Historic Monmouth store fell victim to retail trends
MONMOUTH, Ill. — As long ago as the early 1960s, downtown Monmouth merchants were worried about the encroachment of shopping centers and discount stores on traditional retail establishments. We know now that they had good reason to worry.
One of those merchants was about as traditional as you could find. Fred Schmitz, who for more than a quarter century ran a fabric store on the Public Square, showing up every day wearing a white shirt and bowtie, announced in 1963 that he was going to retire. His wife, Mary, whose name he had combined with his own to christen the store Mayfred’s in 1937, had died the previous year, and he likely felt the time had come to gracefully bow out of the business.
Schmitz had started out as a traveling salesman, working 25 years for textile companies, and when he opened the store his emphasis was on offering quality and style — characteristics he believed that modern shoppers valued most. Over the years, the industry had changed greatly and he changed with it. Nylon and other synthetics had replaced silk and satin as staple fabrics, and the growth of 4-H Clubs and home economics classes had made shoppers more discerning.
The store itself had undergone extensive changes since he purchased it from its founder, John C. Allen, 26 years earlier. When Allen opened the business in 1896, it was a dry goods store, stocking much more than fabric and sewing supplies. There was a notions department, suit and coat department, carpet department and drapery department.
By the 1920s, the store was conducting an annual business of $250,000 — roughly $3.7 million in today’s currency — and employing 35 workers. Located at 53 Public Square, in what would later be known as the Homestead Savings & Loan building, the success of the store was undoubtedly tied to the industriousness and brilliant business mind of its founder.
John Clayton Allen was a native of Vermont, where he was born on the eve of the Civil War to an abolitionist father who would distinguish himself as a soldier at Gettysburg and then become a member of the Vermont legislature.
After attending an academy in New Haven, Vermont, 21-year-old John Allen moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he opened a mercantile business. Five years later, he moved to McCook, Nebraska, where he opened a second such store. He was soon elected to the McCook city council and in 1890 was elected the city’s mayor. Never one to rest on his laurels, he ran successfully for Nebraska secretary of state in 1891, holding that position until 1895.
With a successful retail record under his belt, Allen moved to Monmouth in 1896, and it was not long before John C. Allen Co. became one of the leading department stores in the state. It was located in the Peoples National Bank building, and it was not surprising that Allen was asked to become one of the bank’s directors. He took an immediate interest in banking, and in 1914 was elected the bank’s president.
Allen’s work in Monmouth was not limited to business and finance. For 20 straight years he also served as president of the board of education.
When G.O.P. Congressman William J. Graham of Aledo retired from the House of Representatives in 1924, Allen — a staunch Republican — was nominated to serve as his successor in what was then the 14th Congressional District. He won the election handily, by 20,000 votes, and was immediately named to the House committee on Banks and Banking.
Allen would serve four terms in Congress before being defeated in 1932 by a Democratic candidate. Peoples National Bank was dissolved in 1933 — a victim of the Great Depression — but Allen’s store continued to thrive and he also remained active in Monmouth’s Commercial and Rotary clubs and as a 32nd-degree Mason. But by 1937, his health began to fail and he decided to sell his department store to Fred Schmitz. He was admitted to Monmouth Hospital, where he would remain a resident for the next 17 months, dying on Jan. 12, 1939.
Homestead Savings & Loan purchased the old Peoples Bank building in 1938, and just as Allen’s had been Peoples Bank’s longtime anchor tenant, Mayfred’s would continue the tradition for the S & L. But the public was saddened in the spring of 1963, when Schmitz announced he would conduct a three-month liquidation sale.
The historic storefront remained vacant for a few years, before it was eventually occupied by Peacock-Salaway Insurance.
Sadly, a fire set by an arsonist in an adjacent building on April 11, 1974, spread to the historic bank building. The former dry goods store that had occupied 53 Public Square for nearly eight decades was soon razed.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.