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Bismarck History: Retail & Business Development

Early Retail

For years, Webb Brothers was the only dry goods store in Bismarck.

For years, Webb Brothers was the only dry goods store in Bismarck.

Like all frontier towns, Bismarck’s original retail stores were small, independent retailers specializing in a small selection of items. You had a dry goods retailer, dairy producer, grocer, furniture store, and so forth.

The railroad ended abruptly in Bismarck for nearly a decade, until the completion of the bridge across the Missouri River in 1882. The sudden end of the railroad in Bismarck is what brought many to the isolated city. Gold was discovered in the black hills of Dakota Territory, and most prospects used the railroad to reach Bismarck, where they then headed south toward the black hills.

Because of Bismarck’s location at the crossroad of the Missouri River and Northern Pacific Railroad, and increased traffic from gold discovery, Bismarck naturally was established as a major business hub. Bismarck would gain further attention in 1883, when it was named capital of Dakota Territory.

One of the first businesses to open in the region was a restaurant and bakery, operated out of a tent by John Yegen. His business opened in 1872, the same year Bismarck was founded, and would go onto become Yegen Dairy, the primary dairy producer and distributor in the region for decades.

The Webb brothers, Philip and William, came to Bismarck in 1884. Upon their arrival, they opened a furniture store, which would serve as the region’s only furniture store for twelve years. The Webbs later expanded their merchandise to include other items, including dry goods and clothing, essentially becoming Bismarck’s first department store. In addition to being the only furniture store in the region, Webb Brothers was also the only dry goods retailer for five years.

Lucas and Ohara opened a dry goods store in 1899, which went onto become A.W. Lucas & Company.

Lucas and O’hara opened a dry goods store in 1899, which went onto become A.W. Lucas & Company.

Webb Brothers got their first real competition in 1899 when Arthur Lucas and William O’hara opened a dry goods store at 4th Street between Main Avenue and Broadway Avenue. The Webbs were not at all concerned about the new competition. In fact, they welcomed the competition so much that they actually provided financial assistance to the new retailer. The two local department stores, Webb Brothers and A.W. Lucas & Company, served Bismarck exclusively for many years, and continued to thrive even amidst increasing competition from national chains.

National Retailers Arrive

When congress enacted the first highway system, the road that would be designated U.S. Highway 10 ran through the heart of Downtown Bismarck, along Main Avenue. The Liberty Memorial Bridge was completed in 1922, and for years was the only vehicular bridge to cross the Missouri River within five hundred miles. The result was a steady increase in traffic to the city. By 1924, more than 2,000 vehicles per day crossed the bridge. The never-ending flow of traffic from the railroad and highway would peak an interest in the nation’s largest retailers.

F.W. Woolworth was the first major national retailer to arrive in Bismarck, around the year 1915. Red Owl, the first grocery chain in Bismarck, arrived in 1927 and opened a second store the following year.

Montgomery Ward had huge expectations when it opened its Bismarck location in 1928, considering that the opening of its Minot store earlier that year broke several sales records for the company. Even with the added national competition, local retailers continued to thrive. A.W. Lucas had outgrown its original location by 1924, and expanded into an adjacent building. In 1928, Webb Brothers changed ownership when the two sons of William Webb assumed its operation. That year, Webb Brothers also opened Bismarck’s first funeral parlor.

J.C. Penney had opened a location in nearby Mandan in 1920, but didn’t come to Bismarck until 1929 when the company purchased location retailer McCracken. The retailer constructed a new store the following year.

After 61 years in business, Webb Brothers closed in December 1945, at which time it was replaced with Sears-Roebuck, the nation’s largest retailer at the time. By this time, traffic was becoming a major concern for downtown Bismarck, which resulted in the widening of Main Avenue and Sixth Street in 1948, and the installation of six new traffic signals.

In 1949, A.W. Lucas completed major renovation and expansion of its store, adding nearly half an acre of additional space.

Changing Retail Trends & The Decay Of Downtown

Opened in April 1971, Kirkwood Mall drastically modernized Bismarcks shopping trend.

Opened in April 1971, Kirkwood Mall drastically modernized Bismarck’s shopping trend.

