During the Civil War, northern industrialists went to Scandinavian countries to recruit workers for mining, logging and factory operations, in place of American men who had gone to fight for the Union.
Frank Harold Rovainen (pronounced Rov-EYE-nen), born in Minnesota in 1905, was the grandson of a man who was in the first group of immigrants from Finland to Minnesota in 1865. In the century following the Civil War, many immigrants and their descendants continued to move westward in search of other opportunities. So it was that in 1936 Harold Rovainen, age 31, made a leap from Minnesota out to Seattle, where he got a job with a grocer at the Pike Place Market.
After they arrived in Seattle, the Rovainen family, Harold & Hilma and their young daughter, lived on NE 120th Street along the northernmost section of Sand Point Way NE, where they saw that the area lacked any grocery stores. They built their own store with living space behind it and opened it in 1939 as the Rovainen Market.
The growth of businesses along Sand Point Way NE
Sand Point Way NE is Seattle’s easternmost arterial, running parallel to the shore of Lake Washington between NE 45th to 125th Streets. The arterial begins just east of the University Village Shopping Center on NE 45th Street, curving northward to become Sand Point Way NE.
Sand Point Way NE extends past Childrens Hospital in the 4800 block and Magnuson Park at 6500. The gate of the former Sand Point Naval Air Station still stands at 7400 Sand Point Way NE.
Beyond the intersection of NE 95th Street which is marked on some maps as LaVilla, Sand Point Way NE becomes very narrow and meanders through residential neighborhoods.
A few of the northern intersections along Sand Point Way NE still have some commercial buildings which were established in early years, such as at 9700 where there is an auto shop. The shop was first established in 1939 by Ran Johnson of the Northeast Transportation Company.
Sand Point Way NE was first put through as an arterial in the 1920s when the Sand Point Naval Air Station began to be developed. The establishment of the naval base caused neighborhood excitement in that residents of northeast Seattle thought that the naval base and its population would help the economy by stimulating commercial growth of nearby stores and restaurants.
One of the first people to take advantage of the growth potential near the naval base was Carl R. Dooley. In 1926 Dooley built a restaurant at 7305 Sand Point Way NE directly across from the gate of the naval station. Within a few years, other stores and businesses grew up along Sand Point Way NE.
NE 120th Street is the northernmost intersection of Sand Point Way NE before the arterial curves westward and becomes NE 125th Street. The first business to be established at the intersection of NE 120th Street was a gas station at the northeast corner in 1927, with the station facing Sand Point Way NE.
Harold Rovainen and his family arrived in Seattle in 1936 and saw that the southeast corner of the intersection of NE 120th Street was available. They saw the advantages of having their new business facing Sand Point Way NE and located on the south side of NE 120th across the street from the gas station. It would be the most natural thing for people who stopped at the gas station to also come by the Rovainen’s market for some snacks and Coca-Cola. The Roveinen’s market prospered, and was made larger in 1947.
Grocery stores and convenience stores in the 1950s
After World War Two ended in 1945, pent-up demand for consumer products led to the growth of new kinds of stores. During the war, all kinds of consumer products such as refrigerators were “on hold” and were unobtainable because industries were geared to production of war materials. After the war, it took a few years for industries to retool, and when they finally began to crank out goods such as automobiles and refrigerators, Americans wanted the best of all products for a prosperous new way of life in the 1950s.
In the 1950s stores began to respond to the greater mobility of customers by providing large parking lots, and stores got refrigeration units for products which they had not been able to keep before, such as milk. For the first time, stores began to offer everything in one location, instead of separate dairy stores and meat markets as in the old days.
Prior to the installation of refrigeration units in stores, small neighborhood groceries were dependent upon blocks of ice to keep some products cold, such as glass bottles of Coca-Cola. Small market shops would have an ice chest with the bottles nestled in ice.
The Southland Corporation of Texas had gotten its start in 1927 as the largest provider of block ice in that state. Southland expanded and acquired retail outlets featuring dairy products. In a marketing campaign in 1947, a new name for the company was chosen: 7-Eleven, to emphasize the long operating hours of the stores. Today, Southland/7-Eleven is the world’s largest operator of convenience stores and has spread into twenty countries.
