attention. Attention turned to intention. The young couple
saw each other at a dance and that led to marriage on Sept. 3,
1932. Mr. and Mrs. Armour were the couple's attendants. The newlyweds
traveled to Juneau for their honeymoon.
Five years later, after Paul Wingren's brother Al had come north
and after Paul sold his interest in a Carlanna mink farm, the
brothers started their own grocery business located in
the old Front Street United Grocers location -- in the after-the-fire
and remodeled Zimmerman Building, 344 Front Street.
Because of the shaky economic times, the brothers were "scared
to death," Paul admitted in an interview many years later.
He said their stock was so skimpy that the canned goods were
lined up tightly shoulder-to-shoulder across just the front of
the shelves, empty space in back. Wingren saved and framed a
copy of the Oct. 26, 1937, Ketchikan Chronicle the
announcement of the grand opening that also showed the astonishingly
low prices of the times.
Those were the days, Wingren said, from 1937 until the economic
emancipation of the pulp mill years, the days of free delivery
and charge books, with totals added and scratched on a paper
sack from the stack kept on the counter. Those were also the
days of waiting for payment, often for some time. Ah, the old
days. but Wingren was one to shrug and say, "We did okay."
The years zipped by and in 1954 when the West End was blossoming
into a second and separate Ketchikan business district - Wingren's
new and more modern grocery store moved into the ground
floor of the West End's new Marine View high-rise -- still
called Wingren Court by oldtimers! By then Ketchikan had became,
courtesy of the pulp mill's new and energized economic climate
a cash-and carry town rather than a charge book town.
The years flew by, and after the Port West Mall was built, Wingren
in 1975 sold his grocery store to Lloyd Hames and then,
at last, retired. Sort of.
He jumped right into Chamber of Commerce plans and projects -
with the same enthusiasm and determination he had when dressed
as the bicycling Uncle Sam, when his long legs in red and white
striped trousers pedaled that antique bicycle along Ketchikan's
wooden streets, the bicycle with the sign that said, "Old
Fashioned Courtesy at Wingren's." Paul Wingren was available
to work wherever he could for the community.
But Paul Wingren became ill and died too soon, at home on Sunday,
Feb. 19. 1989. He was 80. His widow, Floy Wingren, now
lives in a pleasant retirement facility in Lacey, Wash. His son
Jerry is a noted sculptor living in Colorado; his daughter Marlene
Scanlon is co-owner of Scanlon Studio. And his granddaughter
Colleen Scanlon is, like the rest of family, active in community
And Paul Wingren is still missed. Any number of oldtimers tell
Paul Wingren stories, some true, some fanciful. But no one can
say that the man didn't leave his mark on Ketchikan . He not
only lived to see the town's positive changes; he may also have
been responsible for some of those changes for the better. He
loved the town - and that always helps.
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