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Retail Stores Of The Past
After a year in the crockery business with H. W. Allen, Christian F. Henry sold his interest in that business and formed a partnership with Henry Stern. They opened a clothing store in the circa 1857 Richardson Building at 201 West State Street at Wyman Street under the name of Blue Front Clothing House.
C. F. Henry would relocate his clothing store to the Stern Building at the northeast corner of West State and Main Streets, (211-213 West State Street) in 1881. Opening as the Golden Eagle Clothing House the store would become C. F. Henry Clothing House by 1889. His store occupied all three floors and basement of the building. The basement was filled with the largest line of leather goods and trunks in Rockford. They handled several well-known makes of goods, such as Hartmann’s Trunks, which won first prize at the Panama-Pacific Exposition for wardrobe trunks. The first floor was occupied by men’s suits and furnishings, including gloves, hats, shirts, ties, etc. They also had a large shoe department in the rear of the first floor. The second floor was occupied by the boys department which carried a large and complete stock of boys’ things. This department had fifteen outside windows which gave perfect daylight to show goods. The stores offices were also located on this floor. The third floor held wall cabinets for raincoats, dress suits, etc. The floor had two large stockrooms for their reserve supply of merchandise and a large well ventilated tailor shop.
The building was remodeled in the late 1800's to update the appearance and add showroom windows on the ground floor Main Street side as shown in the above picture. After C. F. Henry closed his store in 1920 many other businesses would occupy this building over the years including Simon Drug Store, Vogel & Wallen Clothing, Kepner's Shoes and after an extensive remodeling of the exterior - Busch Jewelers. This building still stands at the corner of State and Main Streets, clad in a peach color Art Deco veneer. More info on C. F. Henry can be found the People of Interest section of this website.
Henry Wallach came to Rockford in 1855 and opened a store on the corner of Main and Elm Streets under the Holland House Hotel, at the time the most desirable location in the city. A year later Henry’s brother, David Wallach would purchase Henry’s interest in the business, and partnered with his brother in law Isaac Bacharach and together they formed the D. Wallach and Company clothing merchants. They would soon move to a building at the corner of State and Main Streets in a building newly constructed by H. W. Loomis, but this soon proved to be too small. After the Winnebago House on the opposite corner burned to the ground on March 17, 1860, Wallach would purchase the land and erect a building known as the Wallack Block in 1866 and relocate their store to this building the same year. While the D. Wallach and Company occupied the ground floor, the Rock River Insurance Company was an upstairs tenant of the building. After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Wallach would soon close the Rockford store and move to Chicago where he could take advantage of the clothing business in a time of need. He became successful in that city. The building was later purchased by Andrew Ashton.
Andrew Ashton came from Parish, New York where he operated a general store for five years before moving to Durand, where he ran a successful retail store from 1860-1878. He set his sights on the much larger city of Rockford and would relocate his Ashton's Dry Good Store to 301-303 West State Street at the northwest corner of State and Main Streets in 1878 in the Wallach Block Building. Ashton would rent two storefronts in the Wallach Block eventually buying the entire building. This was right in the heart of Rockford's transportation "loop". In 1904 he would construct the first steel framed "skyscraper" in Rockford on the same site at a cost of $100,000. The building soaring six stories in height had a few people refusing to step into such a structure as they thought it might be unsafe. This store was also the largest department store in Rockford at the time. The store occupied the basement and three of the six upper floors. The fourth through sixth floors were leased out to other businesses with the majority being office tenants. The officers of the company were Andrew Ashton, president; Julius A. Penney, vice president; Mollie M. Ashton, secretary and treasurer, and Miss J. Russel, manager.
The Ashton store had many departments such as a curtain department shown above, it had a grocery, carpeting, fancy dry goods, dress goods, cloaks, suits, furs, millinery, ladies furnishings departments etc., in fact just about anything and everything you would expect to find in an up to date establishment could be found at Ashton’s.
A display window at Ashton's Dry goods Company featuring Rockford made Burson Hosiery
On August 19, 1910 Andrew Ashton passed away and the store was purchased by his son Willard H. Ashton. The growth of the business by 1921 necessitated a need for more room. The Ashton Dry Goods Company decided to expand into the rest of the six story building as rapidly as was possible. They immediately took over the fourth floor and installed a barber shop and post office for the convenience of their customers and extensively remodeled the rest of the store.
In August 1924 plans were announced for the transfer of ownership of the Ashton Dry Good store from Willard H. Ashton to S. J. Lightman, president of Decatur Dry Goods Company. Mr. Lightman and his wife would move to Rockford in order to manage the store. Lightman would keep the current staff and salesforce and would bring in new merchandise, but would make one other major change in the store’s policy - no credit, cash only.
The Lightman Dry Goods Company store would hold a grand opening on October 2, 1924. The store would eliminate the offering of credit to its customers, something that Ashton’s had in place for years. Lightman’s stated that they bought for cash and only sold for cash, therefore since they bought for less they also sold for less. The store opened to much fanfare and did a tremendous amount of business but the store would once again soon change hands. After only owning the store for three months S. J. Lightman would retire from ownership of the store citing health reasons. A syndicate that operated stores in many states would purchase the assets from Mr. Lightman in late November 1924.
