Column: There's a sale on Worthington's 10th Street!WORTHINGTON — Macy’s department store in downtown St. Paul — St. Paul’s last downtown department store — has hired a liquidator. Macy’s will be emptied and closed forever by the time a new summer settles over Minnesota.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Macy’s department store in downtown St. Paul — St. Paul’s last downtown department store — has hired a liquidator. Macy’s will be emptied and closed forever by the time a new summer settles over Minnesota. Some St. Paul residents are troubled. They imagine their city’s downtown will “die” with no department store. Longtime Worthington residents know this anguish. At one time there were three big department stores in downtown Worthington. Then there were none. Sioux Falls — oh, a host of American cities — had the same experience.
Worthington’s original department store was the Torrance store at the corner of 10th Street and Second Avenue. The Torrance brothers — two of them — were Vermont veterans of the Civil War. They came to Worthington by chance; Worthington was still a bud unfolding beside the railroad track when the Torrances arrived, looking for opportunity. They built a grain warehouse before they built the two-story, brick department store on main street. They called it The Big Store.
Through all its years, the Big Store offered the most varied stock of any of Worthington’s department store ventures. You could buy a woman’s hat or a bunch of bananas, a man’s suit and necktie or 100 pounds of potatoes.
On Armistice Day 1920, the last Torrance — Dick Torrance, who lived in a house still standing at 417 10th St. — Dick Torrance sold his pioneer store to the Silverberg brothers, who were unknown to Worthington but who were building a small department store chain in Iowa. The Big Store became Silverberg’s. Silverberg’s: The Home of the Farmer.
Harry Sowles was a Worthington native, a sharp guy and a WHS football star who graduated in the late 1920s. The Silverbergs soon made Harry their manager, and he remained with the store through the rest of his working life. Very many people believed Silverberg’s was Harry Sowles’ store. Harry involved himself deeply in Worthington promotions — he was perennial chairman of the first Turkey Days — and Silverberg’s was a busy place, even in bitter Februarys.
Then, one Easter morning in the 1960s, Silverberg’s burned. The space was never filled by another building. The Long Branch erected a high wooden fence and developed a beer garden on the site. There is nothing to suggest there ever was a big store on that busy corner. But indeed there was.
Down the block, in the space where Deb Vander Kooi opened her original Main Street Kids, the Wolff brothers, who also were developing a small Iowa department store chain, bought a property which was originally a main street garage and service center. Robert Wolff came to oversee the transformation and to open the new store: Wolff’s, Outfitters for the Family.
Robert Wolff was promotion-minded. He developed tickling full-page ads in the Daily Globe every year on George Washington’s birthday with the theme of, “We cannot tell a lie.” (“These shoes have been around our store so long we can’t bear to look at them any more — they are yours for half-price.”) In the late 1930s, Robert Wolff brought Robert Wadlow to Worthington to stand on the back of a truck on 10th Street outside the Wolff store to sell overalls. Robert Wadlow, who stood at 8 feet, 11 inches, is still believed to be the world’s tallest human.
Habicht’s, Worthington’s third department store (or first, depending upon which way you are driving), was at a site adjoining the Thompson Hotel. Habicht’s was founded by E.F. Habicht, who came to operate the store with his son, Graydon, and his daughter, Ruth. Habicht’s was women’s wear on the left, men’s wear on the right as you entered. Habicht’s also sold overalls, but of the three downtown department stores Habicht’s merchandise was the most up-scale.
A curious thing happened. On a summer Friday afternoon with people along the streets and sidewalks through all the downtown, a fire broke out in Habicht’s basement. Every fireman and every piece of fire equipment Worthington had was on the scene but the Habicht store could not be saved.
The Daily Globe in that time published five days a week, Monday through Friday. The Friday story of the spectacular Habicht’s fire, witnessed by hundreds, was in Monday’s edition. That was when the newspaper became a six-day-a-week publication.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.