The post-war period in the United States led to the rise of large new grocery stores whose success was tied to the car-centric culture of the 1950s, the advantages of new refrigeration units in stores and new forms of packaging. Old-time markets like Morningside Market in Wedgwood, had been divided into two sections, with grocery on one side and a meat market on the other. The meat market used block ice to preserve their products. Meat was cut to order for customers who came into the store or who phoned in an order. Cuts of meat were wrapped in “butcher paper” because plastic wrap had not yet come into use.
The concept of the large new grocery stores of the 1950s was one-stop shopping. The new-style grocery stores of the 1950s had all products in one store including meat which was sold pre-cut in plastic packaging. Later in the 1950s, aluminum began to be used for consumer product packaging and canned soft drinks were introduced. These were well-received because cans were superior in “fizz” and “chill.” The canned soft drinks got colder more quickly than the old glass bottles, and storekeepers appreciated the ease of stacking the cans.
Demise of the neighborhood market
Small stores like the Rovainen Market could not easily be modernized, and in the 1950s the store began to suffer from competition with a new IGA Grocery which had been built just a block away at 12301 Sand Point Way NE.
The 1950s represented changes and modernization. The old-time gas station at NE 120th Street was removed in the 1950s and was replaced by a business block with a barber, plywood store and real estate office. Without the gas station nearby, people were not as likely to stop and shop at the Rovainen Market, and business traffic declined.
As his market building seemed old-fashioned and no longer viable, in the late 1950s Harold Rovainen made the decision to turn the store into the Sand Point Laundromat. Harold and Hilma had added another daughter to their family, and, needing more space, they moved out of the small living quarters that they had had at the back of the store, into a house some miles away. The laundromat business was not successful, so in 1960 the Rovainens sold the building. It was torn down and a new Speed-e Mart was built in its place.
Speed-e Mart and 7-Eleven
In 1961 the Speed-e Mart Corporation built eight new “superettes” in the Seattle area, including one in place of the former Rovainen Market building at 11782 Sand Point Way NE. Speed-e Mart emphasized that each of its buildings was brand-new, designed with a wide overhanging roof so that a customer could park in front and step into the store without getting rained on. Though Speed-e Mart was designed for quick purchases, it was publicized that they had a full stock of groceries including fresh produce.
The Speed-e Mart Corporation had been founded by Henry Boney in California in 1956. Mr. Boney organized a businessmens’ association, the National Association of Convenience Stores, and it was that organization which decided to call the business “convenience stores” and define how they would function. Prior to that time the stores had sometimes been called mini-marts.
Speed-e Mart was successful, but the founder, Mr. Boney, saw the steamroller which was headed his way, which was the nationwide expansion of the enormously successful 7-Eleven chain of stores. In 1964, 7-Eleven’s parent corporation, Southland, bought out the Speed-e Marts.
Throughout the 1960s the Speed-e Mart/7-Eleven store at 11782 Sand Point Way NE suffered from armed robberies at least twice per year, sometimes with threat of injury to the store clerk. With these difficulties of business operation and the economic downturn of the Boeing Bust in Seattle, the store closed in 1969. Then for about five years in the early 1970s, the building served as the offices of an architectural firm, Charles E. Morgan and Associates, and J.W. Tatman, real estate developer. From about 1976 to 1982 there was a preschool and daycare in the building.
Corner intersections along Sand Point Way NE today
Since 1983 and up to the present day, the former Speed-e Mart/7-Eleven building is the site of a business, McIntyre Organ and Keyboard Repair.
The northeast corner of NE 120th Street now has an apartment building, and the former IGA Grocery site at 12301 Sand Point Way NE has a cluster of townhouses built in the year 2009.
Other intersections along Sand Point Way NE have gone through similar evolutions. The site of the former Rooney’s Corner Grocery (Patrick J. Rooney) at 9556 Sand Point Way NE is now an apartment building. There are now condos at the former site of Dooley’s Restaurant and Tavern at 7305 Sand Point Way NE.
