If not for a fateful slide down a fire escape, downtown Oregon may have looked a lot different the past 46 years.
As the son of the fire chief and his school’s fire marshall, Orrin Bergey was called on to demonstrate how to slide down the fire escape at his high school when he broke his hip in the attempt. Recuperating at his parents’ boarding house, Bergey — with some time on his hands — struck up a conversation with a traveling watchmaker. Taking the man’s career advice, Bergey enrolled in the watchmaker’s college in Elgin, Ill., setting the family on a trajectory that has shaped the ensuing half-century.
After graduating, Orrin Bergey opened Bergey Jewelry in Mt. Horeb in January, 1951. All four of Orrin’s sons went into the industry, including Jeffrey, who opened Bergey Jewelry on Main Street in Oregon on Feb. 28, 1972. It was supposed to be temporary while he decided where he wanted to go.
“Forty-six years later, I’m still working on that one,” Jeffrey Bergey told the Observer. “When I grow up, maybe.”
Passing the tradition
While he’s busy deciding what he’ll do when he grows up, the business is passing on to the next generation.
Bergey Jewelry officially changed ownership on Jan. 15, passing to Jill Hoff, the Bergeys’ daughter. Hoff, whose sister Julie took over the Mt. Horeb store in 2006, has been working at her parents’ store off and on since 2002, though she’s been a presence at the Main Street shop for much longer.
“I never went to daycare, my mom would bring me in here,” Hoff told the Observer. “A lot of customers say they remember seeing me in the pack’n’play here.”
Hoff studied jewelry design and fabrication at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay after studying small business at Madison Area Technical College. She says she’s been planning to take over the store since she was a junior in high school when her then-boyfriend, now-husband Aaron Hoff asked her if she’d thought about it.
As for her dad, Jeffrey Bergey said he started thinking about Jill taking over since she first started working for the store. The family started serious talks about succession in 2015.
Hoff says she doesn’t plan any major changes to how the business will run, though she will upgrade the security system and change their logo to match the store in Mt. Horeb.
Changing the logo does not mean changing the sign above the storefront, which has been in place since sometime in the 1970s, when a team from UW Extension came in and advised Main Street businesses how they would have looked in the past.
“I was the only one who did what they said,” Jeffrey Bergey said with a laugh.
The storefront isn’t the only nod to the past in the store: The giant cash register that dominates the front counter was in Jill’s grandmother’s store when she opened it in the ‘50s or ‘60s, and the black floor safe dates to the same time, after Orrin Bergey saved it from the lumber yard that had planned to “dig a hole and bury it.”
The generational connections don’t end there. Like her mom before her, 3-month-old Tenley spends her days at the store, where her grandmother Sue Ellen can keep a close eye on her, just as she did with Tenley’s brother, Brayden, who is now 3, and her own children before that.
“All three of our kids were raised here,” Sue Ellen Bergey said, and she doesn’t see why it should be any different with her grandchildren.
Downtown Oregon looked a lot different in the early 1970s when the Bergeys moved in.
“Next door was a dime store,” Jeffrey recalled. “Where the Main Tap is, the hippies were making gorilla cookies. They were good. Where Ziggy’s is there was an old house that was the funeral parlor.”
The store underwent a major remodel in 1999, when they removed the old orange carpet and drop ceilings to reveal wooden floors and a tin ceiling. They Bergeys custom-made all the display cases in their garage at home with help from carpenter friends. Sue Ellen’s photo album shows evidence of three fires the team found when they were stripping the walls of one of the oldest buildings in Oregon.
Even though she’s transitioning to retirement, Sue Ellen makes clear she’ll still be around. “I’m the babysitter, I wait on customers,” she said. “I’ll help with everything else.”
For his part, Jeffrey still plans to work a couple of days a week in the store repairing the clocks and watches. But he’s looking forward to having more time to “monkey with the cars in the garage” and ride his bicycle when it gets nicer out.
“I’m working on a Model A I bought in 1967 ... when I was 15,” Bergey said. It doesn’t run yet, and he figures it’s time to start working on it.
Hoff estimates 75 percent of their business is from repeat customers her parents have built up over the years.
When asked about the secrets to his business’ longevity, his answer was deceptively simple. “You just have to try your best,” Jeffrey Bergey explained, “and give good customer service.”