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Wolf & Dessauer offers a poignant glimpse of a bygone era
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Once upon a time, downtown Fort Wayne wasn’t the near-desert it is these days. Right up through the 60s, it was a bustling center of commerce, where people could take a trolley to work, shop, have a meal, or see a movie or a show. To many long-time area residents, one of the centers of downtown life, especially during the holiday season, was a department store called Wolf & Dessauer, that closed 35 years ago this Christmas.
“I think Wolf & Dessauer was probably the forerunner of the mall, because you could pretty much do everything there,” says Jim Barron, who with his wife Kathie has written two books about Wolf & Dessauer. “You could buy clothing, you could buy car parts, they had a lending library where you could pay a fee and take a book home for a week. Then, of course, they had a cafeteria and the tearoom. The tearoom was a more elegant place to eat, the cafeteria was a place where the average Joe would have lunch at the counter after shopping. They had models there, modeling the clothes live, you could get your picture taken there… just about everything you could think of.”
Barron grew up in Hamilton, Indiana, and while he doesn’t have any specific memories of visiting Wolf & Dessauer, he does remember one of the store’s holiday season highlights, a television show called Santa In Wanderland. W & D’s huge exhibit room was decorated like the North Pole, and Phil Steigerwald played Santa Claus for hundreds of kids. “WKJG 33 would do a live half-hour show, five days a week during the Christmas season,” Barron says. “We always came home to watch the show, wondering if we would see someone we knew on the show. You wouldn’t see anything like that these days, it wouldn’t move fast enough for the kids, but back then, that was big stuff.”
The Barron’s first book, Wolf and Dessauer: An Album of Memories, came out last year, and the response was phenomenal. The Barrons got phone calls and letters from people who remembered Wolf & Dessauer in its golden age, with gloved elevator operators announcing the stock on each floor, pneumatic tubes that sped information to the business department, a lending library, and a huge central room where live models would show off the latest fashions. People wrote in about getting reprimanded by the staff for playing on the escalators (it was the first building in the area to have escalators), sampling the chocolate sodas or pies at the store’s tearoom or cafeteria, and, like Barron, watching Santa In Wanderland on channel 33, or appearing on the program themselves.
People also remembered the Wee Willie Wand doll, a toy unique to the store that was based on a character who would entertain the kids while they were waiting in line for Santa Claus. Barron says the doll was made for W & D by a small “mom-and-pop” toy operation in California working out of their garage. The name of this company? Mattel. “So Wee Willie Wand is really in some respects Barbie’s grandfather,” Barron says.
All these memories make up the bulk of the material for their second book, Wolf and Dessauer: An Album of Memories Volume Two. Packed with photographs and reminiscences, the book also delves into the history of the store and the men who started it (including the factoid that co-founder Sam Wolf pitched in one of Fort Wayne’s historical claims to fame: the first nighttime baseball game played under lights). “With the first book, you were reading about Wolf & Dessauer,” Jim Barron says. “In the second, you’re experiencing it.”
Many of the memories people have about Wolf and Dessauer take place around the holiday season, when the store’s window displays, lights and decorations were a huge attraction all across northeast Indiana; the giant lighted Santa Claus on the National City bank building downtown is one of the holdouts from that era.
Barron, who has worked in Fort Wayne radio for 25 years, says that for many of the people who contacted him for the book, there’s something almost magical about Wolf & Dessauer, that to them, it wasn’t just a store. “The store is fascinating because of what it represents,” he says. “It was a place where people met and forged these friendships. It’s sort of mythical, and although it was real, it seems like a legend or a fairy tale now.”
Wolf and Dessauer: An Album of Memories Volume Two is available at Nature’s Corner Antiques, Tower Bank, the Fort Wayne History Center, and many area bookstores. It’s also available online at www.thewanderstore.com. 20% of the book’s net profits will be divided between the Vera Bradley Breast Cancer Foundation and the Fort Wayne History Center.