F.W. Woolworth Company

Anyone growing up in Marion from the 1930’s into the 1970’s has to have fond memories of the old five and dime store on the west side of the Marion square called the F.W. Woolworth Company store. From its opening in March of 1927 to its last day on December 31, 1973, the mere mention of the store conjures up very specific smells for this author. I vividly remember those warm summer days when just a stroll past the big wooden, open double doors allowed the fragrance of their candies, chocolates and nuts to stream out onto the sidewalk inviting one in to sample their goods, like a mermaid calling sailors to the reef.

In a day before superstores, entering Woolworth’s in the 1950’s was like entering a dream land of infinite possibilities to a child, with their large selection of candy, toys and seemingly everything from scoop to nuts. The creaking of their old hardwood floors, the look and style of their massive wooden display cases and the roar of fans attempting to ventilate the store in the days before air conditioned buildings.

The store almost met its demise when a fire occurred on June 24, 1935, the first year of manager V.A. Jones management. A fire which broke out in a store room on the second floor caused the evacuation of Burkhart’s Shoe Store, later Albright’s Clothing, located on the corner of main and the square and also Campbell’s Drug Store, later Park’s Pharmacy, which sat on the south side of Woolworths. At the time, the state’s attorney was occupying offices above Woolworths and Dr. M.W. Ballance, a dentist, and Dr. Alonzo Baker, M.D., had offices over the drug store. The stock in Woolworths was considered a total loss in the fire due to smoke damage.

The store’s space most of us remember as “L” shaped with an entrance/exit accessible from W. Main Street didn’t come about until around the early 1960’s when the F.W. Woolworth Company purchased the additional space.

The following story written by Homer Butler in his Glances at Life editorial series of the Marion Daily Republican summarizes the entirety of articles related to the closing that I have found so far, as follows:

One of the things which will make 1974 different from the year that is coming to an end will be the absence of the F W. Woolworth & Co. store which has teen a landmark on the west side of the Marion Public Square since March of 1927.

In an announcement last October, R. C. Ladd, regional vice-president for Woolworth, said requirements of efficiency and economic operations make closing necessary.

Although companies don’t exactly approve of expansion on their remarks, the brief announcement indicated the store, which was once something pretty grand for a town the size of Marion, had fallen casualty to changes in merchandising plans.

A visit yesterday to the store found the employees in friendly conversation with old customers as they presided over the final days of the establishment which had been home to them for periods ranging up to 28 years. Five sales ladies who work on the floor of store have accumulated a total of 129 years’ service.

All of them I talked to expressed regret at closing of the store, although for some of them it only meant the arrival of time for the retirement they had already planned.

“I think it’s sad for the town said Mrs. Louie C. Hendrickson who came to the store for her first job 25 years ago and is not sure whether she will retire or take other employment.

“I’ll miss the customers”, said Mrs. Carl Baysinger whose 23 years at the store make her the youngest of the group in years of employment.

Mrs. Ralph Underwood plans to retire after 28 years’ service which began here in 1945, although she had previously worked in Taylorville in 1934. Equal to her in years worked in the Marion store is Mrs. John Black who was not on duty at the time of my visit.

Mrs. Muriel Benton who is retiring when the store closes, first went to work there while in high school, and although her employment has not been continuous since she began in 1935, she has been a Woolworth employee more than 25 years and had planned retirement prior to the death of her husband Frank during the last year.

All of the women had nice things to say about their employer and expressed satisfaction in their work, for most of them it was their first job.

Mrs. Ronald Albright, who with her husband operates Albright’s men’s clothing store next door, and who is a former Woolworth employee, commented that the store had given many Marion girls their first jobs in the business world. Scores of young women have found employment there over the years in the store which at one time had 25 employees.

Among the former co-workers who have dropped into the store in these last days was Mrs. Nellie Mausey who spent 16 years as an employee. Another was Mrs. Vera (Wolland) Smith, one of the original employees of the store, who is now retired from the Central Illinois Public Service Co.

Charles Moore, who came here last January 25, 1973 from St. Louis as store manager, is awaiting transfer to another position with the Woolworth Company.

The original staff of Woolworth sales people when the store opened in 1927 included Misses Gwendolyn Sullins, Ruth Peterson, Marie Patterson, Edna Swafford, Ida Mae Simmons, Lillian Baumgartner, Geneva Norwood, Lucille Weber, Clara Zoller, Vera Wolland, Ruth Brooks, Lena Chamness, Stella Chamness, Pauline Turner, Nannie Hartman, Mildred Schweitzer, Fay Milligan and Mrs. Hazel Halbin. The first manager was W. H. Warden.

Virgil A. Jones came to Marion as manager of the store in 1935 and held that position until his retirement in 1971 at the conclusion of 47 years with the Woolworth Company.

“I hate to see it go”, Jones commented at the prospect of the store’s closing.

But he said discontinuance of the local outlet was inevitable because of its small size.

“It wasn’t that the company found anything wrong with the community,” he said, pointing out that the store’s floor space of 7000 feet was in sharp contrast with its 57,000 square feet of space at Mt. Vernon and 90,000 square feet in its recently opened store at Paducah, Kentucky.”

After the closing of the dime store on the last day of 1973, the vacant store was used as a haunted house in 1974 by the Marion Jaycees. In 1975, the building on the square was purchased by Wayland Sims for use as a business named Distinctive Interiors from the heirs of the Walker estate and the West Main Street business from Trevor and Gordon Cox, sons of the late Mr. and Mrs. Clarence C. Cox.  

Between 1985 and 1990, Distinctive Interior moved to the newly developing west side of Marion and the building was occupied by Simmons Furniture Store.

Sam’s Notes: Photos of the Woolworth building, especially front on and interiors, are rare so I have posted what I have found. If anyone has any photos available, please share.

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(Data extracted from the Marion Daily Republican, December 1973; Marion City Directories; compiled by Sam Lattuca 11/03/20130)

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