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Who's Minding the Store?

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More recently, as recently as the days before England tore down the store, locals would go there for their mail--sorted into Civil War-era mailboxes--and their fishing tackle, for motor oil and a bottle of milk, even to gas up their tractors as they moved from pasture to pasture. Depending on which part of the building they stood in, they were doing business either in Fremont County or Custer County: A black demarcation line ran down the middle of the building.

"It was kind of like an institution for us," Berry says. "This community pretty much revolved around that store. It was basically all there was."

As England's workers dismantled the store board by board and pitched the remains into a dumpster, his few supporters disappeared along with the rubble.

"Let me put it this way," George Colgate says. "If you have your building and you've had it for a hundred years, when someone tears it down, that doesn't sit well with you. You want your old building back."

"I wish he would have stayed in Texas," Eva grumbles.
Before he razed the store, England hired architects from New Mexico and Arizona to study and photograph the building inch by inch. "I was going to replicate it," he says. "I got all the permits and all the bids. I even got permits to put in gas pumps."

But getting Fremont County to sign off on those permits was about as easy as extracting new copper from the gutted old mines.

"I don't know if you know anything about Fremont County," England says. "But they are not very user-friendly. They are not very anxious to help you do much of anything with commercial development. Which is part of protecting the county. Which is fine. But I spent another year going through the system and trying to find support."

Planners looked over his blueprints and frowned. England invited them to visit Hillside, but they never did.

"All they said was, 'When I was a kid, I used to drive down a dirt road and visit the old store,'" England recalls. "Then they'd say, 'Is it still there?' And I'd say, 'No. I took it down.'"

Eventually, England was able to convince county planners that he wasn't interested in building a "huge commercial enterprise" but simply wanted to rebuild a piece of history. With their permission, he transformed an old storage building into a livery stable, added a corral and new landscaping and installed underground electrical, propane and telephone lines, as well as a new well and a commercial septic tank.

He even transformed one of the old houses into a new post office. They put in gleaming wooden floors, a tin roof and an upstairs loft. England repaired the antique mailboxes from the old store and installed them in the new post office, along with a copier, a fax machine, a sink and a refrigerator. He decorated the place with cowhide rugs, lace curtains and wooden snowshoes. He made sure there was always coffee ready when ranchers like Berry stopped in.

But those same ranchers now complain that England scrubbed, repainted, remodeled and destroyed whatever old West charm Hillside had. Practically every decorative item, from the portrait of an Indian warrior on the wall to the oak desk in the corner, has a price tag dangling from it. Not only that, but England cut the post office's hours from ten hours, six days a week to four hours, six days a week. He won't let postal workers stock the shelves with groceries. In fact, he won't let them install shelves.

"He won't have a blue post-office box outside because it doesn't look pretty," Eva Colgate says. "There's no way you can mail a letter at that post office after 11 a.m. And did you notice that there's no ZIP code on the post office sign? He thought that would be too tacky. What he calls tacky, I call antique. We can't even get a bottle of milk in Hillside anymore. I'd just like to buy my bottle of milk."

When England held a grand opening for the new post office, seventy people attended--but he still couldn't please them. England had invited one of Hillside's oldest residents, Virgie Koch, to cut the ribbon, but neglected to arrange a ride for her to the event.

"To me, that was an example of how out of touch he was with the area," says Kit Shy, whose parents owned the old store from 1973 to 1981. "If you want to honor someone as a longtime resident, you ought to at least go and get them. And she's in her eighties. Then, after the ceremony, he gets in his car and leaves, and we're all standing there wondering what's next. It seemed to me almost like it was a display for his own edification."

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Harrison Fletcher