Montgomery Ward’s lasting legacy

Published 2:25 am Tuesday, September 18, 2007

By By Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery
Boys and girls gather 'round and I will tell you a tale of how childhood's brightest Christmas light has a Niles school-boy to thank for its yearly flight.
Ah yes, it is true. Without the vision of Aaron Montgomery Ward, there may never have been a Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
While Ward was neither born nor buried in Niles, the Ward family plot is located in Silverbrook, where his parents and one sister are. Niles did not open its doors until 15 years after the legendary retailer died.
However, Niles can lay claim to the young Montgomery Ward's formative years.
Ward traveled to Niles by stagecoach with his parents when he was eight years old. He was a student in Miss Brown's Select School, until he was 14.
At that time the industrious young Ward became a trade apprentice and then went to work in a local stave factory for a mere 25 cents an hour. According to reports he also spent some time stacking bricks for 30 cents a day.
In his biography, Ward says," I greatly increased my knowledge. I learned I was not physically or mentally equipped for brick or barrel making."
By the time he was 17 in 1861, perhaps tired of manual labor, Ward went to work in the county seat, St. Joseph at a shoe store, "to learn the trade and sell boots and shoes… Being a fair salesman, within nine months was engaged as a salesman in a General Country Store at the princely salary of $6 per month and board," according to his biography.
His father had become a cobbler in Niles, but Ward had his sights set on bigger game. This was the closest he ever came to following in his father's humble footsteps.
Within three years it was obvious that Ward had found his stride, when he became the store's manager. Literally, a young man on the move, he finally boarded one of steamboats making daily runs across Lake Michigan to Chicago during the beginning of post-Civil War recovery.
After a time of selling corn salve, Ward joined Field, Palmer &Leiter where his earnings rose from five dollars a week to $12 per week. The company's partners had sold $8,000,000 in dry-goods during their year-old partnership. Ward knew a good idea when he saw it.
Still not satisfied, Ward worked for a variety of Chicago firms selling dry-goods throughout Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. He stated, "Tried the south, making an engagement with Walter M. Smith and Co. of St. Louis."
It was not the way to get rich, and Ward tired of all the traveling by stagecoach, hiring rigs at livery stables and tedious rounds of train trips. He did; however, listen closely to the complaints and concerns of back-country proprietors and their rural customers.
"A new merchandising technique that had been growing in his mind, popped out like a mushroom," his biography explains the idea that would change the face of customer service and retailing forever.
Ward soon moved back to Chicago and the wholesale/retail dry goods, notions and carpeting firm of C.W. &E. Partridge Co. While there he "squirreled away all he could save from his earnings and bought a small amount of merchandise at wholesale prices."
He had confided in a friend from Michigan about his plans to sell the merchandise to rural consumers from a list of available goods, sight unseen.
His friend George Thorne, who owned a small grocery and had built a home on the open prairie north of the city, told Ward he would never make a living with his crazy scheme. Thorne was wrong.
During the great Chicago fire of 1871, the business district was wiped out. Ward helped Partridge save some of their goods but lost all his own hard-won goods. Thorne lost his grocery in the fire as well; but his home escaped the fiery fate.
As with many catastrophic events, the ordeal brought the two men closer and Ward eventually married Thorne's young sister-in-law who saw her beau's obvious talents and believed in his plans for the future.
Throughout the early years, Elizabeth Ward helped her husband address the mailing of purchases – made from their single sheet list of items which sold for anywhere from $1 for "12 yards of the best quality prints to a hunting-case watch for $6" – of orders secured from their all-too-often empty post office box that first year of 1872.
Their first order was from Lewis W. Smith, himself a postmaster in Effingham, Ill., a town in the southeastern corner of the state. As did many postmasters of the day, Smith doubled as the proprietor of the general store.
While the beginning trickle of orders gave Ward an aura of hope, the two partners he had encouraged to join him in his Partridge days, were not as enthusiastic and by 1973 had withdrawn from the company leaving Ward the sole proprietor of Montgomery, Ward &Company, the typo insertion of the comma separating first and last name hung on.
Reviews of the company alternated between "Of Montgomery, Ward &Co., we are glad to say we can speak in better terms. We find them young men of considerable business tact and bearing a reputation for honesty and promptness," to "Grangers Beware! Don't patronize Montgomery, Ward &Co. – they are dead-beats." The lack of a public presence past the price sheet and no prior viewing of purchases no doubt caused more than a little skepticism.
By 1874, Ward was occupied by his own business full-time and parted ways with Partridge. He continued to grow the company into a multi-million dollar mail order empire.
His parents continued on in the Queen Anne styled home Ward built for them on S. Joseph St. in Niles in 1895. Following their deaths, his sister Cora Hammond remained in the home until her death in 1930. It disappeared from the local landscape in the summer of 1980 to make way for the medical clinic.
Ward was well-known as a pioneer environmentalist who is credited with taking the legal measures necessary to stop construction along Lake Michigan's Chicago shoreline and the development of Grant Park described as "the city's elegant front yard." For his efforts he became known as the "Watchdog of the Lakefront."
Though reluctant to follow Sears and Penny's into the retail marketplace, in 1926, Wards opened the first of three experimental retail storefronts in Plymouth, Ind. Less than two years later, Ward 'returned' to Niles when the store here opened as one of 200 retail outlets opened across the country in 1928.
All of which brings us back to Rudolph. The red-nosed icon came to life in 1939, when management at Ward's Chicago-based store asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May to come up with a Christmas story they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. Previously the chain had been purchasing coloring books as giveaways during the holiday season and May's department head saw that creating their own storybook as a way of saving money.
Though there was some concern that the brilliant-nosed elk, which May based loosely on the Hans Christen Andersen tale of the Ugly Duckling, might offend as red noses were commonly associated with drunkenness: by the end of 1946, more than six million copies of the booklet had been distributed free of charge to the Montgomery Ward &Co.'s holiday shoppers.
In an act of entrepreneurship equaling that of the man who once went to Miss Brown's Select School in Niles, May persuaded Montgomery Ward's corporate president to turn over the copyright of his creation to him. May then left Montgomery Ward's for a period of seven years beginning in 1951 to develop his creation that, was turned into a holiday song by his brother-in-law Johnny Marks in 1947, and was eventually recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, selling two million copies that year.
Montgomery Ward: entrepreneur extraordinaire, environmentalist and mentor may be buried in Chicago; but his ambitions began in Niles.