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The Observer paper 12/26/14

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Monkey Wards store boasts colorful history

Do you remember the old Montgomery Wards & Co. store at Fourth Street and Washington Avenue?

It’s now called the New Town Square.

It wasn’t old in 1928. In fact, it was brand-new and we had another department store in which to shop along with J.C. Penney Co., N. K. West & Co., and Hill’s Department Store.

At that time, La Grande was the railroad hub and most of the folks living in La Grande were railroaders. Looking at the old City Directory proves that. The new store had lots of wearing apparel for both adults and children, dresses for ladies, bibbed-overalls and denim jackets and billed caps in the same blue and white stripe for farmers and railroaders. My Dad wore this outfit most of his life working for the railroad from being a fireman and then as an engineer.

That was in the days when they pitched coal or wood to keep the steam up in the engine and the big metal brake took real man-power to push and pull it for starting and stopping. I tried moving it one day and couldn’t budge it an inch. Oh, but what a thrill to be up on that big engine and pretend I was following the rails and pulling the steam whistle cord.

There was also a shoe department in the far back of that store where the clerk sat on a seat before you and measured your foot, then brought your size and choice of shoe to try on. He, or she, would have a black metal shoehorn to put behind your heel and slip your foot into the shoe so that it didn’t bend down the back of the heel. There were shoes on display to catch your interest, but if you didn’t like any of those and explained what you wanted, the clerk would go into the backroom and bring out as many boxes of choices as you can imagine. It was always fun to go to the shoe department and come out with the right shoe for school, church, work, slipper, or pump.

Children’s clothing were available, too, but I don’t remember there being a great selection of pretty things, mostly school blouses and skirts for girls, jeans and shirts for boys. Women found cotton housedresses and aprons with which to cover them. Men wore the rugged jeans, plaid shirts and mackinaws.

It’s fun to think back to those days and see the money-cup sail up to the office on a wire and the receipt come back the same way.

I’ve mentioned before that I worked at that old Montgomery Ward store for a while and that George and I fell in love, I from behind the catalog department desk and he the window designer. Now that front window, where he hung the Wards Week April 15-25 sign on the back wall in 1942 to advertise their sale event when he was but a senior at La Grande High School, sports big comfy davenports for easy sitting to chat or observe the activity inside the building.

Lots of changes are being made inside those brick walls and you’ll hear more about that from others. I’ve just had the chance to see some of it happening, both in and out. Quite a change for La Grande I would say.

Still, there will be parts of the old store on display, preserved and hung for history’s sake by the New Town Square’s Market Place developer Al Adelsberger, the labor accomplished by local companies. When it is open and running, look for hanging light fixtures, enlarged wall pictures, shadowbox features, and such to bring back those years between 1928 and 1985 when it was an up and coming store of wearing apparel, furniture, appliances, shoes, work boots, plumbing and electrical supplies, hunting and sporting equipment and the catalog department.

I can’t help but mention it today as I walk by the building and see the changes already having taken place on the outside and know of the frenzy of planning and work that has gone on behind the walls, almost unseen by the public as yet.

I have only one picture of that old store and would love to find more, whether taken inside or out. George took the one of the front window he had decorated and John Turner has a couple to share, one a parade going by the store and the other from the Fourth Street side, but there must still be others out there to fill in the history of old “Monkey Wards.” Can you help me out?

 

Veteran newspaperwoman Dorothy Swart Fleshman is a La Grande native. Reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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