Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Remembering J.C. Penneys.

In light of the store closing this past weekend, my mom wrote up some of her recollections from working at the J.C. Penneys store in Ashland in the 1960s-70s and submitted it to the Daily Press, thinking they might excerpt part of it and run it on the Letters to the Editor page...instead, she wound up on the front page. It's available on their website for the next week or two, but I thought I'd post it here for posterity...


End of an era.

This January, our J.C. Penneys store will become just a memory. I’d like to share some stories from the early years at this location, when the store had recently relocated to their brand-new building on 4th Avenue West.

Yes, these were the Sixties – a time of hot rod cars and young people making “runs” on Second Street, as we called Main Street in those days. Folks still shopped locally, both in small surrounding towns and in Ashland. A trip to Duluth was a rare event…there was no Miller Hill Mall. We had the Marathon Paper Mill, the LSDP Power Company, and DuPont was busy making dynamite over in Barksdale – both for the ongoing war and the mining in Minnesota. These were our major employers, and our town was full of small businesses from East End to West End. Hundreds of small family-owned dairy farms still operated, and many of our immigrant grandparents were still with us. Iron ore and coal boats came in to our docks, and trains ran in all directions. Ashland had a whole different look and feel.

I had been working in Milwaukee after graduating from Ondossagon High School, running a drill press in a factory. I wanted to live back “up North” so in 1965 I found a clerking job at Mary Povaser’s The Vogue. This wasn’t my kind of store, so when a friend named Kaye Krietzman told me she was leaving her window trimmer job across the street at the Penneys store, we decided I should apply for it. I wandered over there one day, and honestly don’t even remember having a real interview. The store manager Mr. Weix was leaving in a week and a new manager was coming. Tom Jenkins was the assistant manager, and he said “start anytime.”

The same week I started, the new manager came to town. Mr. Anderson stayed for decades, raising a daughter and many sons in Ashland. He and his wife Lois were very involved in the community and their church, and he always really cared about the store. Everyone knew “Andy.”

I soon discovered my new job involved a few other tasks, such as all company signing, in-store displays, making handmade rack signs on a 1930s-style typesetter in the basement, newspaper and radio ads, and even helping Georgie Deeth in the stock room. With a special platform ladder to haul all over the store, we were well-decorated with lots of banners and decorations for every season – all hung off the ceiling light fixtures. It helped to be young! And what a great new store it was, with full windows across the front and around the corner.

Having grown up on a farm, Penneys merchandise was more what I was used to. In those days they sold work boots, barn boots, house dresses, aprons, men’s work sets, bib overalls, coveralls, overshoes, grandma dresses, work gloves, long underwear, girdles and nylons. Fabrics and yarn were available, and trendy things like bell-bottom pants, miniskirts and even wigs all came in, then went away as they went out of fashion again. Ladies dressed up a lot more then – gloves, handbags and matching pumps were the style.

Mr. Anderson was never shy about promoting his store. One autumn he convinced Glendenning Truck Lines to park one of their semis by the store, and got the paper mill to donate rolls of paper. I painted “Here Comes Penneys’ Coat Caravan” on the paper and hung the banners on the truck.

We had fashion shows in the front windows from time to time. Gary LaPean, our radio personality, would emcee, and the models would parade in the windows while folks watched from out on the sidewalk. Maxwell Street Days were huge events with street dancing and entertainment. Moonlight Madness in the fall meant all the clerks downtown came to work in their fanciest (or funniest) sleepwear. Good times.

Ashland had an Irish following, many of whom met at Woolworths’ lunch counter for coffee each morning. Mr. Boyle from Woolworths, Mr. Flynn from Wards, and Tom Tibbitts got some St. Patrick’s Day parades going – snow or no snow, down our Second Street.

There was no Thursday night shopping then – it was on Friday nights. On Friday evenings, our town was full of people, and the police directed cars turning at Vaughn Avenue – this was a major social evening in Ashland with people visiting on the streets and enjoying ice cream at the Pic.

There were no credit cards at first. A few years later, Penneys decided to start their own J.C. Penney card. A contest was held to see which stores in the district could sign up the most applications. I took my share and more to my favorite hangouts, Andy’s Tap and Sketch Korner, and signed up many friends that way. Needless to say, I wonder how many were ever approved! The catalog department also came in after a few years. Suddenly you could order just about anything – even riding lawn mowers and appliances. I often think about that loading dock behind our Penneys store…what a million dollar view! While most other stores seem to have delivery areas in alleyways facing brick walls, here we had an amazing view of Chequamegon Bay and beyond. We left that big door open all the time – there was no air conditioning early on, and this was our fresh air source. People didn’t steal so much back then, and we never worried about it being open. I remember watching weather come over the islands, boats going back and forth, fishermen out on the ice in winter, trains running along the shoreline, and especially the pulp rafts coming in to the pulp hoist, where our marina is now. Amazing sights.

