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Column: There were three of them, and Silverberg's was the biggest

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Jan. 15, 2005.

WORTHINGTON — Robert Raedeke was officiating at community Easter sunrise services at Memorial Auditorium. That was when I learned Silverberg’s burned the night before. It was stunning news. Silverberg’s was large in Worthington’s business community.

There were three of them — Habicht’s in the middle of the 300 block of 10th street, opposite the courthouse; Wolff’s, near the corner of 10th and Third Avenue; Silverberg’s, at the corner of 10th and Second Avenue.

Don’t neglect Montgomery-Ward or J.C. Penney. My word — Penneys is pushing 80 years on the Worthington retail scene. Penneys is one of the senior retail operations through all the region. But there were three that were counted local, homegrown department stores: Habicht’s, Wolff’s, Silverberg’s.

In circles I knew, Habicht’s had a reputation for being slightly upscale. Still, both Wolff ’s and Silverberg’s had top brands, top names from their time. Each leaned toward slightly different clienteles. Wolff’s slogan was, “Outfitters for the Family.” Silverberg’s was, “Home of the Farmer.” Silverberg’s was the largest — men’s clothing and accessories, women’s clothing and accessories, work clothing, casual clothing, dress clothing. White goods. Hats. Shoes. Groceries. Silverberg’s was the only one with a grocery department.

I thought of all this again on Monday when word came that Harry Sowles died. Silverberg’s was Harry Sowles career. There were some few who believed Harry’s name was Harry Silverberg.

Especially in his last years, Abe Silverberg was on the scene daily, from before the hour when the doors were unlocked until after closing. Abe was a short man and slight, gentle and altogether pleasant. But Abe always knew Harry was a manager. Harry was a product of Worthington, a graduate of Worthington High School. Football player and basketball player. Harry was outgoing, affable, sometimes irrepressible.

Harry was unfailingly well-groomed and well-dressed. Savvy. Harry kept the store.

In his column in the Daily Globe, Al Swanson did a tribute to Harry Sowles late last year. Al reminded that Harry was impatient with meetings.

Harry knew Worthington’s problems. He knew finding a parking place in the old downtown often was difficult, and he knew if someone found an empty stall in front of Habicht’s, especially on a cold afternoon, that someone probably would buy at Habicht’s, rather than make the block-and-a-half trek along 10th to Silverberg’s. There should be a meeting on downtown parking.

Still, Harry also was satisfied that if only everyone who did come through the doors could be persuaded to make a purchase, business would not be bad.

Harry spent essential hours in the store’s office, but his preferred place was just inside the door on the side nearest Second Avenue — the men’s side — where he could greet customers as they came.

Bob Vance was business manager for the Daily Globe through a long period. Bob and Harry, and also Bob Roos, worked together and with great satisfaction on Silverberg ads. Those were big ads, two full pages at the center, sometimes four full pages. The ads generated traffic. Silverberg’s was a busy place. “I’ll meet you on Silverberg’s corner.”

After the fire, there was hope, even expectation, that Silverberg’s would rebuild. It left a big hole, still not filled. Harry, who talked of many things, never talked a great deal about the decision to let Silverberg’s fade into memory. He knew retailing. Retailing was his life. He perhaps recognized as others could not that the day of the big department stores was nearing sunset — even Dayton’s, finally, would not survive. A new era was shaping.

In the very distant beginning — 1876, the year of Gen. Custer’s disaster — Silverberg’s was first. Well, it was not Silverberg’s then. It was Torrance’s. Henry Torrance opened a furniture store on that corner property and soon expanded the inventory to include groceries. Henry’s brother, F.A. Torrance, joined him.

It was 1892 when the brothers built the two-story brick building, 55 feet wide and 100 feet deep, in the modern style, with plate glass windows, and with the most extensive inventory of clothing, dry goods, bedding and groceries in the region. Torrances called it The Big Store. It was. It cost $12,000.

That was the building Harry Sowles came to know, in the time after the Silverberg brothers bought it from Dick Torrance, son of F.A. That building was Harry’s domain. He enjoyed many and many a cigar there, and he sold many and many suits of clothes.