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010814-dec-lif-pttrimmer

Joe Trimmer/Prairie Talk

Recently, I was going through some postcards at a local antique center, and saw an advertising card for “Bradley Bros. Dry Goods.”

I’m not really interested in such cards, but this one almost called out to me. Why? Haven’t the foggiest idea, but for a buck, I bought it.

Bernard and Denis Bradley worked for Lambert & Co. (dry goods), before buying the Fenton Building at the Southwest corner of William and Water streets, circa 1885. In 1907, they sold out to Harvey S. Gebhart, and therein begins my story.

At the turn of the century, dry goods were a flourishing business. The big three, Linn & Scruggs, Stewarts, and Bohons, were the leaders, with Bradleys not far behind. Two “up and comers,” the aforementioned Gebhart, and William Gushard, were pushing hard. Gushard had operated a store on Water (where Richmans and Folraths used to be), before moving to the new Walt Building at the Northwest corner of Water and William around 1906. That led to Gebhart’s countermove. His store at 1111 N. Water (where the Wilcox Grocery, and later part of Henry’s Clothing were), was just too small; hence, the move downtown.

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For the next 25 years, these two concerns were bitter rivals, constantly trying to top the other. Gushard built a nice home on West Main Street, today’s SAE house. Gebhart did likewise on West William Street, just north of 2 Millikin Place. While not the Hatfield-McCoy category, they did really try to top each other. Even William’s death didn’t slow down the firms. If one opened a new department, the other might open two.

Linn & Scruggs also opened new departments and kept lead in the new “Department Store” race. Big names like Sears and Penney and a newcomer, Block & Kuhl, plus a contemporary, Decatur Dry Goods, added fuel to the fire. Finally, in 1932, the feud ended and the two firms combined, with Gebhart moving in with Gushard. That caused a game of musical chairs. When Linn & Scruggs moved to Main and Prairie in 1924, Block & Kuhl’s had taken over their space in the Standard Office Building. With the G&G merger, B&K moved to Gebhart’s old location. In the mid-1940s, G&G was acquired by Alden’s then sold to B&K in 1949. When it had been sold to Alden’s, a group of former employees opened Stauber’s in the Standard Office Building site. When it closed in 1968, it was the last locally-owned department store.

Whew! That’s a lot of names and moves, I know, but, let’s go back to one, Gebhart, and what caused me to say, “I didn’t know that.” It’s a given that there’s a lot I don’t know, but I thought I at least knew my old neighborhood on the Northeast side, and in particular, our “Mall” — North Water Street. Eureka, Paul’s Alhambra, and the next block north, were my second home. That block — 1101-1133 (or sometimes 1151) — was known as the Gebhart Block. There was a Gebhart Hardware Store, and I always just assumed that was the connection. Never assume.

When Harvey was on Water Street, there was a hardware and implement store too, but it was owned by Adam F. and was where Shinner’s Meat Market was in my time. There was also a Percy that later owned the Alhambra theater. My Gebhart store, and several others around town, was owned by Gordon. Just to confuse things even more, there were Gebhart Paint stores (Robert), Real Estate (Stuart), and a Jesse. Until the purchase of the card, I had never made the connection between Gebhart-Gushards and my Gebhart block. You just never know what you might learn from the unlikeliest of sources.

Joe Trimmer is a retired educator and a Decatur historian.

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