As with any other growing city, Bismarck’s shopping patterns were about to drastically change. The city’s first shopping center, Arrowhead Shopping Plaza, opened in November 1953, followed by Northbrook Mall in 1959. Neither shopping center had much impact on Downtown Bismarck, however. Interstate 94 was completed in 1965, shifting all through traffic to the north, which directly affected downtown businesses. As much of an impact that the new highway had, downtown would take an even larger hit with the opening of Kirkwood Mall in 1971, and later Gateway Mall in 1979.

Construction on Kirkwood Mall began in 1970, which was the city’s largest development up to that point. The center was opened by Paul Wachter, who had been considering the idea for years. Kirkwood was named for Robert Kirkwood, who had served as Chairman of the Board and CEO for the F.W. Woolworth Company. Mister Kirkwood had previously served as store manger for the Bismarck Woolworth store from 1932-1939.

Montgomery Wards, Woolworths, Herbergers, and Osco Drug were original anchors, all of whom, except newcomer Herbergers, had previous downtown locations. The opening of Kirkwood sparked the first out-migration from downtown, as retailers flocked to the new mall. The area around the mall quickly became the main economic hub of the region.

Kmart was Bismarcks first modern-day discount store when it opened in October 1971.

Kmart was Bismarck’s first modern-day discount store when it opened in October 1971.

Only a few months following the opening of Kirkwood Mall, the first modern-day discount department store arrived in Bismarck, with the opening of Kmart in October 1971. Kmart was one of the first businesses to be open near the new interstate highway, and like Kirkwood Mall, the area surrounding Kmart would become a major business hub for the region.

Further decay came with the opening of Gateway Mall in September 1979, when Sears, Osco Drug, and A.W. Lucas relocated from downtown to anchor the mall. Regional department store chain White Mart also anchored the new center. Although White Mart itself was new to the city, the company had already been operating White Drug in downtown for many years.

Kirkwood Mall added an additional wing the following year with two new anchors, Target and J.C. Penney. Penney’s was the last national chain retail to migrate from downtown, ending a shopping trend that had lasted for decades.

Competition Increases For Grocers

Save-Way was one of several grocery stores in the city. Other grocers that have served Bismarck in the past have included Piggly Wiggly and Red Owl.

Save-Way was one of several grocery stores in the city. Other grocers that have served Bismarck in the past have included Piggly Wiggly and Red Owl.

In the early years, if people wanted milk or butter, they would probably have contacted Hillside Dairy Farm to have it delivered, or stopped by their cart in downtown Bismarck. If they wanted flour or sugar, they would probably have stopped at local grocers like Logan’s, and if they wanted milk or eggs, Yegen’s would have supplied them.

The Bismarck Grocery Company was founded in 1902 and became the main wholesale supplier for the region for several decades.

Regional grocer Red Owl opened its first Bismarck store in 1927 on Main Avenue. The company added a second location on Broadway Avenue the following year. Red Owl closed its Main Avenue location sometime in the 1930s upon greatly expanding its Broadway store. National grocery chain Piggly Wiggly arrived in Bismarck in 1939, when W.W. Oliver purchased franchise rights to build a store. In 1949, Roy Rockstad & Eugene Leary purchased the Piggly Wiggly and changed the name to Bismarck Supervalu. That same year, Save-Way Superette opened near Broadway Avenue and Fifteenth street. In response to the increased competition, a second Red Owl location was added in 1952, which had many revolutionary amenities at the time.

By 1954, modernized self-service grocery stores had mostly replaced the small, independent stores. In order to better compete against the new Red Owl location, Bismarck Supervalu opened a second store at the newly constructed Arrowhead Plaza. Rockstad and Leary decided that their new store would bare a slightly different name that their old location, instead calling it Dan’s Supervalu. When Northbrook Mall opened in 1959, Red Owl became its main anchor, while keeping its downtown location.

For the next two decades, Red Owl and Dan’s Supervalu aggressively competed against each other, neither of which had a significant stronghold on the market. Dan’s opened another location in 1970, adjacent to the nearly completed Kirkwood Mall. The third Dan’s location opened in 1975 next to the newly opened Gateway Mall. Cash Wise Foods opened its Bismarck store in 1982. Unable to compete against the rising competition, Save-Way closed in 1982.

Dans Supermarket is the dominate grocer in Bismarck-Mandan, with 4 total locations.

Dan’s Supermarket is the dominate grocer in Bismarck-Mandan, with 4 total locations.

