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Sperry's Department Store -- A Look Back, part 2

Sperry’s Department Store — A Look Back, part 2

By Sharon Remington

To read part one of Sperry’s Department Store — A Look Back, John Benjamin Sperry, click here.

                In 1928, the same year that Clare Sperry advanced to the office manager, Sperry’ ran a series of 22 newspaper ads commending the advantages of the cash policy the store was continuing to promote.  (“When you see a Sperry Delivery truck stop in front of your neighbor’s door, you know the parcel has been paid for.”)

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                In March of 1929, Ben Sperry took a monumental business step.  He merged his company with three other Michigan retailers in Continental Department Stores Inc. – a combination he thought would give Sperry’s both substantial merchandising advantages and cost savings.  The other two stores were Smith-Bridgeman and O. M. Smith.

                But as 1931 approached, with the country caught up in the grip that would become the Great Depression, Ben Sperry was having second thoughts about the Continental merger.  He began negotiations to withdraw from it.  However, fate would intrude. He became seriously ill and entered a hospital in Boston.  Over the next several months all treatments failed and J. B. Sperry, Founder of a venerable mercantile and community institution, died on May 17, 1931.  His death came three weeks short of his 63rd Birthday.

                At the store’s 50th Anniversary observance a dozen years later, Clare Sperry would describe his father, “He was friendly and humble, above all.  He received the respect of those with whom he worked.”  J. B. Sperry was also a responsible father, his son told the 50th Anniversary celebrants.  “I am deeply grateful for the early training received at his hands., sometimes literally,” he confided.  “It was a training that had been invaluable, although at times it seemed stern, but his guidance and leading ways were always constructive.  To me he was a wise father.”  The substance of Clare Sperry’s anniversary message was that without J. B. Sperry’s,  “Planning, his wisdom, and his foresight, there would be no Sperry Building and no retail establishment worthy of the name.”

                Clare Sperry, who in 1930 had been made merchandise manager of the store, was named to succeed his father as company president.  The new proprietor upon whom was suddenly thrust the responsibility of running the Thumb District’s largest retail store — was 29 years old.

                The year after J. B. Sperry’s death, Clare Sperry completed negotiations to carry out the plan that had been cut short by his father’s death.  He completed the withdrawal of Sperry’s from the Continental organization, restoring the company back to family ownership.

                As the Depression deepened, the depressed economy reflected depressed prices.  A basement sale ad in the Times Herald of Sept. 11, 1935, offered:  men’s 100% wool zipper jackets for $2.98, men’s overalls for 75 cents.  Ladies’ lace-trimmed rayon slips for 39 cents.

                In February of 1940, Sperry’s joined the community in celebration.  Thomas Edison’s boyhood Theater.  Mickey Rooney, who would play the title role and other Hollywood notables would be on hand for the festivities in the movie’s locale . . . against a backdrop of enthusiastic townspeople turned out in fashions of the 1850s and ‘60s.  To make certain everything went right for the event, Mr. Clare Sperry rented 19th Century dresses and bonnets for his lady employees, and frock coats and hats for the men employees – costumes were worn at work, as did other downtown store employees, for the week of the festivities.

                Three months later another memorable event took place, in a different way.  On May 15, 1940, customers lined up at Sperry’s and two other downtown stores to buy their allocation of a limited supply of a new kind of women’s hosiery – made not of silk but of a man-made fiber the manufacturer called “nylon.”  The supply was quickly exhausted.

                The Nation was at last emerging from depression – only to be confronted by the even more deadly trauma of war.

                The United States was thrust into WW II on Dec. 7, 1941.  The same year, Clare Sperry, though 41 years of age, volunteered for service.  He was commissioned a lieutenant in the U. S. Naval Reserve in Dec. 1942 and ordered to active duty.  Before leaving, He placed the store in the hands of Herbert M. Brink, general manager, and Hinman G. Nichols, controller, and building and personnel manager.  For the first time, the day-to-day running of the store would be someone other than a Sperry.

