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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to lay to rest a true friend of the community who was taken from us suddenly at the tender age of 42.

Mr. Wilson Farms was born in 1969, the year of Woodstock and moon landings.

Preceding him were a slew of corner stores that had been erected in the postwar years in almost every neighborhood in Niagara Falls. These stores bore the names of immigrants who had come to America possessing little more than the current New York State lottery catchphrase -- a dollar and a dream.

Grobengieser's, Bishara's, Mario's, Brady's and McLeod's -- read the names above the doors. They were the same names answered to by the proprietors who bagged the purchases and rang the registers behind the counter.

Folks didn't know that they were in need of bigger corner stores, with larger selections and cheaper prices, but as Bob Dylan was crooning on the counterculture super-station WKBW-1520 AM, "The Times They are a Changin'."

Wilson Farms hit Cataract City neighborhoods like a freight train hitting the tracks while on a downward slope backed by 50 MPH tailwinds. My first experience with Wilson Farms was the store placed on 18th and Michigan in the early '70s.

Being barely double digits in age when I first heard the name Wilson Farms, I equated it with the rural farming town on the northeastern end of Rainbow County. I imagined that the store would sell things like farm-fresh milk and eggs, planting seeds and bales of hay.

You can imagine my prepubescent surprise when they had the ribbon-cutting ceremony and a new era of convenience store was offered up to the starving masses. Why, this Wilson Farms had aisles. Aisles, can you imagine that?

The corner stores of yore were usually just big enough for two or three customers to stand in them at once.

In fact, most of them were so small that they would attempt to control pre- and post-school traffic by hanging a sign that said, "No More Than Two Students Allowed in the Store at Once." My father used to joke that kids should open the door and yell in, "How many you got in there so far?"

But this Wilson Farms had nearly as much space as the Meranto's Grocery Store that stood right next to it at 18th and Linwood. And what a selection! The old stores had one choice for an individual item -- that was it. For instance, if you walked into Grobey's and were looking for shampoo, you'd better be okay with a 12-ounce bottle of Prell, because that was the beginning and end of the hair suds selection -- take it or leave it!

Wilson Farms, on the other hand, had a wide array of choices for shampoo and most other items. They had shopping carts. Sure, they were smaller than the ones at parent company Tops, and they came with an affixed steel pole that looked like it had been stolen at a track and field meet, but convenience stores that required shopping carts -- we were living in some new age of modern design, weren't we?

Wilson Farms also brought legalized gambling to our neighborhoods via the state lottery scratch-off and daily numbers games. Soon people were stopping for not only the convenience store staples, but also a little side action and a chance at hitting the jackpot.

Before we knew it, one Wilson Farms grew into hundreds -- 188 to be exact. Our neighborhoods became synonymous with the red-and-white block-lettered signs that hung over every Wilson Farms entrance.

For the thousands of expats who had fled the area in search of work or warmth, seeing a Wilson Farms meant one thing -- they were home again, even if it was just for a visit with family and friends left behind.

Wilson Farms became a good neighbor to us too. The stores were always quick to give to charitable causes and concerns. Most of the chain's employees lived in the same neighborhoods in which they worked and became known to the many customers who frequented their establishment.

Wilson Farms was as much a part of Western New York as beef on weck or Frank's Hot Sauce smothered on a chicken wing. It was our store, in our neighborhoods, and it was here to stay forever.

Or so we thought.

It was announced recently that the chain was sold -- lock, stock and barrel -- to, gasp, international convenience store giant 7-Eleven. Soon all Wilson Farms will be gone and in their place will stand the orange, red and green logo of a brand seen in every city everywhere.

We Western New Yorkers are a fickle lot. Sometimes that's what we want -- to be blended into the national fabric and given a seat at the big folks table when the family gathers.

But this one is different. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in favor of trading our beloved Wilson Farms for the much-ridiculed 7-Eleven.

Keep your Slurpees and leave us our "best cup of coffee." Hold on to your franchised stores and we'll keep our company outlets run by friends and neighbors. Keep your "same here as it is everywhere" 7-Eleven philosophy and give us our "you have to be here to enjoy it" Wilson Farms credo.

I stopped in to a handful of Wilson Farms in the days after the news was announced to take the temperature of customers and staff. The verdict: 100 percent against, zero percent for the takeover.

One store manager told me, off the record, "We were devastated by the news. I cried when I heard it and I keep hoping it's just a bad dream."

So we say goodbye to a four-decade friend to our community and another piece of our identity sold for profit and consigned to the dusty archives of the local history department.

The corporate bigwigs at 7-Eleven are slapping themselves on the back as congratulations for putting the stranglehold on another American market, but they would be well advised to remember that the people here think they've just rolled snake eyes.

Wilson Farms 1969-2011. RIP.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 17, 2011