An eastern syndicate that operated stores in several states took over ownership of the Lightman’s Dry Goods Store at the corner of West State and Main Streets in November 1924 and renamed it to The Rockford Dry Goods Company. L. B. Nathan, general manager of the store under the new management said at the time, “Being a progressive store in a progressive community such as Rockford, we have chosen the city name for our retail department store. We believe this name will become at once a household word in this city by extensive newspaper advertising, mail announcements, bill boards and road markers. For the next ten years all of their advertisements included the phrase, “Formerly Ashton’s”. He also promised that new departments would be added to the store making it the most complete department store in Illinois outside of Chicago.
Rockford Dry Goods as it appeared in 1944. A Bob Anderson photo
A major remodeling project of the Rockford Dry Goods Company building began in 1949 with the installation of three new elevators and the remodeling of the fifth and sixth floors. In 1951 construction workers began a floor by floor interior remodeling project, starting at the top floor and working down. Included in the work was construction of a new stairway, re-wiring of the entire store, general remodeling of all floors, construction of new showcases, as well as repainting and redecorating with soft pastel colors. In 1955 the exterior of the building was modified with the removal of the bay windows and cornices and sheathed in modern aluminum paneling and glass.
Rockford Dry Goods would open a store in 1960 at the Meadow Mart Shopping Center in Loves Park. In 1969 Rockford Dry Goods was succeeded by The Rockford Store. After being a retail anchor on State and Main for ninety six years the store closed in 1974. The building would survive for another ten years but by 1983 it was mostly vacant.
The former Rockford Dry Goods Company Building and two neighboring buildings on West State were demolished and replaced with a 300 car parking deck with a bunker style restaurant below. That space is currently occupied by the Rockford Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Seidler-Shanhouse Building was built at the corner of North Main and Mulberry streets by the Main and Mulberry Building Corporation which was organized to finance the project with Charles Shanhouse as president, Harry Shanhouse as vice president and George E. Seidler as secretary-treasurer. The 66 by 156 foot building was designed by Rockford architects Peterson and Johnson, with the Security Building Company as general contractor. Electric wiring was done by Wilson Electric with heating and plumbing by Swords Brothers. The cost of the building was $500,000. Although the building was two stories tall, its foundation was constructed to carry ten additional stories to be built as demand for space warranted.
Charles R. Walgreen, Sr. a native of Dixon, Illinois would move to Chicago in 1893 in pursuit of opening a pharmacy. He would achieve his goal in 1901, by 1919 he operated 20 stores and in 1929 there were 525 Walgreen stores. Walgreen would open a store in this newly constructed building at the corner of North Main and Mulberry Streets in Rockford in April 1929. Walgreen Drug occupied the corner store at 134 North Main Street. The store featured a marble soda fountain and luncheonette counter 50 feet long. The store employed 24 persons, including waitresses, soda jerks, cooks, clerks and pharmacists. It also featured a cigar and magazine stand and a fresh candy counter with candy shipped fresh daily from their own candy kitchen, and an extensively stocked pharmacy.
Other tenants in the Seidler-Shanhouse Building included the Golde Clothes shop on the entire front second floor section of the building. The store was one of the largest distributors of $22.50 suits and topcoats in the country, all merchandise was sold by the shop at that one price. The Feltman and Curme Shoe store was just south of the Walgreen store while the Nina Hextor Millinery and ladies wear store occupied a space on the Mulberry Street side of the structure just west of the Walgreen Drug Store. In the basement an amusement center and bowling alley occupied the space and was known as the Rockford Recreation Center.
It would not be until 1956 when the Walgreen chain opened a second Rockford location at 2438 Charles Street in the Rockford Plaza Shopping Center located at Charles Street and Rockford Avenue. The downtown location closed around 1965. Today Walgreens has over ten locations in Rockford.
The Seidler-Shanhouse Building is commonly referred to these days as the Trekk Building after a former tenant; the vacant building is awaiting reuse.
Samuel Henry Kress acquired a stationery and novelty shop in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania in 1887 and three years later he bought a similar business in Wilke-Barre, Pennsylvania. Kress established the first of his low price chain stores in Memphis, Tennessee in 1898 and having confidence in the south he opened twelve more stores in the area in the next four years. He was one of the pioneer merchants who early realized the extensive benefits to the customer from economical distribution of merchandise. He started to build the Kress idea of selling only the best merchandise. As the chain expanded throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Kress stores became a familiar sight on "Main Street" in hundreds of cities and towns.
Kress set its sights on Rockford in late 1935 when the company signed a 50 year lease on the Orpheum Theater building which was a two story structure with a frontage of 66 feet on North Main Street. The lease was obtained from the owners of the property, George D. and Thomas B. Tullock. When the lease became effective on July 1, 1937, the Orpheum Theater, one of Rockford’s first vaudeville houses and an amusement center for more than a quarter of a century passed out of existence and was demolished. In addition to the theater the property housed a jewelry store, a camera shop and the Palace Shoe repair shop.
