The Saga of 120 S. Main Street – a story of books, millinery, jewelry and shoes told over 136 years!

With the new book store, the Fox Den opening today downtown I am very excited. I am really excited not only because of the store, but of its location. River Falls has had many book stores, but the longest standing book store in River Falls was in the same building from 1878 to 1936, 58 years! What a coincidence! It is amazing a book store could last that long in town during those early years, but thanks to three ladies, Harriet Levings, Emma Levings and Laura Weld it did. What follows is a history of that building that the Fox Den is going into as well as a general overview of book stores that have been in River Falls in the past.

River Falls’s earliest settlers were for the most part not stupid at all. The majority that founded the village were Congregationalists that came from Orange County, Vermont and St. Lawrence County, New York. In the first one to build a business building in block 9, the block that the Fox Den Book Store is located was Sumner Dodge in 1857. Dodge Hardware was a staple in River Falls for 100 years from 1855 to 1955, but not many know the first library of the Greenwood Library Association held their book collection there starting in 1857. You had to be a member to be a borrower, which many of these early settlers were. Books were a part of many collections at home, but there were no book stores in River Falls until the 1870s. That was when in October 1871 Harriet and Emma Levings, opened a book store in what was Kees confectionery and fruit store at 120 N. Main Street, the first book store in River Falls. I am sure there were books available in some of the general stores, but this was the first true book store. Emma and Harriett were 29 and 21 respectively.

Emma and Harriet Levings were two of four daughters born to Alpheous Levings and Rhoda Powell. Their parents were quite old for that time period Alpheous being born in 1806 and Rhoda in 1814. The Levings sisters including their other sisters Lucy and Charlotte were all born in Hamilton, Illinois along the Mississippi between 1840 and 1849. Alpheaus Levings died on April 17, 1863 at the age of 62 and his wife died on June 10, 1865 at the age of 50. Emma and Harriet would have been 23 and 16 at that time. Their uncles on both sides of the family were in River Falls early. On their mother’s side their uncles were Oliver S., Lyman, and Nathaniel N. Powell, founders of the village of River Falls. On their father’s side was Daniel Levings who was in the painting business and built his home on south Main in 1858. Daniel’s sons and Harriet and Emma’s cousins, Edwin and Homer Levings had just come back from the Civil War. Homer and Ed Levings’ diaries are kept at UW-RF Area Research Center and many are being published on the web through their Civil War blog. Anyway, after their parents had died that year Harriet and Emma along with another sister Charlotte came to River Falls from Illinois to stay with relatives. Their older sister Lucy had just married and stayed in Illinois. Charlotte also married soon after coming here to Phineous Flint on October 2, 1866.

The site of 120 S. Main was first occupied by Henry R. Child’s harness shop and hall. This two-story building built in 1867 for $1200. This harness shop changed hands to John Watson in October 1870 and Burnett Brothers (Edward P. and Benedict) opened a blacksmith shop there in May 1871. This shop employed six smiths. The Odd Fellows leased the hall starting in April 1872. A cousin of the Burnett Brothers, William Burnett bought the blacksmith shop and moved it to Maple Street. John D. Putnam, later mayor of River Falls bought the building in March 1873 for $3100. The next year tub building was moved north along the block to lot 4. Another building was built at 120 S. Main in March 1875 for Hedderly and Davis’s Dry Goods store. It was a 20 x 46 two story building owned by Mrs. Mary Esterbrook. It opened on July 5, 1875. The top story was occupied by the Good Templars. No matter because the next January a fire destroyed almost that entire block putting all of these businesses out of business. This summer Pat Hammerback showed me evidence of this 136 year old fire in her building on that block, the McGregor building. It is amazing that any evidence exists from this old fire.

