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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 03:14 pm

Jones Boys Market is a time capsule treasure in Ashland

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Want to take a trip back in time? To a place that’s close by? To a place that’s the real deal, that’s utterly unpretentious rather than a kitschy, faux old-timey wannabe? If so, go to the Jones Boys Market in Ashland. Go, and take your kids and grandkids. Go now, because bits of genuine Americana like this are vanishing from our landscape quicker than you can blink.

I wasn’t expecting to find a time-capsule treasure when I headed to Ashland, following a tip from IT reader Clark Olson. (Many thanks, Clark!) Re-reading Olson’s e-mail after returning home from Jones Boys Market, I realized he’d said, “…the shop is like the grocery stores my mother sent me and brother to.”

On the way there, though, I was focusing on the first part of Olson’s message — that the owner of the Old Country Brat Shop at Jones Boys Market made a variety of fresh sausages, and especially that he made Swedish potato sausage in winter. I’d first enjoyed potato sausage years ago while in Sweden when my husband, Peter, went there to work with the doctors who’d developed titanium dental implants. Since then, I’d found them in towns with Swedish communities, such as Galesburg, or in Swedish neighborhoods in Chicago. But I’d never seen them in this area. I thought Jones Boys would be a typical small town locker plant, probably with an owner of Swedish background using family recipes.

As I approached the Jones Boys market, the streets were completely deserted, still colorful leaves filtering the afternoon sunlight with golden highlights. The only hints it was the 21st century were the two soda machines hugging the building’s side.

The store windows sported posters for local events and a larger “Fish Bait” sign in one corner. I pulled open the wooden screen door with an ancient metal Holsum Bread advertising placket cinching its middle. I’d heard the sound of that door clacking shut behind me countless times before — but I certainly hadn’t heard it recently.

Inside the store, I immediately inhaled a warm, rich, delicious aroma. ”Wow, that smells wonderful,” I exclaimed to the smiling woman behind the counter.

She chuckled: “He’s making pulled pork back there; it always smells so good!”

To my right a shelf held a single galvanized aluminum bucket and a few other non-food items. On the left was a cardboard display with corncob pipes inserted through slots. Underneath were glass jars with a small assortment of penny candy. (Inflation has come to the Jones Boys Market: the candies are now two cents each.)

As I walked to the back, I passed shelves of canned goods, as well as baskets of apples and other produce. They were undeniably paltry in both variety and volume compared to the mega-displays at mega-groceries in “big-city” Springfield. I won’t deny I enjoy having access to that wide variety; even so, it was a treat to see some unusual brands and to not have a plethora of products shouting at me to buy them, their voices calculated for maximum impact by advertisers and focus groups.

I didn’t spend much time looking at what was on the shelves, though, because that smell drew me towards its source. As I approached, a man came around from behind the old-fashioned shoulder-high refrigerated meat case and greeted me with a shy smile.

John Jones, 61, has been at the store, one way or another, for most of his life. “I grew up in the store,” Jones says. The Jones Boys Market has always been a family affair. Started by his great-aunt, Trudy Blank, 76 years ago, “It was called Blank’s Groceries back then,” Jones tells me. “Her dad had the first hardware store in Ashland.”

During World War II Jones’ uncle, Russ, had served as a supply sergeant in Britain, working with meats, and his father, Buzz, had been a cook. When they returned home, they put to use the expertise they’d acquired in wartime, taking over the business and renaming it.

They weren’t the ones who started making sausages, though. Jones was lucky to have been drafted for service in South Korea instead of Vietnam; even so, in 1971, when his tour of duty was over, he was more than happy to return to Ashland and his beloved store. When a customer told Jones that he should try making his own breakfast links, he began reading about sausages. He got a cookbook with sausage recipes and began to experiment, adjusting the spices and flavorings.

”People talk about not wanting to know what goes into sausage,” he tells me. “But they don’t have to worry about what’s in mine. I grind the meat — pork butts — myself. There’s nothing in these sausages but the meat and the spices. No chemicals. I figure ‘garbage in, garbage out.’”