We could still smoke pretty much everywhere. Most stores provided ashtrays. Ours were mainly in the shoe department and the front lobby – folks could sit, chat and smoke. Times have changed! But, then, we smoked in hospitals back then, too. Morgan Meyers at the Walgreens store was the first merchant to quit selling cigarettes downtown, I remember. We were shocked – but he was wise.

Mike Boehm was our janitor. Mike took his job very seriously and was happy to work there. He kept his daily routine with the front awnings, the sidewalks and all his cleaning chores.

Mr. Anderson knew, as we all do, that life is different up around here. Our seasons last longer – especially winter. So when he’d get wind of a district manager coming to Ashland and we had merchandise out that he thought needed to sell longer, we would scurry about packing it in boxes and hiding it in the basement. After the district manager left, out it could come again. And there we’d have it – our long underwear still out for sale in May… there were no barcodes or computers to track every item back then!

When Mr. Penney died in 1971, we decided to drape black fabrics over his wall portraits, and we had an afternoon off. Mr. Penney believed in the Golden Rule, even calling one of his first stores by that name. We had real friends with our coworkers, getting to know each others’ families over the years. We had wonderful picnics at the park, wedding and baby showers, and bake sales in the lobby. The windows were often decorated to display 4-H, Scouting and charity themes. Mr. Anderson let me bring all the ABC Raceway trophies and pictures every summer to display when the racing season ended. The Vietnam War was going on through most of these years, and I made large collages for the windows with newspaper clippings glued on to show the political unrest of the times and used them as backdrops. This would never fly in today’s corporate America! The windows were allowed to have hometown personality, color and be well-lit, not like the somber black walls in recent years.

In all, I worked in that store for over twenty years, coming back two more times while raising my family. The changes, while mostly good, have also made it a much different place. But it’s the people who worked there and shopped there who made it such a fun place to be. You can’t beat a small town for getting to know folks. But what really made working in those windows, on that busy downtown corner all those years was being able to watch the people and events of our town. Everyone remembers someone who worked at Penneys. So many long-term folks, and countless short-term, part-time and student helpers. I try to remember some, knowing I’ve forgotten many:

Esther Swanson, Leona Greene, Esther Magnuson, Hildur Thibeault, Jerry LaGuire, Lil Beauto, Kay Gurske, Anita Lindberg, Vera Forsberg, Gen Petrik, Madge Houle, Mary Ann Hedlof, Dee Fresacher, Adeline Arnold, Lois Kirklewski, Mary Lou Huber, Lorraine Kemppainen, Mary Stelmach, Dorothy Stemm, Lily Hegg, Betty Martino, Lil Tolonen, Rosie Oschner, Nina Fox, Elsie Mannisto, Joan Samuelson, Penny Beloat, Barb Ottman, Jerry Sukula, Gloria Suminski, Sue Wolniakowski, Sue Jenicek, Carol Samuelson, Fran Benson, Dori Grage, Louise Manydeeds, Rae DeMars, Linda Stone.

And, loyal to the end, Toni Callies and Joni Bratley, who I’m sure will be there to lock those lobby doors one last time. Thanks for the memories…


peshtigo65 said...

The "Mr. Weix" mentioned briefly in your post was my grandfather's younger brother. Melvin Weix managed the Ashland store while my Grandpa. Walter Weix, managed the store in Shawano. They both grew up in Antigo. I have memories of going into the Shawano store when it had a balcony where my Grandpa could keep his eye on the whole store, and there was a system of little containers (I remember them as rockets on a wire) that clerks on the floor used to send customers' cash up to the balcony where the change would be counted and sent back to the floor. Thank you for your post. I will send it to my mother, who remembers everything about these stores. She even took my brother and I to meet Mr. Penney in Milwaukee at the opening of the new Southgate store, in what must have been the late 1960s.
Walter Bardenwerper
Washington DC

Mary said...

Thanks so much for leaving your comment, Walter! That's so neat that both your grandfather and great uncle managed two Penneys stores here in Wisconsin -- and it's very cool that you got to meet Mr. Penney, too! I wonder if he ever came this far north...?

Anyway, thanks again -- I'm going to pass your note on to my mom, too, I think she'll enjoy it! :-)


Carla Brandt said...

What a nice story. Brings back so many good memories of our small town. Simpler life.
I spent many hours there myself checking in with my Mother (Mary Ann Hdlof). You were so full of life. A fresh eye.I couldn't wait to see how you would decorate the window the next time.

Thank you again for the great memories,
Carla Hedlof Brandt

Mary said...

Thanks so much for your nice comment, Carla! I'll definitely pass it on to my mom. I remember your mom Mary Ann really well, too -- she and my mom were always gabbing away when she'd stop at the store when I was little. And I remember her time at the Ashland Arms, too -- my grandma also lived there until recently.