For three quarters of a century the store kept by the Stephenson family was a cornerstone of business not only for the town of Alton, Kansas, but also for a large region comprised of Osborne, Rooks, Smith, and Phillips Counties in northern Kansas. Edward Albert Stephenson, or “Ned” as he was known, was born April 8, 1871 at Beeton, Sinicoe County, Ontario, Canada. He was the son of William and Juliaetta (Harrington) Stephenson.
A few years after Ned’s birth his mother died and the family then moved to Galesburg, Michigan, where Ned started school in 1880. Three years later the family moved to Bull City (Alton), Kansas, where William opened for business both as a cobbler and as the proprietor of a mercantile store. On January 1, 1892, he opened a two-story native stone building located at the intersection of Mill Street and Nicholas Avenue.
Ned continued his schooling in Alton and attended Gould College in Harlan, Kansas. In the spring of 1898 he returned to Galesburg and there married Blanche Louise Blake on March 9, 1898. They then returned to Kansas and moved into rooms over the store. Their son, Robert (“Bob”) Blake, was born July 29, 1907, in Alton. William Stephenson died in 1900, and Ned and his two siblings, Richard and Emma, took over the store until 1927, when Ned and his son Bob bought the business. A member of the Congregational Church, Ned was a very caring and careful businessman. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when times were hard for everyone Ned mortgaged his farms in order to sustain groceries at the store for his customers. He was generous in support of the families in the area; for one Christmas during this time he canceled $10,000 in grocery bills for local residents, but later expressed his disappointment in that many people didn’t appreciate his gesture. They were upset and even angry because they thought that he was giving them charity.
Ned and his family moved to a house in town after living above the store. In 1910 they then moved onto the General Hiram Bull homestead on the east edge of Alton. The next year Ned bought their last home, the farm a mile south of Alton that included the South Solomon River and the Alton Bluffs. Ned was a baseball player (the catcher position) and a fan. He donated the land for the Alton ballfield and was a member of the Alton Businessman’s Club, where the members would purchase their own chairs to sit in at meetings. In later years Ned could be found sitting inside the store waiting to greet his friends and acquaintances when they came to do their shopping. He passed away December 9, 1958, in Alton and was buried in the nearby Sumner Cemetery.
Bob Stephenson attended the Alton schools and then Kansas State University in Manhattan. After his buying of the family store (together with his father) in 1927 Bob transferred to the Kansas City Business College in Missouri to complete his education. On April 16, 1933, he married his high school sweetheart, Opal Tucker, in Alton. In 1942 the Stephenson Store celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in business and was named the oldest business in Kansas then operating under its original ownership. Bob entered the U.S. Army in February 1943 and the business was sold to Jim Fuller. Bob went on to serve with distinction in the 87th Division in Europe and returned home in October 1945, when he repurchased the store from Fuller.
Bob was an ambitious and likable man who was interested in all worthwhile projects that benefited the community. He served as mayor of Alton and also as city councilman, and was a member of the Masonic Lodge, the American Legion, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. On June 2, 1966, he suddenly was stricken with a heart attack and passed away. A sorrowing community buried him in the Sumner Cemetery. Bob’s wife Opal sold the business that July, and after 74 years Stephenson’s Store was finally closed for good. The stone building was torn down in the 1980s.