clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Woolworth memories fading fast even at heart of the retail empire

Church historian Helen Fargo knows she should probably fix the error before it confuses anyone. As a self-anointed keeper of Woolworth's five-and-dime flame, Fargo already faces a demanding task in keeping alive his failing legacy in his hometown.

"Some of the older folks around here know about him," said Fargo, a septuagenarian and lifelong resident of this modest farming community 100 miles north of Syracuse. "But the children and the young people, they have no idea."No idea that Woolworth, the man who forever altered the retail landscape with his stores, was born in nearby Rodman, raised in Great Bend, and first got the notion for his revolutionary merchandising philosophy while working as a store clerk in Water-town.

"I was afraid it was the only way he'll be remembered here," said Fargo, who has gathered in the church archives a small collection of Woolworth's letters and other documents.

Not only did Woolworth spend $22,000 to build the church, he also set up a $20,000 trust fund that pays for the church's operation and upkeep to this day.

In his time, Woolworth provided the community with new sidewalks and maple trees to line the streets. He found jobs in his company for the jobless. At Christmas, Woolworth collected a gift list from the children in the church's Sunday school and filled it with toys from his stores.

But even as the last of Woolworth's once-omnipresent stores close across the country, so, too, is Woolworth's legacy disappearing in the county where he grew up.

The steeple-capped church, which Woolworth had dedicated in 1915 in memory of his parents, remains as one of the few visible traces of his legacy locally. His parents are buried in the nearby Sunnyside Cemetery, where their memorial is the tallest on the small lot.

"Like his stores, Woolworth is someone we have taken for granted," said Fred Rollins, director of the Jefferson County Historical Society. "Yet Woolworth was so much Americana."

The farm where Woolworth grew up has long since disappeared; even its location is unknown to all but the village's oldest residents. A collapsed, rotting wooden barn frame overgrown by forest is all that remains on the spot.

In Watertown, the company's 76-year-old flagship store - where its annual meetings were held until 1966 - now sits as a crumbling, half-vacant office building in foreclosure.

The store that replaced it - and now bears the sign, "Birthplace of 5 and 10 cent business" - itself is in the final stages of a going-out-of-business sale.

"You can really feel the sense of loss starting to build," said Dan Cross, who manages the store in Watertown and has worked for Woolworth's since graduating from college in 1971.

"As people are coming in for the last sales, I find they are getting nostalgic. It seems everyone has a memory of going to Woolworth's."

And why not?

In its heyday, Woolworth's had more than 2,100 variety stores spread throughout the world. Long before Sears made the claim, it was where America shopped.

Woolworth was born in 1852 on his grandfather's remote farm 40 miles from the Canadian border. Raising potatoes was not his ambition, so he headed off to the big city - Watertown.

In 1878, he was a tall, slim, 26-year-old working as a shop assistant at a Watertown general store for $3.50 a week. With the county fair going on down the road, the store owner had stuck up a table of household items, offering "Any article, 5 cents."

He watched with calculating fascination as people quickly bought up the bargained-priced merchandise, Woolworth recalled in a 25th anniversary commemorative book published in 1904.

A year later, Woolworth opened his first "Great 5-Cent Store" in Utica. It failed within weeks.

Undeterred and convinced he had a sound idea, Woolworth tried again, opening another store in Lancaster, Pa., in June 1879. He took in $127 during his first day of business there, and the Woolworth empire was born.

Woolworth died in 1919 and was buried in Brooklyn, but his stores boomed. Eventually, others copied Woolworth's concept.

But as Woolworth's entered its second century, it found shoppers leaving downtown America for giant malls and outlet centers and unbeatable competition from big discounters like Wal-Mart, specialty shops and full-service super grocery stores.

"Years back, people depended on five-and-dimes for everything. Today, others fill those needs," said Kurt Barnard, a retail consultant and president of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report.

The company attempted to reinvent itself, opening specialty stores like Foot Locker, Kinney shoe stores and Woolco, but to no avail. It closed 900 stores in 1992 and another 1,000 stores the next year, then filed for bankruptcy in 1995.

Last year, Woolworth's five-and-dimes reported another operating loss of $37 million.

In July, the company announced it was closing its remaining 400 stores, and redirecting its efforts into its more profitable Foot Locker, Champs sporting goods and Northern Reflections apparel shops.

Sally Conway of Black River said it's hard to figure out what happened to the world's grandest store chain. She has been a Woolworth's customer "since I opened my eyes," and her husband, Edison, who died in 1966, worked as a window designer at the old Watertown store for 47 years.

"I'm not convinced they couldn't make it," she said. "I'm so glad he's not here to see this. He would break down and cry."