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Christmas shopping in 1920s Escanaba

December 1, 2010
By Charles Lindquist

ESCANABA - On the day before Thanksgiving this year, your mail box must have sagged a little from the weight of that day's Daily Press. Holy smokes! Was it heavy from all those inserts announcing all kinds of openings and fancy specials as Escanaba's merchants got ready for this year's Christmas shopping season.

I suppose some letters in the paper and yard signs will be forthcoming soon grumbling about how Christmas is getting to commercial and it was better in the good old days. But I wonder about that. I think the truth is that in Escanaba anyway shopping for Christmas has always been a very special time.

Take 1926, for instance. In a special full-page ad in the Daily Press of Nov. 30, downtown merchants listed a remarkable number of stores shoppers might like to visit. There were 13 stores filled with toys and games, 14 stores with millinery departments, 12 stores selling shoes, six jewelry stores, six drug and toiletry stores, five hardware stores, five gift shops and variety stores, and nine restaurants where you could rest a bit in between your excursions into this store and then another one.

Anchoring the one and one-half miles of stores on Ludington Street were Escanaba's three big department stores. The oldest of these was the Ed Erickson Store. Mr. Erickson began this business in 1878 and built his two-story department store at the corner of Ludington and 8th Streets around 1903. In 1928, Mr. Erickson would sell his business to the Lauerman brothers of Marinette, and they would continue the business at this location for years to come.

The second oldest of these big stores was at the corner of Ludington and 12th Street. This three-story building was built by the Kratze family. I. Kratze began this business around 1880, and it was continued by his sons after he died. In 1920 the Kratze's sold the business to a number of local businessmen who renamed it the "Boston Store." The Montgomery Ward chain bought this business in 1930, but all through the 1920s it was known as the Boston Store.

The third of these big stores was Herman Gessner's Fair Savings Bank Store (later just the Fair Store). Begun in 1898 by Mr. Gessner, he built the three-story building at the corner of Ludington and 11th Streets in 1903. By the mid-1920s Mr. Gessner had turned this firm into the largest business of its kind in the Upper Peninsula, with 80-100 employees and 35,000 square feet of space.

As if all these stores were not enough to attract shoppers to Escanaba, the city, downtown businessmen, the Chamber of Commerce, and the power utility made visits to the downtown even more exciting in 1923. In that year they installed a much brighter lighting system over one and one-half miles of Ludington Street. Now you didn't have to go to Chicago or New York to see the bright lights. Escanaba had its own "White Way."

Here is an indication of how all of these stores and the new lights affected Christmas shopping in 1923. A few days before Christmas it was reported that the Christmas season had been tremendous with lots of shoppers coming into town on the trains or in cars from miles around. A few years later in 1926 storeowners said much the same. Their stores, they said, had been crowded with customers all during the season.

Actually, if you were a merchant and had something really new and special, you almost had to be careful about showing it off at Christmas time. In early December 1927 Northern Motors saw 5,000 people come through their showroom when Henry Ford's new Model A went on display for the first time.

After an active month of the Christmas shopping season, you might think both shoppers and merchants and their staffs would be worn out by Christmas Day - unless you knew about Herman Gessner's last big promotion of the season. For years, Mr. Gessner had a big party at his store on Christmas morning, and he guaranteed a Christmas present to every child who attended. In 1925 over 1,400 kids came to the party, and this tradition went on for years, I guess. (If any of the readers of this column know more about this tradition at the Fair Store, I would love to hear from you.)

As this column has tried to show, Escanaba has always had a pretty commercialized Christmas season, but when you think of that Christmas morning party at Mr. Gessner's store, you could say the spirit of giving was evident too.

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Charles Lindquist is president of the Delta County Historical Society



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