                Sperry’s observed it’s 50th anniversary while Clare Sperry was in the service.  On June 22, 1943, a store ad in the Times Herald headed “50 Years of Service to Port Huron”.  The ad carried a photo of J. B. Sperry and described his Port Huron Weekly Times ad of 50 years earlier.  “In the fifty years since that far day, Port Huron has read many Sperry advertisements, attended many Sperry events and taken part in many Sperry celebrations.  Sperry’s has become name and institution inseparably linked with life and growth of Port Huron itself . . . Sperry’s has grown and prospered.”  The anniversary message concluded, “—and we take the occasion of this anniversary day to so pledge our energies to this fine community.”

                Of course, Sperry’s had a gigantic 50th Anniversary sale.  In addition, it had a special Golden Anniversary celebration.  Business, community, and civic leaders joined store personnel at a dinner in the Gratiot Inn to mark Sperry’s 50th Birthday.

                The war came to an end, at long last, when by then Lieut. Commander Sperry returned from service to take over store operations.  Shortages because of the war would become a thing of the past.  The “new store” was now 22 years old.    Few changes had been made since it was opened, so Clare Sperry had extensive renovations drawn up also for some remodeling.  But before materials could be made available, on Saturday, April 20, 1946, 8:30 p.m. a tragedy would occur.

                The watchman, James Smith discovered fire in the marking room at the west end in the basement.  He turned in the alarm, then he called Mr. Sperry, who then, rushed to the scene.

                The next day Mr. Sperry estimated the extensive damage at between $50,000. and $75,000.

And to be re-opened “in a matter of days”.  Fire inspectors ultimately traced the blaze to deteriorated electrical wiring in a place where waste paper collected.

                The store reopened on Monday, June 17th for employees and was ready for business one week later when it opened its doors for customers.  All the stores stock was new, (because of smoke damage) along with new fixtures and a lot of new equipment.  The store was remodeled.  Mr. Sperry’s damage estimate revision:  $150,000.

                In 1951, Walter R. Simmers, from a Sharon Pennsylvania department store, joined Sperry’s as general merchandising manager.  He would eventually become the store’s vice president and general manager, ultimately succeeding Mr. Sperry as the store’s top executive.

                In 1952, the second floor was completely renovated.  Meanwhile, anniversary sales were emphasized for the year.  The 60th Anniversary sale in 1953 was quite special.  All couples from the Thumb Area of Michigan who were married 60 years (or more) were invited to be Sperry’s guests at an anniversary dinner.  Poet Edger A. Guest, speaker, at the dinner held in the First Congregational Church here, that honored eleven couples who had reached their 60th wedding anniversary.  One newspaper ad noted that Sperry’s had grown in 60 years from one hardware department to 60 departments.  Port Huron’s most complete department store is actually the store that will never know completion.”

                In 1956, The main floor was renovated.

                On December 1, 1960, Sperry’s underwent an enormous change – for some it was a traumatic – change:  Mr. Sperry retired, and the store was sold to Alden’s Inc., the Chicago based owner of 16 Midwest stores.  Mr. Sperry said the sale to Alden’s was to assure the store’s personnel and policies. Mr. Sperry announced that Mr. Simmers, named vice president and general manager of the store in 1955, would continue in that capacity.  Later, Alden’s was acquired by Wickes Companies Inc. of San Diego, Calif., which also acquired Gamble – Skogmo and Leath Furniture Stores.  Sperry’s became a subsidiary of Gamble – Skogmo.  Since Alden’s had its own furniture division it no longer carried the Leath-owned furniture department.

                In 1963, in the biggest expansion ever, 10,000 square feet of space on the third floor had been reclaimed where offices were.

                On December 4, 1966, a huge fire – due to a cracked chimney –destroyed Spike Furniture Company on the North East corner of Grand River Ave. and Michigan Street, a block east of Sperry’s. The fire also destroyed an adjacent three-story building that was Sperry’s warehouse and a Goodyear Tire store that had been under construction.  Sperry’s loss . . . mostly furniture was estimated by General Manager Simmers at $200,000.

                In 1968, Mr. Simmers retired.  He was succeeded as general manager by Edwin R. Cloeter, who joined Sperry’s in 1961.

                In 1978, Mr. Cloeter left Sperry’s.  He was succeeded as Sperry’s general manager by Von Sackman.  Mr. Sackman served until 1980, when he resigned and was replaced by Dwight Horr, manager of several stores, most recently for the Gamble organization in South Bend, Indiana.