A long-time gas station site at 7215 Sand Point Way NE was converted to a 7-Eleven with gas pumps, and is still operating today. It is the only remaining commercial site across from the naval base where there were formerly several small markets and restaurants, and it is the only remaining 7-Eleven store along the arterial Sand Point Way NE.
Retail continues to evolve
The retail business is always evolving, and in the present-day environment we are likely to see even more shrinkage of store space. There is a greater emphasis upon on-line ordering and some stores are modifying their store space accordingly.
In 2018 the large Fred Meyer Store at 185th & Aurora modified its floor space, eliminating merchandise which did not sell well. Groceries now take up even more space than before, as people still do come in-person to shop, and store employees will also now fill orders for home delivery of groceries. Other major grocery chains such as Albertson’s and Safeway have also added home delivery and a drive-up service where you can order, then come and a store employee will load the groceries into your car.
The Northgate Shopping Mall which opened in 1950 was often blamed for the demise of other stores, because the mall was so successful and supposedly drew away business. Over the years, the types of stores at Northgate Mall have changed greatly, as the mall once had a grocery store along with well-known department stores like the Bon Marche.
In 2018 the Northgate Mall owners announced a major revision in which the number of stores will be reduced. Offices, a hotel, apartments and even a practice facility for Seattle’s new professional ice hockey team will be built on the site, taking advantage of Northgate’s prime location at bus and light rail stops. This is an example of how retail is evolving for less parking and for smaller specialty stores, rather than large department stores.
In a major reversal, the roof of the Northgate mall will probably be removed and the main plaza will be returned to an outdoor walkway. In recent years the mall has become a community place where a lot of people stroll and just hang out. It seems that they don’t shop, and there are associated security and clean-up concerns, so understandably the mall ownership has decided that the mall needs to be modified to be profitable and to be safe. Removal of the roof will eliminate the indoor hang-out space.
Sources and resources:
Many, many thanks to Gerald Nielsen and David Zimmerman of the Seattle Vintage Facebook page, who alerted me to the Speed-e Mart saga.
Omissions: In this article I did not mention some of the commercial sites along Sand Point Way NE such as the cluster of stores, barbers, restaurants, etc. in the 5400 block of Sand Point Way NE. My purpose in this article was to highlight the old-time businesses along the northern section of Sand Point Way NE, north of NE 95th Street.
Free resources: I would like everyone to know about the National Archives (6125 Sand Point Way NE) and the Seattle Genealogical Society (6200 Sand Point Way NE) which have offices across the street from one another. These wonderful free resources include computer use and assistance by making an appointment with a volunteer to help you in your research. You do not need an appointment to go in and use the National Archives computers on your own. This is a good way to access websites which have a membership fee such as Ancestry and Fold3, as the computer use at the National Archives is free to the public.
Sources of info for this article:
Census and city directory listings including the Polk’s Directory of Seattle, various years. One of the best places to use the directories is in City Hall, Seattle. No appointment is needed to use the research room of the Seattle Municipal Archives on the third floor of City Hall.
Property research: The Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA, is the repository of the property records of King County. At a research appointment on June 29, 2018, I (Valarie) looked at the old property records and obtained photos of the Rovainen store and other buildings. There is no charge to go for an appointment at the PSRA and use your own camera to take photos of property records.
“Small-Market Chain Stresses Friendliness,” Dorothy Neighbors Column, The Seattle Times, April 5, 1962, page 24.
“Henry A. Boney; founded grocery chains with family,” The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, December 17, 2005, page 17.
“A History of Convenience,” National Association of Convenience Stores.
“The Finnish Pioneers of Minnesota,” Minnesota History, December 1944.
“King County Land Use Survey,” HistoryLink Essay #3692 by Paula Becker, 2002. This essay tells the story of the 1938 project to photograph every taxable structure in King County.
“The Southland Corporation,” Encyclopedia.com
Seattle historian Rob Ketcherside has written a series of articles about the rise of self-service groceries, including Groceteria, Piggly Wiggly and Tradewell.