Over the next few years, Red Owl’s sales begin to lag behind as Dan’s gained dominance in the market. By 1987, Red Owl was on the verge of closing its two Bismarck locations. The stores were purchased by Sean Schulke, son of Red Owl’s president. Both locations were then remodeled and rebranded as Freshmart Foods, which was a new test concept launched by Red Owl. Econofoods entered the market the following year. In the end, Red Owl’s efforts did not pay off, forcing the closure of both Bismarck locations in 1989.

With the closure of the Red Owl stores, Dan’s instantly became the region’s dominate grocer. Dan’s relocated their south location in 1995, and their north location in 2002. Econofoods became Barlow’s Miracle Mart for some time before again being renamed Central Market, as it is called today. The first new competition in seventeen years arrived in 2005, when Wal-Mart opened two Supercenters and a Sam’s Club.

Bismarck Retail Today

Gateway Mall opened in September 1979 and recently underwent major renovation.

Gateway Mall opened in September 1979 and recently underwent major renovation.

After the opening of Gateway Mall in 1979 and the expansion of Kirkwood Mall the following year, retail expansion greatly slowed in the region, marked by a string of major closures that began with A.W. Lucas shortly after relocating to Gateway Mall. Herbergers purchased all of Lucas’s assets and opened its second Bismarck location at Gateway Mall. Woolworth’s closed in 1985, and was replaced by Dayton’s. The following year, White Mart closed, and in turn replaced by the national hardware chain Menards. Gateway Mall had only been open nine years and had already seen the departure of two anchor stores.

The 1990s began just as the decade before had, with a major retail development, Wal-Mart, which would be the only large-scale retail development to occur during the 1990s. Just like the 1980s, major retail closures were ahead.

Gateway Mall again lost an anchor store in 1994, when Herbergers left upon expanding its Kirkwood location. The departure of Herbergers marked the third anchor store to leave Gateway Mall in its 15-year history. It wasn’t until 2004 that the space was permanently by Conlin’s Furniture, who has also since relocated from the mall. Menards left Gateway Mall at the end of the decade upon constructing a new free-standing store.

Struggling catalogue retailer, Best Products, closed its Bismarck store in 1997, at which time the store was renovated and became home to both Office Depot and Big Lots.

Kirkwood Mall was not immune to the closures, taking a severe blow when Montgomery Ward closed in 1998, seventy years after the retailer first arrived in Bismarck. Kirkwood Mall found similar difficulty filling its Wards space as Gateway did its Herbergers space, unable to permanently fill it until 2002 when I. Keating Furniture occupied the space.

One of the only other national retailers to come to Bismarck during the 1990s was Staples, who opened its doors in 1999.

Pinehurst Square brought many new retailers to Bismarck.

Pinehurst Square brought many new retailers to Bismarck.

The slowed retail expansion didn’t come to an end until 2004, beginning with the construction of Home Depot, which opened in June 2005. Over the course of the next couple years, Bismarck saw some of its largest retail expansion ever.

Construction on Pinehurst Square Shopping Center commenced in 2005, which was the largest single development in Bismarck since Kirkwood Mall 35 years earlier. When completed the following year, Pinehurst Square would be home to several newcomers for the region. Wal-Mart had also begun construction on two new super centers and a Sam’s Club.

Also in 2005, Marshall Field’s (formerly Dayton’s) closed its Bismarck location. The space was immediately torn down to be replaced by a new Target store. Scheels Sporting Goods, which first came to Kirkwood Mall in 1984, then relocated into the former Target space.

Amidst a flooded market, Home Depot closed in 2008, only three years after first opening. That same year, CVS/pharmacy, which acquired Osco Drug in 2006, announced plans to relocate out of the two shopping centers. Kirkwood and Gateway Malls were now falling victim to out migration, same as downtown Bismarck had decades earlier.

Recent Closures

With a national recession spreading across America, it would without a doubt eventually affect Bismarck. 2009 saw closures of several long-time businesses, including Rex TV & Appliance, Vlana Vlee, and Tuesday Morning. Long-time local retailer, Hoskins-Meyer, also closed after more than 100 years in business.

No one else has been more adversely affected by recent closures than Gateway Mall, whose vacancy rates have been on a steady climb throughout 2009. Despite recently completing renovation, several tenants have recently vacated the center including CVS/pharmacy, Hansen’s Menswear, and Conlin’s Furniture.

Bismarck History Chapter Index: