The Grange Store 19 West Main Street, Evansville, Wisconsin
Researched and Written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
For some residents of Evansville it is unbelievable that two large
department stores thrived in the city. Annual sales brought hundreds of
people to the Grange Store and its competitor, the Economy Store. These
stores provided goods, services and employment for many area people.
The history of the Grange Store begins more than 125 years ago.
In the 1870s, the Grange movement was one of the most effective
grass-roots political organizations in rural America. Officially called The
Patrons of Husbandry, Granges were forming in every state of the Union.
In Wisconsin alone there were nearly 50 clubs. The clubs allowed farmers
to discuss agricultural topics, promote legislation to aid the farmer, to buy
and sell merchandise and to promote neighborliness.
Although its founders envisioned a social organization, loosely based on
the Freemasons, the Grange quickly became a political voice for railroad
rate regulation and opposition to monopolies that affected transportation
In the early 1870s the country was experiencing an economic
depression. Farm produce prices were low. Many farmers reasoned that
railroad companies, big city wholesalers and merchants were gaining huge
profits by selling goods at unreasonable prices.
In the fall of 1873, the great New York banking firm, Jay Cooke &
Company, failed. Railroad stock prices fell and to compensate the
shippings charges were raised. Grain prices were unstable and farmers
used their collective voice as Grange members to protest monopolies in
transportation and purchasing that hurt farm profits.
The national organization urged Grange members to use their dues to
purchase a sewing machine or a plow and sell it to a member at cost. Then
another household or farm implement could be purchased with the
proceeds. This led to the formation of member- owned retail stores to sell
merchandise to Grangers and eliminate the middle man in the big cities.
The Grangers began organizing cooperative purchasing agencies with
Montgomery Ward in Chicago as their wholesaler. Evansville area formers
formed a Grange in November 1872. Within two months there were more
than 60 members, including many of the pioneer settlers. Five of the
Spencer brothers, Hiram, Peter, Henry, George and Lewis became
In Cooksville, Magnolia Brooklyn, Dayton and Center farmers were also
organizing Granges. Together the members formed the Evansville
Mercantile Association to open a store and sell to their members at a low
All stockholders of the company had to be Grange members and could
hold no more than 20 shares of stock. James Montgomery purchased the
maximum number of shares. Lewis Spencer and O. W. Gilman each
purchased four shares. The other thirty-three men purchased one or two
By February 1874 they were looking for a building to rent for their store.
They chose James Carle, secretary of the company, as store manager.
Carle purchased $200 worth of plows and the Grange Store was in
business. Clerks were hired for $15 a month. Carle resigned in less than
a year and Thomas Cooper Richardson replaced him as the store
manager. Richardson had found his niche and stayed on to manage the
store for the next 50 years.
Grange members benefited by the new organization. While
non-members had to purchase goods at regular prices, Grangers
purchased goods at an average of 10% above cost. Sales were made for
cash only, no credit allowed.
Other Evansville merchants felt threatened by the prices offered at the
Grange Store. Competing merchants placed ads in the Evansville Review
saying "We wish the public to distinctly understand that we will sell goods as
cheap as any Grange Store" and "Go to the Grange depots and get their
lowest figures, then come and try us. We are opposed to all combinations
that benefit only a certain class of the community".
Despite the competition, the Grange Store prospered and within two
years paid a 20% dividend on the capitol stock. They built a store at the
southwest corner of East Main and Maple Streets and soon outgrew it.
There were additions to the building, space was rented in other stores and
a new store in Brooklyn was built. The rapid growth occurred under the
leadership of T. C. Richardson.
V. C. Holmes and J. P. Porter joined Richardson in managing the store.
In the late 1890s they each received $1,000 per year in salary and 60% of
the net profits. Their wives became directors of the Evansville Mercantile
Business was good and they began planning to build one of the largest
department stores in rural Wisconsin. In 1903 the Grange purchased land
on the south side of the first block of West Main Street. One of the oldest
landmarks of the city, a home built by Lewis Spencer in the 1840s, was
razed to make room for the new building.
Several contractors bid on the building, but William B. Meggott, a
Janesville resident (later an Evansville resident), was chosen. Teams of
horses with scraping equipment dug out the dirt for the basement. A gang
of men laid concrete trenches and another group of workmen laid the
heavy stone walls. The Evansville Review described the scene as a
"bee-hive of industry".
Pressed brick and cut stone were used in the neo-classic design of the
large rectangular store. Local workmen were hired to complete the
building. August Freuchen, H. Patterson, Isaac Brink, and Art Spencer are
listed in bills paid during the construction.
The weight of the building was estimated at six million pounds. The
building required nearly four thousand feet of concrete, one hundred cords
of stone, 250,000 bricks and one-half million feet of lumber.