Jones makes only fresh sausages — none that are cured or smoked. When he wants smoke flavor, he uses liquid smoke, a product that’s naturally obtained. The tar is removed in the process and, with it, any carcinogens. He also uses it in that pulled pork, and for the baby back ribs he prepares.

The “Old Country Brat Shop” turns out to be a waist-high, open-top freezer about the size of a card table. My only disappointment is that it doesn’t contain any Swedish potato sausages, which Jones tells me he makes only by special order. Even so, it’s an interesting assortment: bratwurst, which, Jones tells me, is untraditionally flavored with caraway; apple brats that contain a touch of sweetness and “pie spices;” Hungarian brats flavored with paprika and a whiff of cayenne; and currywurst, made with 14 spices. I’m surprised — and happy — to see the currywurst, which is a classic favorite in Germany that’s rarely found in the U.S. But I’m almost stunned to see packages of English bangers.

”How’d you come to make bangers?” I ask. Jones explains that the recipe came from his uncle Russ’ English wartime bride. “Sometime people who’ve had ’em over there say they wouldn’t touch ’em. But these are really good — they’re flavored with a little ginger.”

I know what he’s talking about. I’ve eaten some really awful bangers — greasy and with a rubber band texture. (Yes, they’re named “bangers” for exactly the reason you’re thinking. The supposedly stuffy Brits can come up with some pretty risqué food names; a sausage-shaped steamed pudding that’s studded with currants is called “spotted dick.”) On the other hand, I’ve had great bangers, too, and will happily try Jones’ version. (Stop snickering!)

Jones says the sausages will all turn out differently, depending on how they’re cooked. He suggested using different liquids in which to simmer them: chicken broth, or beer — “I tried putting a little molasses in the skillet last week and it was really good. And a customer told me that he’d used cran-apple juice to cook the apple brats in, and they turned out great!”

Jones tells me that he makes a number of other varieties as well, depending on the season and what he’s in the mood to make, including a French sausage made with beef and bacon. “Oh, that’s soooo good!” exclaims the still-smiling woman who’s wandered back to see how we’re getting on. She is, of course, Jones’ wife, Beth.

“I just got off the bus, and I’m here for the meat!” sings out a young voice behind us. “This is Grace,” Jones tells me as a young girl skips towards us. “Her mom runs the café across the street.” ”Ooof, that’s heavy,” the five-year-old pixie says as Jones hands her a bag filled with white paper-wrapped bundles. She slumps her shoulders. “I don’t think I can carry that.” Jones solves the problem by putting the packages into two bags, so she can carry one in each hand, and Grace trudges out the door.

The Jones Boys Market is a serene place and these are clearly contented people. Looking at the two massive, pristinely scrubbed 18-inch thick butcher blocks behind the meat case and the white-enameled refrigerated locker with a sign on it that says, “Our Weighing Service Is Rendered By Toledo Scales. No Springs – Honest Weight,” I wonder if the Jones’ have any children who work in the store?

They have three boys and three girls, they tell me, but none are involved in the store. I buy packages of each variety of the sausages and say goodbye.

Crossing the street, I decide to check out Grace’s mom’s place, the Crockpot Café. Grace is busily showing her mother her brand-new package of school pictures. “You want one?” she asks me. The café is closed so I can’t sample the food, but the interior alone is worth a visit — the décor, from the huge Regulator clock to the vintage booths and stools continue my feeling of being in a time warp. Grace’s mom, Rachael Wilkerson, shows me the menu. It’s classic diner fare, nothing fancy, but she makes the pies and breads the pork tenderloins herself — and gets her meat at Jones Boys, so I’m betting the food is good.

Driving home, I momentarily panicked. I really wanted to write about The Jones Boys Market. It was so special, but what if the sausage weren’t? I needed have worried. They were all delicious.

The Jones Boys Market is at 201 W. Editor Street, Ashland, 217-476-3914. The Crockpot Café (200 W. Editor Street, Ashland, 217-476-8133) is open Tues-Sunday for breakfast and lunch and there’s a fish fry on Friday nights.

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