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Shaw & Cathcart Co.

By | Last Modified: January 27, 2018

The Shaw & Cathcart Co. was a pioneering dry goods and general store; likely Bismarck’s first retail store.

Details on the operation and ownership are unclear. Several sources state that the store was based out of Saint Paul, Minnesota. In any case, the local store originated as a partnership with W.B. Shaw and Asa Fisher in Boston. Both men relocated to the new town of Edwinton (now Bismarck) in 1872, but it appears only Shaw continued the store locally.

The Cathcart connection relates to an affiliation with long-time Saint Paul dry goods merchant Cathcart & Co. At the very least, Cathcart was a supplier, and may have also been a partner. W.B. Shaw – the local proprietor – also had Saint Paul roots, and both men may have resided in Toronto.

Local History

The Bismarck store originated as Shaw, Cathcart, & Fisher – a partnership enterprise in Boston, Massachusetts involving Asa Fisher and W.B. Shaw. Cathcart’s involvement has been unconfirmed, as previously mentioned.

Shaw and Fisher both relocated to Edwinton (now Bismarck) in May 1872, the same year as Bismarck’s formal founding. Shaw continued the retail operation, as Shaw & Cathcart Co., then later as W.B. Shaw & Co. Fisher, on the other hand, established a billiards hall where he also sold alcohol and tobacco. It’s unconfirmed Fisher’s continued involvement with the Shaw & Cathcart store after relocating.

For the first year, it operated out of a tent along the river. By winter, it was “papered” and boarded over. Business was brisk during its first year, selling a reported $60,000 worth of merchandise.

A September 20, 1911 article says that the store moved “with the town” the following year, to the corner of 4th Street and Main Avenue, where it erected one of the town’s first framed buildings. This reference to moving with the town is a clear correlation to the townsite contest that put the sanctioned town’s geographic location in doubt.

Mr. Shaw existed the mercantile business in spring 1874 upon acquiring a freighting contract, selling $150,000 worth of merchandise in its final year. He later became a post trader at Fort Berthold before relocating back to Saint Paul.

Original Location Dispute

There’s little doubt as to the store’s ultimate location at 4th and Main, likely the northwest corner, but there are varying accounts as to its original location in 1872.

Nearly all sources say that the store was originally located along the river. At least one source says it was near what would later become the private residence of Jerry Plants, at “the landing.” Others, including Linda Slaughter’s Fortress to Farm, put the store further south at Carleton City, which is the most probable.

On the other hand, there are sources stating that the store was within the town of Edwinton (now Bismarck) from the onset. This contradiction seems unlikely due to several factors.

Its reasonable to conclude that the rerouting of the railroad in 1873 and ensuring townsite contest has led to these contradictions.

Cathcart & Co.

Saint Paul-based Cathcart & Co was a long-time dry goods retailer and wholesaler that operated between, approximately, 1852-1876. Several sources of the era cite it as the oldest dry goods retailer in Minnesota, and the largest wholesaler in the state. It was also, perhaps, the first store specializing in dry goods in Saint Paul.

Brothers Alexander H. Cathcart and John William Cathcart founded the store as A.H. and J. Cathcart in 1852, according to Pen Pictures of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Biographical Sketches of Old Settlers. This would have been six years prior to Minnesota’s admittance as a state.

Alexander Cathcart (about 1820-1899) was born in Toronto, where he learned the dry goods business at a young age. He later resided in Montreal and New York before migrating to Saint Paul in 1851.

The Cathcart brothers relocated their store to Robert Street, in Saint Paul, before erecting a large brick building on Third Street (either 132 3rd Street or 183 3rd Street).

Brother John (about 1829-1864) was killed during the Civil War, on April 11, 1864, on a cotton plantation he leased near Vicksburg.

In 1873, Alexander took on a new partner, a man by the name of Wm.H. Oxley (perhaps, William Oxley). It was about this time that the store was relocated to the corner of 3rd & Wabasha Streets.

The Oxleys later relocate to the Miles City region of Montana before returning in 1884. Sometime before 1886, Alexander relocated to Farmington, Minnesota, where he continued operating the store until returning to Saint Paul.

Alexander’s son, of the same name, was a lawyer who operated under the Cathcart & Co banner in the real estate industry beginning in about the 1890s with his uncle, former Minnesota Governor William Rainey Marshall.

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