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Shopping for Memories visits downtown Fort Wayne’s retail past
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Jim Barron doesn’t quite know how he came to be the chronicler of downtown Fort Wayne’s glory days. He grew up in the area and has lived here a long time, but he says he’s too young to have any specific memories of downtown back in the day, when big department stores like Wolf & Dessauer, G.C. Murphy, and Stillman’s dominated the city and families would hop on a trolley and come downtown to shop, see a movie or a show, or share a meal.
But nevertheless, Barron and his wife Kathleen have authored three books on downtown Fort Wayne’s “good old days.” The third, Shopping for Memories: A Nostalgic Look at Downtown Fort Wayne 1900 – 1970, has just been published and picks up where their previous two books — Wolf & Dessauer: An Album of Memories volumes 1 and 2 — left off. “When we would give readings or signings for the first two books, people would always come up to us and say ‘I like these books, but when are you going to do a book on some of the other stores downtown?’” Barron says.
Shopping for Memories is indeed about the other stores downtown, places like G.C. Murphy’s, Stillman’s, Drier’s Drug Store, P. Pierre’s Dry Goods, and Hutner’s Paris. “I learned all about these stores I didn’t know existed,” says Barron.
“People just kind of long for that day,” he adds. “They talk about these stores like they were old friends. I think it’s because the stores had such unique personalities. It’s not like today, where you go in to one big box store and it’s just like the big box store across town. They were really unique in so many ways, in the way they treated the customers, in the way the departments were set up. The people who worked there were often there for life.”
Barron says their first book on Wolf & Dessauer, the department store downtown that has taken on almost legendary status, started when their daughter Erika began collecting memorabilia from the store. “She decided that any place that sounded that cool would be a place where she would like to get some trinkets and memorabilia,” Barron says. So they hit the antique shops and began amassing a collection of W&D hats, bags, boxes, postcards, and other knickknacks, even a W&D charge card. They also nabbed one of the signature Wolf & Dessauer items — a Wee Willie Winkie doll made specifically for the store by what was then a small toy maker in California called Mattel (yes, that Mattel).
After local media did a story on Erika’s W&D collection, they started getting calls from all over the area. “We didn’t have our address or number in the story, but they found us anyway,” says Barron. Most of the source material for Shopping for Memories comes from people who approached the Barrons while they were making public appearances for the first two books.
And there are no shortage of stories in Shopping for Memories. Like P. Pierre’s Dry Goods on Broadway that closed in 1974 after 70 years in business. “They used to never throw anything out,” Barron says. “So if top hats and monocles were in vogue when they opened the store, 30 or 40 or 50 years later, you could still walk in there and tell them you wanted a top hat, and they could find you one stored away neatly in the basement. If you wanted something that just wasn’t around anymore, this would have been a great place to stop by.”
P. Pierre’s also used to manufacture a “cure-all” salve called Try-Ade. “They made it in the basement for years until the FDA stepped in and told them they had to do this under laboratory conditions.”
Then there was Drier’s drug store that used to make perfume and baking powder (two separate products, of course) up until the 1950s, when the brothers who owned Drier’s split up the business. “One got the perfume, the other got the baking powder,” says Barron. “The perfume didn’t last too long because there was too much competition, but the one brother took Royal Baking Powder out to the East Coast, and that became a household name for a while.”
Many people interviewed for Shopping for Memories share stories about the candy/bakery department in G.C. Murphy’s, particularly around Easter, when the store offered Easter chocolate with your name written on it in icing. “And of course, the thing everybody talks about was the donut machine,” says Barron. “I assume they just made the donuts, put them in grease, and put icing on them, but that was just something everyone remembers.”
“I’ve heard from a number of people that Cindy’s diner has the Murphy’s donut machine, but I can’t confirm that,” he adds.
Barron says he and his wife designed Shopping for Memories to look and feel like a scrap book with lots of images and interviews. “It’s not what I would call a pretty book,” he says. “The heart of the book is the writing. We didn’t want to just do a history book; we wanted to talk about the stores in a way that would bring back memories for people. All the books were really aimed at people who wanted to relive those memories as opposed to just read about them.”
But even for those of us who weren’t there, Shopping for Memories makes a very interesting read, offering a peek into what seems like a foreign country, where a store’s music department could feature a live piano player who would play the sheet music for you, or a women’s apparel store like Hutner’s Paris would let customers take clothes home “on approval,” so they could try them on and the next day simply pay for the ones they wanted to keep. “It’s pretty remarkable, when you hear some of these things,” Barron says. “Those were different times.”
Shopping for Memories retails for $25 and is available at Nature’s Corner on Spy Run and State Street.