There was 168 feet of frontage on West Main Street with entrances on
the east, center and west. Large Ionic columns decorated each entrance.
The exterior columns were duplicated on the interior as the aisles were
divided by the huge pillars that marked the different departments of the
store. Displays could be placed in the eight large plate glass show
windows. With two floors and a basement there was more than 50,000
square feet of floor space, 18,000 feet on the ground floor alone.
In January 1904, the Janesville Recorder gave credit to Contractor
William Meggott for completing the "seven stores in one". The writer
estimated that the cost of construction at $35,000. It was one of the largest
construction projects completed in Rock County in 1903.
The Grange Bank was located in the East end of the store and featured
a floor and wainscoting of Italian marble. A fireproof and burglar-proof vault
and safe were also installed. Plate glass doors separated the bank from
the rest of the store.
A large driveway around the entire building was for the convenience of
farmers who drove their teams and wagons into town. A hitching shed was
built on the southwest end of the lot.
Although it would not officially opened for three months, the new store
was used for the annual Charity Ball in January 1904. T. C. Richardson
and Mr. and Mrs. Byron Campbell arranged for space for cloak rooms and
a reception area. The orchestra was placed on the balcony and there was
still a huge floor space for dancing. About 450 tickets were sold but an
estimated 1,500 people were present for the ball. It was the largest dance
ever held in the city.
At the grand opening of the store in late August 1904, the owners
handed out a brochure on the history of the Grange. It included pictures of
the new building, its various departments and the managers. The two-day
event included music and demonstrations of products the store carried.
The new store provided employment for 30 people and had every
convenience of any large city department store. The bank and grocery
occupied the east end of the store. Matt Ellis was in charge of the grocery.
Fred Franklin headed the eggs and butter department. They received their
deliveries through a side door.
The dry-goods department included women's men's and children's
ready-to-wear clothing. Robert Finn ran the boot and shoe department and
Elmer Fiedler managed the carpets and wall paper. Dry-goods were found
in the middle of the store. Jewelry books and the crockery department also
took up floor space in the middle. The Hardware department, under the
direction of V. C. Holmes, was at the west end of the building. There was a
tin shop at the rear of the hardware department.
The balcony held the millinery, coat and suit departments as well as the
office. An overhead cash carrier system was installed between the main
floor and the bookkeeping office. Many a child and probably some adults
stood watching in wonder as the tubes carrying money and sales slips
traveled along the overhead cables.
By 1910, the Grange Store was averaging annual sales of around
$300,000. Two years later an undertaking business was included in the
company's financial statement. The funeral parlor was located in the
second floor. The company owned a hearse and other undertaking
In 1924, T. C. Richardson retired from active management of the
Grange Store, after 50 years as the store manager. His nephew, Robert
Richardson who had been superintendent of the Dry Goods Department,
took over as store manager.
The R. L. Collins drug store moved into the area that had formerly been
the Grange Bank in 1926. The Grange Bank moved to the site of the Bank
of Evansville at the northeast corner of Main and Madison Streets and was
reorganized as the State Bank of Evansville.
The company also owned a large warehouse near the depot that had
once been used by the Frost Engine company as a manufacturing plant for
engines. This warehouse nearly burned to the ground in August 1931.
The heroic efforts of the local fire department and an iron roof kept the fire
from spreading to other buildings near the depot and manufacturing plants.
The Evansville Merchantile Assocation continued in business for 81
years with some of the controlling stockholders passing their shares on to
younger family members. The last remaining controlling stockholders were
Robert Richardson, Leonard Finn, Bert Holmes and Mrs. Lyle Richardson.
The store was sold in 1955 to William C. Brunsell, Nimmer Adamany,
Roger S. Gray and Robert F. Brunsell. They operated the store until its
closing in 1980.
The building was purchased by the Grange Partnership and in the
1980s, revitalization and adaptive reuse made this building one of the key
components of economic growth in Evansville.
The Grange Store became the Grange Mall, reflecting the latest trend in
merchandising. New stores opened in the first floor, balcony and
basement. Although under separate management, the new stores mirrored
the variety of goods and services found in the former Grange Store. They
included a hardware store, grocery, tea room and ice cream parlor,
stitchery shop, bakery, and clothing stores providing shoppers with a
variety of goods. The second floor was made into apartments.
Within 7 years most of the businesses had moved out of the store and
the first floor was leased to Blue Cross & Blue Shield United of Wisconsin.
In July 1987, Governor Tommy Thompson headed a delegation of state
and local dignitaries who welcomed the new business to the city. The
insurance company continues to expanded its operations in Evansville,
providing employment to many local residents.
In 2004, the Blue Cross & Blue Shield offices closed and the building
was purchased by Brian Fick to use as an appliance store and rental
property for other retail businesses.
Grange Store Under Construction
Grange Store ca. 1910