The Levings sisters were not immune to this fire. They had moved their store from 120 N. Main to 118 S. Main in October 1873 into a building that also held the River Falls Journal of Abner Morse upstairs. They were determined to not let the burning of their business keep them out of business. They soon opened at a new location at 204 N. Main, the Pingrey Buiding in February 1876, a month after the fire. Freeman Drug Company had just moved out of that location. Along block 9 rebuilding began in earnest. That year ApRoberts, Dodge, the Bradshaw Brothers and Joseph M. Smith all built new buildings that are still standing today. They all stand a little to the southeast compared to the Brackett building, the one building that survived the fire in that block, also standing today. Joseph M. Smith built 120 S. Main at a cost of $3000 that fall. He was the first banker in River Falls opening the Bank of River Falls in 1875. He did not build the 22 x 70 ft. one story building for himself, but for Floris C. McCay’s insurance office. He only was in the building for six months from October 1876 to March 1877. The next tenant was John H. Bump who opened a jewelry store there. Bump was already in his late 60s and soon sold out and actually died by 1878 in New London Wisconsin. William Williamson opened a dry goods store there, but went bankrupt within four months, his goods sold at auction by Reuben W. Fleming. The second book store in River Falls then opened in the building in November 1877 by J.A. and Willis Lawrence, brothers from Red Wing. The normal school had recently opened, and I guess they thought River Falls could support two book stores despite its relatively small population. They also had a circulating library as did Leving Sisters two blocks down. By June of 1878 the Lawrence Brothers sold out to the Levings Sisters and the stocks were combined in the building. They kept the jewelry counter in there that summer for Cook and Bell from New Hampshire leased Bump’s former counter.
Another supplemental business in the book store was millinery counters. Mrs. Jane Winchester was the first to have that counter in August 1878. This was sold to Nettie Thayer and Mrs. Louisa Hamilton. The two businesses owned by women in that time in River Falls were in the same building. Millinery and the book store were all women owned for businesses during the 19th century in River Falls. A new circulating library was added in February 1885. Prices in my opinion were quite high. If you wished to borrow a book it was $3 per month and $5 for two books a month. There would not be a public library in River Falls until 1923, so this was really your only alternative to buying books in that same store in town. Mrs. Hamilton kept the millinery counter going until 1896 when it was sold to Mrs. A. Ross of Saint Paul. The building was also sold in 1893 to Sebastian Gehring for $3500. After the short time of Ross’s tenure, the millinery business was sold to Julia Morse, sister of Calvin Morse, who ran the River Falls Journal. She called the business the River Falls Millinery Emporium. Charles Winter briefly had a jewlery counter in there after a 1894 fire. Eleanor ApRoberts was added as a trimmer and fitter of dresses in 1901. The Millinery was sold from Morse to Mrs. E. Austin in April 1908. This whole time Emma and Harriet Levings maintained the main business of the book store. By 1916, when Emma was 74 and Harriet was 68, the sisters decided to retire. (They lived 113 S. 3rd most of their life in River Falls).

The Leving sisters did not want the store to go out of business however. They sold it to their cousin Laura Weld. Laura was a cousin through the Powell family because her grandfather was Lyman Powell, who was the Levings sisters uncle. Laura named the busines the Weld Book and Art Store. Laura had a number of art prints for sale along with books, stationary, school and office supplies. She had partners for a time with Mrs. Groves and later Mrs. Taggart, but was truly the head of her business. By the 1930s, business was down for Laura and during a fire in February 1936 she lost $300 of inventory. In the fall of 1937 at the age of 65, Laura too chose to retire. All of the cousins had a retirement. Emma Levings died on October 10, 1919 age 77. Harriet died on June 16, 1940 age 91 and Laura Weld died on July 21, 1956 in Longmont, Colorado where her brother was at age 84.

The next month Gerhard Kulstad moved his shoe store to this location. He had started in business in River Falls in 1912 as a manager of the Wadsworth shoe store. Soon he opened his own shoe department in the Stewart Mercantile Department store in 1920. He stayed at that location until this building became available. His brother Otto opened a Men’s clothing store in the same block earlier in 1922. Kulstad was born February 22, 1891 in Red Wing. At age 64, he decided to retire and sold the shoe store to Lyle Lewis of Clear Lake on April 8, 1955. Lewis Shoe store stayed in business for 20 years with Leonard Lewis joining the business in April 1965. In March 1975, they sold out to Jim and Evelyn Lokrantz of Minneapolis who named the business the Shoe Den. They stayed in business for over 20 years and sold to Pat Mayco in March 1997. It went back to the Lokrantz family, specifically Brian Lokrantz who closed the Shoe Den in July 1999. Darryl Hetrick’s Gemini Jewelers moved to this location in September 1999. He stayed there for his last 10 years in business until early 2009, after first opening in the River Falls mall in 1977. A 2003 burglery that stole 90 percent of inventory did not deter Hetrick from staying open that many more years. In December 2009, Laurie Henn decided to move Mr. Movies, the last real video rental store of River Falls to this location from their former location along Pine Street which they were at since 1992. This kept the rental store open for almost two years until the summer of 2011. The 2011 holiday season saw a wearable art gallery set up shop in this building. Now the Jim, Heather and Evan Williams are set to open the Fox Den book store today. I hope their book store is as much a staple in River Falls as the Levings Sisters was. If that turns out to be the case, they will have a successful future at 120 S. Main for sure!

Next time I will post about the many other book stores that have been in River Falls.

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One Response to The Saga of 120 S. Main Street – a story of books, millinery, jewelry and shoes told over 136 years!

  1. Beth Ireland says:

    Thank you for sharing the interesting history of this location with us. I’m looking forward to reading more about the history of this area from you Dan Geister.

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