• Sabin Russell

The Hub of Eaton Center

When Kay Rickert first began selling stamps behind the Post Office window of her country store in Eaton Center, a first-class letter could be mailed for just three cents, and post card went for a penny.

Twenty-three years later, it costs considerably more to send a letter, but Kay is still postmistress of Eaton, and the tiny town (Population:290) has stayed very much the same.

Eaton Center is a cluster of pleasant old homes lying on a bend of winding Route 153, about six miles south of Conway. With its little white church seen across Crystal Lake against a backdrop of wooded hills, Eaton Center remains what many call "the Christmas Card Village."

That kind of charm drew August and Kathryn Rickert to Eaton from their New York careers in 1956, and today the rambling red country store and the woman who owns it are as much a part of Eaton's charm as its scenery.

"We've always called it The Eaton Store," Kay said, "Because there are no other stores within six miles of it."

As the village post office and the only shop in town, The Eaton Store has naturally become a kind of hang-out where the people of Eaton can pick up their mail, their groceries, and the latest gossip--all in one trip. "The store is a great place where children can come to get their candy and pick up the mail for somebody," Kay explained. "And the newspapers - the Sunday newspapers are more important to most men than their wives."

Kay can almost always be found in the middle of it. "I like to talk, which everybody knows," she grinned sheepishly. "I am interested in people and the things they do."

Kays' own story is an interesting one. Her mother and father were both pharmacists, and she was raised in an apartment above "the second largest drugstore in Brooklyn." Although Brooklyn by itself could be called one of America's largest cities, it is very much a collection of closely-knit communities, and Kay can remember getting to know just about everyone in her neighborhood. "Brooklyn is as small a town as you can get, sometimes," she said.

After a liberal arts education at the College of New Rochelle, Kay earned the equivalent of a doctorate in biochemistry at Columbia Medical School. She later obtained a Masters degree in physiological psychology while teaching part time at New Rochelle.

She eventually left New Rochelle to become a professor of Biochemistry and Physiology at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where she was chairman of the biology department.

Kay married August "Gus" Rickert, a man who grew up on a family farm in Pennsylvania and who "loved the country."

Although Gus had been stricken with polio at the age of four and had to walk ever since with braces and crutches, he built for himself a successful career in the field of communication and public relations. In the early days of FM radio, he became program director of the first educational radio station at Fordham University. Among the aspiring broadcasters he taught there were Vince Scully, who was to become the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and another student who was to become famous as the children's television host, Captain Kangaroo.

In 1951, the Rickerts took a vacation at Eaton's Rockhouse Mountain Farm Inn. They fell in love with the place, and returned frequently during the next five years.

In 1956, the couple bought The Eaton Store. They expanded it, adding a soda fountain inside it and a house at the east end. Kay spent the following year finishing her academic work at Manhattanville, then moved up to Eaton, where she has been ever since.

The transition from professor to postmistress was an easy one for Kay, as the Rickerts soon established their store as an Eaton institution. With her educational background, Kay was elected to the local school board, and for nine years she served as its chairman. She became Town Clerk in 1962, and served at that post for 14 years until she resigned during a period of poor health.

Meanwhile, her husband, who continued his public relations work from Eaton, helped lead an effort that established the Eaton Planning Board and enacted the town's first land-use and zoning ordinances. "He was interested in maintaining the area as the people in it wanted it to be," Kay said. Those efforts have paid off. For although Eaton's population has been rising ("We are going to have to get a bigger school bus next year"), it is still a small town that has kept its character. "People say that one of the beauties of Crystal Lake is that it doesn't have a cottage every 40 feet," said Kay. "We want growth, but we also want to keep the country atmosphere."

That country atmosphere abounds in The Eaton Store itself.

It is difficult to describe the exterior of The Eaton Store this time of year, for it sits not far from the main road, and each winter the highway plows pile up snow banks almost as high as the eaves. "Sometimes I don't see across the road for eight weeks." Kay said.

There is a plowed parking area right in front of the store's front door, however, and through the paned glass window one can look inside to the post office, where you are likely to find Kay each morning sorting the incoming mail and placing letters in any of 114 pigeonholes bearing the names of Eaton Center's townsfolk.

The Post Office itself stands partitioned to the right of the store's front door. In the open space in front of the bank of numbered mail boxes, people are often found examining their mail, reading the notices on the wall, and chatting about anything from the weather in Eaton to the political climate in Iran.

Inside the store is a potpourri of objects and items that affirm its country character. There is a bottle opener hanging on a wall near the soda stand with a sign that reads: "Open Tonic Here." On a shelf above the refrigerated display cases are glass jars filled with penny candy. "We still sell quite a lot of that," Kay said.

The store is heated by a combination of wood and kerosene stoves, and the woodstove itself is a gem. Ornate and old-fashioned, the stove bears the name "Household" across the firedoor. "Everybody," says Kay, "wants to buy it."

Part of the atmosphere of The Eaton Store is set, no doubt, by its low seven-foot ceiling of white-painted wooden boards. At the center of the room there is a trap door leading to the attic, a place that Kay admits she has never been to in the 23 years she has owned the shop.

According to Kay, the oldest part of the store was originally the second story of a two-story house that once stood where the east end of the building stands now. In 1946, Frank French and Ellsworth Russell, with some additional help, moved the top floor down to the present site and opened up what was then known as Russell's Store. The building stayed pretty much the same until the Rickerts bought it in 1956. With help from Gus Rickert's brother, Tom, business at the Eaton Store thrived over two decades.

Although Gus died in 1971, Kay has continued to run the store and post office. "My husband used to say, " Kay recalled, "that to run a country store you need a little money and a lot of philosophy .. . I would have to add a lot of hard work."

The hard work continues to pay off, not so much in money as in those intangibles that some might say make life worth living. "I like people, and I like working with people," Kay said. "I've made many friends, and I've had many pleasant experiences. And in Eaton, like most New England places, they are very good neighbors when you need them."

Postscript: Kay Rickert sold the store to Phil Kelly in 1979 and it is now owned by the Eaton Preservation Society.

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