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OBITUARY: Home of Economy matriarch dies at 93

Her resolve and selflessness were on full display in 1987, hours after a fire flattened the Home of Economy anchor store she and her husband built from scratch.

Her resolve and selflessness were on full display in 1987, hours after a fire flattened the Home of Economy anchor store she and her husband built from scratch.

Jean Kiesau, then store president, vowed, mostly out of concern for her employees, "Home of Economy will be back, you better believe it."

Kiesau, the faithful conscience, trusty bookkeeper and eventual president of the store she her husband, Bob, founded in 1939, died Thursday morning in Valley Eldercare Center in Grand Forks. She was 93.

The Home of Economy fire of Dec. 3, 1987, was one of several hard luck occasions that had befallen the store and its owners. Over the years, the little store that could survived economic downturns, big-time competition, floods and yes, a devastating fire.

Through it all, Jean and Bob Kiesau and several family members that made the business tick, persevered. Today, Home of Economy is a successful chain of variety stores with locations outside Grand Forks in Devils Lake, Grafton, Minot, Williston and Jamestown, N.D.


'Meticulous' lady

Warren Strandell, a longtime journalist and acquaintance of the Kiesaus, in his recently published book "The Home of Economy Story," wrote about the store's hard times and triumphs.

"It has always fought its way back," Strandell says. "If there was a Purple Heart for businesses, Home of Economy would be a decorated hero."

And Jean, as much as anyone, was instrumental in its success, he said.

"She was the most meticulous and most exact person that I have ever known," Strandell said. "She was very accurate in everything, from her finances to her grammar and her dress; she was the perfect specimen."

While her husband, Bob, was the entrepreneurial spirit and the face of the company until his death in 1984, Jean watched the bottom line - in the store's early days, keeping money in an old cigar box.

"She was the person behind him who dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's," Strandell said.

Former UND president Tom Clifford, who'd known Kiesau for 50 years, said he admired her optimistic spirit. That she decided to rebuild after the 1987 fire proved that, he said. A decade later, when the flood hit she proved it again as apart of a business redevelopment task force that he chaired, he said. "She had the resolve to go ahead and make something out of it and not treat it like a total disaster."


Store closed

Jean and Bob also founded the successful Mid-States Distributing Co., which today provides more than 700 independent stores in the U.S. and Canada the opportunity to pool their buying power to compete with larger chain stores.

Jean continued to serve as president of the store and its holdings after her husband's death.

Mike Raymond, a manager at Home of Economy in Grand Forks and Jean's nephew, probably summed her up best.

"She was a classy lady," he said.

Raymond said the store would be closed all day Monday, the day of Jean's funeral. It will reopen again at 8 a.m. Tuesday, he said.

Modest beginning

The oldest of nine children, Jean was born Sept. 14, 1914, in Arvilla, N.D. Her family lived briefly in Brantford, N.D., and New Rockford, N.D., before settling down in 1923 in East Grand Forks.


Jean would meet her husband while she was a bookkeeper for the Montgomery Ward store in Grand Forks. Bob was a new assistant manager that just moved in from Billings, Mont. They were married July 14, 1934, after a year of dating.

The Kiesaus started what would become Home of Economy in an old shop in Thief River Falls almost 70 years ago. The business got started by the sale of a small supply of used tires.

In March 1940, the couple acquired a used tire store in a rundown house on South Fourth Street in downtown Grand Forks near the present-day courthouse. The house is no longer standing today.

At the time, the store was called Economy Wholesale Supplies, and it stocked used tires and used parts. During the next two decades, the store expanded rapidly, adding furniture and sporting goods to its merchandise

Pioneering leader

In 1961, the store moved to a new location on North Washington Street with the name Home of Economy. It remained on that site until the 1987 fire, after which a new building was constructed.

Home of Economy, under Jean's leadership, is remembered as one of the few stores to stay open to provide recovery items after the Flood of 1997.

Though she never sought the spotlight, Jean was known for her civic leadership, friends say.


City Council President Hal Gershman, another business leader in town, said Jean was a pioneering businesswoman in an era when there were few women in leadership posts in the community.

She was the first woman president of the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce and, in 1986, she was elected the first woman president of the North Dakota retailers association.

Gershman also remembers serving on the post-flood task force on business redevelopment with Jean.

"She was very genteel," he said. "She would make her feelings known, but in a very nice way."

Smiles and


Former Grand Forks Mayor Mike Polovitz said he'll never forget Jean's smile, which he saw every time they met.

"She was a personal friend," he said. "Whenever we greeted each other, I would always thank her for having that store on the north end . . . it saved a lot of gas for me. I didn't bother checking anywhere else; it was always the first place I looked."


Others said Jean was an avid UND Fighting Sioux fan and was devoted to her church, Mendenhall Presbyterian Church in East Grand Forks, where she sang in the choir for 66 years.

Strandell said it took him more than a year to research information and to do interviews for his book; much of it was done with Jean.

"There were no records available; they were either destroyed in the fire at the business or in her home by the flood - we did it all by memory," he said.

Strandell said the modest Jean shook off several requests over the years to write the book before she finally agreed to it.

"But if there was ever a story that needed to be recorded, this is the one," he said.

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