                On October 6, 1982, Sperry’s became a Michigan owned store again when Seitner Bros. Inc., of Saginaw, bought it from Wickes.  Five years later Mr. Horr was promoted to store vice president and general manager.

                On April 29, 1987, Sperry’s went into the last ownership change in its century-long history when Seitner Bros. sold Sperry’s and three of its Saginaw area stores to Fred W. Uhlman &Co., of Bowling Green, Ohio.  Mr. Uhlman retained Mr. Horr and other Sperry’s personnel.

                In January of 1988, Mr. Horr left Sperry’s.  It had been eight years since his promotion to division manager at Uhlman’s headquarters in Bowling Green.

                One month later, Brian Harris, a Port Huronite and manager of Dancer’s Fashions across the street, came “home” to Sperry’s as manager.  He’d been a buyer and advertising manager at Sperry’s for five years before moving, in ’81, to Hudson’s in Detroit, then to Dancer’s, where he served as a local and district manager.

                Three months later, work was started on yet another Sperry’s renovation.  Mr. Harris implemented his own interior store designs and was the general contractor.  He strived to recapture the store’s elegant, classic image.  The $500.000 program would take four years under his direction to complete.

                In 1992, the second-floor hair salon, now bearing the new name of “Attitudes”, would now be owned and operated by Sperry’s for the first time in the store’s history.

301 HURON AVENUE

Sperry’s department store, an anchor of the city of Port Huron’s downtown area, closed September 29, 2000, more than 100 years after it opened.  It spent 2004 to 2006 as a House of Denmark furniture store.

                On Dec. 15, 2016, Chuck Reid opened the historic building as the Sperry’s Moviehouse with ‘Star Wars’.

                The exterior of Sperry’s Moviehouse matches the 1955 remodel of the department store from Huron, including the neon Sperry’s Marquee and Art Deco soffit.  The entrance to the theater is on the west side of the building.

                Sperry’s Moviehouse features 12 theaters, five on the first floor and seven on the third floor, each with between 27 and 44 seats.  All seats for all movie showings are available for online reservations.

                Reid is the owner of numerous companies, including First Class Seating and Charter House innovations in Zeeland and City Flats Hotels, with locations in Grand Rapids and Holland.

                Beedon, who sold the building to Reid and is a 25-year veteran of real estate sales and development, had no previous experience in running cinemas.

                “One of the challenges the architect faced was working around the support columns throughout the building.” Beedon said.

                The movie seats are zero gravity recliners and are first in the country to operate by solar power.  Solar panels on the roof will generate electricity and repurposed Toyota Prius Batteries will store the power.  “The cool thing is that Sperry’s Moviehouse is a showcase for his First-Class Seating, which manufactured the theater seats,” said Beedon.

REFERENCES

  • Sperry’s The First Hundred Years by Bernard P. Lyons
  • The Big Screen Cinema Guide
  • The Voice
  • Trip Adviser
  • The Times Herald

                                                                                                    Sharon L. Remington

My name is Sharon Remington. I graduated with the Charter Class of Sterling Heights School In 1973. College courses include psychology, interior design, and computers. After working a variety of jobs, I then went on to graduate from the Fashion School of Beauty. I became a licensed Nail technician and worked in Shelby Township. In 2002 I had an opportunity to move to the Blue Water area and have been loving it ever since! One of my passions is volunteer work. Currently, I am an Ambassador for an area senior independent living.  
The setting is a community of residents all living under one roof. I call it a mini-resort. The people come from all walks of life are friendly and a pleasure to be around. Some of my interest include water, gardening, crafts, poetry, animals and long walks. I also collect nautical articles from different places I visit. I look forward to being a part of Blue Water Healthy Living Magazine. My goal is to bring material that is appealing to its reader’s.

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Disclaimer: Blue Water Healthy Living is an online magazine located in Port Huron, Michigan. Our purpose is to promote healthy living by showcasing the Blue Water Area, its people, issues and surroundings. This online magazine is devoted to providing healthy living related stories, local happenings, and commentary. Often inspiring and uplifting, our stories come from our heart and soul to promote the enjoyment of a more fulfilling Blue Water Area lifestyle. The material on this web site is provided for informational and amusement purposes only and is not to be confused with any medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and values of Blue Water Healthy Living.

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