Kress envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape for years to come. The Kress chain was known for the fine architecture of its buildings, the Rockford location built by the Security Building Company at a cost of $103,000 was no exception. The new two story 30,000 square foot Art Deco style building located at 116-118 North Main Street was built by the Kress Company chain where it established one of its signature 5 to 25 cent stores. Every known improvement for serving customers efficiently and comfortably was incorporated into this truly modern store.
The new Kress store took its place in Rockford opening on May 13, 1938 and became a Rockford shopping staple for many residents. In 1964 the Kress chain of stores was sold to new owners who and started closing downtown stores in favor of moving them to new shopping centers that offered easy access and free parking. The Rockford location remained downtown however at a time when many downtown merchants were making an exodus to outlying shopping area and would close its doors for good in 1974.
The entire Kress chain ceased to exist in 1986, the same year that the building was purchased by New American Theater and remodeled into a 282 seat live performance venue and was their home for years until financial difficulties shut them down. Other theater groups performed here over the years. Recently the building was acquired by the Rockford Public Library for use as a multipurpose center and renamed the Nordlof Center.
Millionaire industrialist P. A. Peterson had purchased all of the buildings on the north side of East State Street between Third Street and the alley by 1908, it contained a variety of old buildings from when Rockford was just a village, they had become eyesores. Peterson would start construction on a large five story building in 1910 designed for a department store after a long term lease was signed by two enterprising young business men named Carl and Milton Hess. At the time Carl was an office manager at Hillman’s Department Store in Chicago and Milton owned a clothing establishment in Oshkosh, Wisconsin before moving to Rockford to operate the store. They were the sons of Emanuel Hess, a wealthy retired Chicago grain merchant.
When word got out that Carl and Milton Hess were going to open the largest department store in Rockford and one of the largest in the state outside of Chicago, people said it would fail as it was built too far out of downtown and nobody would shop there.
Hess Brothers store under construction as it appeared on August 26,1910.Photo courtesy of the Rockford Public Library History Department
Construction workers on the site of Hess Brothers stop to pose for this photograph 1910. Photo courtesy of the Rockford Public Library History Department
The Hess Brothers “Big Store” was thrown open to the public at 516-528 East State Street in the newly constructed 19,000 square foot, five story renaissance revival style P. A. Peterson Building in 1911, built by Rockford contractor Gust Holm. With Kishwaukee Street stretching directly to the south before it intersected with East State and Third Street easy access was provided from all parts of the city, the store was an instant success.
Photo courtesy of Dave Blake
In 1914 The Blake Company would complete installation of three awnings at the Hess Brothers store which measured 47 feet each in length and were claimed to be the largest store awnings in use by any retail firm in Rockford at the time. They also installed several smaller awnings on the Third Street side of the building.
In 1920 Mrs. P. A. Peterson would take possession of the store and operate it until 1923 when A. Leath & Company who operated the furniture department on the third and fourth floors of the building took over the business. Leath would operate the store until 1928 when they would sell the Hess Brothers "Big Store” to Block & Kuhl, a Peoria based chain of department stores. Out of the twenty Block & Kuhl stores in the chain, it was the only one to retain its original name, perhaps because they had another Block & Kuhl location just west of the river in the Talcott Building that opened a year earlier in 1927.
Hess Brothers Department Store - Carl Hess, P. A. Peterson, Milton Hess, G. M. Olson
Chicago's Carson Pirie Scott and Company would purchase the Block & Kuhl department store chain in 1959 but the Hess Brothers store still retained its name although for only a short period of time as the store was closed four years later in 1963 so Carson’s could concentrate its business on its Talcott Building location probably due to several factors, modern transportation and the cost of remodeling the aging store. The building stood vacant for ten years falling into further decay, the once elegant P. A. Peterson Building was razed in 1973. The Fran Kral car dealership was later located on the former Hess Brothers Site. Fran Kral has since closed its dealership and the building is awaiting reuse.
In 1932 he was dissatisfied with his job in a foundry and decided to try his luck in another field. He would open a radio repair business on Broadway in an old coal office, his name was Al Mera. When Al first opened the shop service was his only business. There was nothing to sell and no money to buy it. He was joined a short time later by brothers Carl and Pat who would work after school and weekends in the small office that measured about 10 feet square.
They eventually saved enough money and would move to a storefront at 1126 Broadway in 1936 and the business grew from strictly repair to one that sold a wide variety of appliances. Meanwhile Pat took a full time job with Spengler Loomis, making automatic pencil sharpeners after he quit high school. He continued his part time affiliation with the radio shop until World War II when he served in the Army.
In 1944 after his stint in the Army, Pat used his mustering out pay to have the business remodeled. In the late 1940’s television sales and service were added. In the meantime, the name changed several times. First it was Al’s Radio Service, then it became Broadway Radio and Electric Shop, then Broadway Radio and Appliances, and finally it became Mera’s Radio and Television Company, when they decided to discontinue their appliance business and specialize in the radio and television business.
The store eventually was passed down to Pat’s son Gene. Sadly the longtime family run business would close its doors on October 1, 2015.
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