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A history of Minnesota's homegrown department stores

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Donaldson's Glass Block store
The exterior of Donaldson's Glass Block store in 1922 at Sixth Street and Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
Minnesota Historical Society Photograph Collection

The stores may be lost to changing times and tastes, but the names still ring familiar to many longtime Minnesotans. 

Powers. Schuneman's. The Golden Rule. Donaldson's. Young Quinlan. And, of course, Dayton's. 

"These department stores that were established in the late 1800s really were as much a part of making Minnesota as the lumber barons," said Kristal Leebrick, author of "Thank You For Shopping." Her new coffee-table book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, chronicles the history of Minnesota's department stores and the influence they wielded. 

"They were really a huge part of the history of Minnesota," said Leebrick. "They came to the towns. They created the towns in so many ways."

The earliest stores sold mainly "dry goods" including shoes, fabric, clothes, hardware and even canned groceries. As they added more products and services, they began identifying themselves as department stores. "And the reason they were called department stores is because people rented," said Leebrick. "The shoe seller would be a separate entity from the person selling the sewing materials." 

Canned goods at Donaldson's food shop.
Canned goods displayed at the Donaldson's Basement Food Shop, circa the 1940s. The photo is included in the book "Thank You for Shopping: The Golden Age of Shopping of Minnesota Department Stores," by Kristal Leebrick.
Hennepin County Libraries | Minnesota Historical Society Collections

But some store owners saw more potential in consolidating their retail enterprise. 

The Donaldson brothers opened what Leebrick calls the granddaddy of all Minnesota department stores in 1889. Perched on a corner of Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, it was called the Glass Block, a reference to the rows of plate-glass windows on the exterior of the five-story building. 

Donaldson's was so big it ran its own post office and bank. Its well supplied all the city's schools with drinking water. It even operated an express boat delivery service for customers on Lake Minnetonka.

Greater Minnesota also got in on the retail boom. St. Cloud had Fandel's, Winona had Choate's, Mankato had Brett's, Brainerd had O'Brien's. They were the Amazons of their day, offering everything to everyone, from sewing notions to imported French fashion. 

H. Choate Department Store
The H. Choate and Co. Department Store in Winona was built by Hannibal Choate. It opened in 1888 and still remains at the corner of Third and Center streets.
Lynne Hartet, via Minnesota Historical Society Collections

And Leebrick says the best had something a website never will: spectacle.

"The successful stores knew how to bring people in because they promoted their wares through all kinds of extravaganzas. They would host concerts. Orchestra concerts. They hosted authors, actors who were touring through," she said.

Famed Egyptian actor Omar Sharif once hosted a bridge-playing clinic at Donaldson's. Before joining Led Zeppelin, guitarist Jimmy Page played at Dayton's in 1966. Simon and Garfunkel performed there, too. 

The store's now-shuttered auditorium also hosted numerous holiday events from a joint Nutcracker exhibition paired with the annual ballet by Loyce Houlton in 1973, to a performance of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in 1977, and the popular Santabear show in 1986.

"It became a destination for people," said retired scenic artist Jack Barkla of Minneapolis. He worked for decades at the store, until Macy's closed it last year. Barkla still has the hatch door to the auditorium's phone on display in his home. Phone numbers are scribbled all over the door, still caked with paint from successive shows. 

Jack Barkla, stage designer for Dayton's.
Jack Barkla, pictured in his Minneapolis home, was a stage designer for dozens of Dayton's much-loved eighth-floor displays that delighted thousands of families and shoppers over the decades.
Mark Luinenburg | Minnesota Historical Society Collections

Barkla says the Dayton family understood like few others the intangibles of their business when they mounted the holiday displays and flower shows.

"In this Midwestern culture, the common story is for a family who lives in the city to invite their cousins who come from the farm and from rural areas. And this was an excuse for everybody to meet and get together. So people did that and people looked forward to it," said Barkla who also helped create the Holidazzle parade in 1992.

The spectacle and the stores are gone now, absorbed by consolidation or replaced by discount retailers, online competition, and even their own best intentions: Dayton's helped establish the suburban shopping mall in 1956, and later helped start big box retail with the Target chain. 

But the legacies of the grand, old department stores still remain. 

"The owners helped build our cities," said Leebrick. "They established the Minnesota Orchestra, the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The department stores were actually cultural institutions."  

And now, with her new book — featuring hundreds of pages of photographs, advertisements and recollections of the people who shopped and worked there — Minnesotans can step through the doors and peruse the aisles again.