In a small community, it's hard not to get to know your local grocers. When you have 43 years under your belt like Karen Wales, of rural Pine River, you can bet you get to know a lot of people.

Until recently, Wales was one of many familiar faces at Pine River Family Market. Until her recent retirement, Wales had been the store's most long-term employee. She remembers exactly what day she started - Oct. 22, 1977 - because it was her 10-year anniversary with husband Spike Wales, yet another familiar face in Pine River.

Karen and Spike had been together since high school in Pequot Lakes.

“He had originally started in Jenkins,” Karen said. “I went to grade school in Crosslake. Then in fifth grade we went to Pequot Lakes.”

She grew up on a farm in Crosslake right on the Pine River with five siblings - two brothers and three sisters - and parents who had plenty to do to keep them from being bored.

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“We had a huge garden and we had to weed all the time,” Karen said. “Dad was one of those guys that if you were idle he'd find you something to do. I guess that's where I got my work ethic from.”

They lived on a hill where a logging camp once stood. Where loggers used to roll cut trees into the river, they would sled in the winter, or skate on the ice. When it was warm they swam and fished.

When she was old enough, Karen found a job at a grocery store in Crosslake attached to a restaurant. Today the restaurant is Andy's Bar and Grill, but she remembers when part of the building on the corner was a grocer.

“I don't think they ever changed the name of it,” Karen said.

After graduating high school Karen went to beauty school in Wadena. Though she might have been with Spike, a barber, she didn't share his enthusiasm for cutting hair. They married in 1967 and for a time lived in the Twin Cities, where she worked at a Dayton's Department Store.

When they came back to the area it wasn't long before she was looking for a job. She heard Red Owl Store, then owned by John Bueckers, was going to have a job opening, so she applied.

“The store (building) opened in August and I started in October. I've been there ever since that store opened,” Karen said.

At the store, Karen got to know the many regular customers. After a while, she became head cashier, and with that job came the responsibility to train new employees.

“I spent a lot of years training different people,” Karen said. “It was a good place to work, and a friendly place. We had a lot of fun and it was a really neat place to work.”

She trained John Bueckers' children as they came and went, and countless other employees. When the store was purchased by Jerry Sauvageau, and later Chuck Welte, Karen stayed on. Though things changed, Karen said they were all good bosses. She likely would have stayed with the company if not for one fateful surgery this past February.

“I got food poisoning one week,” Karen said. “And I couldn't seem to get over it. I'd rub my stomach and it was hard, solid. I thought, 'Something's not right.'”

At first she assumed it might be a hernia, earned from the heavy lifting that comes with being part of a grocery store. Tests revealed it wasn't a hernia, but some form of growth. In March, just before the COVID-19 shutdown, the growth was removed and tested and came back negative for cancer. If not for that growth, Karen said she may have continued working at the store.

“I just worked two days a week, and I was fine and doing well with that,” Karen said. “But I was getting tired. I would have still been doing it, I think.”

The down time gave her time to think. Between COVID-19 and family members with health issues, she decided it was time to do something different.

“I just kind of figured it was God's way of telling me it was time,” Karen said.

She's not slouching either. On the Wales' farm she has plenty to do, caring for horses being boarded by Doug Taylor and others, keeping a garden, raising chickens and grooming the lawn in addition to caring for family.

“I'm still keeping busy,” Karen said.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.