Kid in a Candy Store
On May 24, 2007, when United States Senator Kent Conrad rose to recognize the community of Pisek on the occasion of its centennial, there were certain bases he had to touch. He touched on St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, although he neglected to mention the Alphonse Mucha painting in the sanctuary. He made reference to Pisek’s famous roast pork and potato dumpling suppers.
And of course, the J-Mart, the Christmas candy capital of North Dakota. “The local J-Mart draws customers throughout the area,” noted the senator, “because it is known for having the best Christmas candy selection in the region.”
All right, there’s the official notice, but it’s a bit bland, isn’t it? Buying Christmas candy in Pisek is a pilgrimage for thousands of northern plains folk. They come not just for candy, but more so to plug into a living tradition, to feel part of history. They want to gaze up at the landscape mural painted on the west wall by Aileen Jelinek, hear the wood floors creak, and mill around with happy people. The Christmas candy trade at the red-brick J-Mart Store peaks early, in November; Veterans Day and Thanksgiving weekends are “really big,” say the proprietors, Teresa Brandt and Bonnie Jelinek, with hundreds of customers crowding in.
Notice, too, however, the other ways in which this establishment carries tradition for the local citizens of this Moravian and Bohemian community founded in the 1880s. On the shelves are pouches of sugared fruit ready to be pressed into kolaches, and great cans of poppyseed for the use of local women, who make kolaches of the closed-face variety. The freezer is stocked with Leo’s Potato Dumplings and Leos Czech Fries, from just over in Lankin. Pickled herring and head cheese, too, are big sellers.
The members of the Jelinek clan who operate this wonderful establishment are fully aware of their vital role in tradition. To illustrate, I’m going to read the handwritten historical sketch they have posted in the store.
Al & Aileen Jelinek bought the J-Mart grocery store in 1946. They called it Pisek General Store, then Pisek Shopping Center & later J-Mart, Inc., in 1980. Al started the candy tradition in 1947. He bought 1200 lbs. of bulk choc. crème drops & hard candy because treats like this were scarce after WW II. More varieties of candy were added year after year. We have 67 kinds (chocolates, hard candy, & jellys) – over 3 ½ tones (7300 lbs.) of candy. We also have 9 kinds of bulk nuts.
We also sell over 850 lbs. of bulk pickled herring. We sell bulk cheeses & headcheese also. Our candy season starts at the beginning of November & usually gone by second week of December even though more candy is added every year. People come from all over—Devils Lake, Walhalla, G. Forks, Cavalier & stop in for their yearly trip of candy.
Al, who passed away in 2005, & Aileen who still lives in the back of the store raised 13 children who have all worked in the store. The J-Mart (family owned) grocery store is run by Teresa Brandt, a daughter & Bonnie Jelinek, a daughter-in-law. Bonnie’s husband, Francis, owns & operates the grocery store & the J-Mart carpet store, across the street, with his brother, Dominic Jelinek, also is a carpet installer for the carpet store.
Before we leave, Francis takes me up to the modest apartment, a former stock room, where Al and Aileen raised their thirteen children. Aileen, too, now has passed away, and the apartment remains exactly as she left it.