Sperry’s Department Store — A Look Back
By Sharon Remington
On June 6, 1868, on a farm between Otter Lake and Fostoria in Lapeer County, John Benjamin Sperry was born. At a young age, he began working on the farm. From a rather early age, he wanted to be a merchant.
Still in elementary school (in Lapeer). He got a job after school in a store that paid $5 a week. All schooling required in those days was up to the eighth grade. Upon finishing 8th grade he got a full-time job in a Lapeer hardware store and learned the business. This also gave him the opportunity to plan his own future.
In 1889, at the age of 21, he took his savings of almost $500 and purchased the stock of a small hardware store in Standish. After four years of running his own business and participating in the community, he was ready to move on. When an opportunity came for him to sell at a profit, he sold out.
What he did next had a strong impact on the lives of many others in our community and area. Perhaps he may have heard of the failing hardware store in Port Huron by word of mouth. Through salesmen, friends or former business associates in Lapeer. Anyway, in the early summer of 1893, Ben Sperry came to Port Huron with some borrowed money. He bought the stock of the Wm. J. Loder store on the southeast corner of Huron and Grand River Avenues. For less than $1000, which was a substantial amount in that day.
The young entrepreneur was able to arrange to occupy the Loder premises—242 Huron Ave.—where he promptly reopened as the J. B. Sperry hardware.
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Ben Sperry hired one helper for his store and lined up numerous suppliers who would serve as manufacturer’s representing various southeastern Michigan towns. One of his major products–The Red Cross stoves – which he set up personally for customers from farm families to merchants in distant communities. Soon he became known as the “Red Cross stove man”.
A 1901 business publication entry read: J. B. Sperry hardware 242 Huron Ave., for 8 years controls one of Port Huron’s largest patronages in heaters and Ranges.
In 1905 something happened that would change the character of J. B Sperry’s business. James W. Goulding died and the toy department of his 99-cent store at 208 Huron Ave., was bought by Ben Sperry. To fill his new product line, Mr. Sperry made his first toy-buying trip to New York.
With Christmas season soon approaching, not only did Ben Sperry offer toys for sale but also promoted Sperry’s as “the Santa Claus store.” Indeed, that is what it ultimately became. For decades following, the arrival of Santa in Sperry’s toy department each December and the Christmas Parade would become major community events. 1917 — the year, incidentally, that Mueller Brass, another community institution, came to Port Huron — As Sperry’s continued to grow, Ben Sperry incorporated his business. He took a step that both underscored the store’s solidity and positioned it for even greater expansion in the future.
That same year another event of importance for the Sperry store “family” and the community, took place. With the United States in World War I, a group of the store’s women employees formed the Sperry’s Girls Welfare Club. Its purpose was to sew for Red Cross projects in support of our troops in France and to raise funds for emergencies faced by employees, their families and others in need.
June 22, 1918, was Sperry’s 25 birthday but the store’s newspaper ad of that date didn’t mention it. That’s probably because it had become the custom to observe anniversary and schedule anniversary sales – at a better time of the year for both store and customers.
The ad did offer some bargains such as children’s middie dresses for 59 cents and ladies’ pumps, regularly $4, for $2.19; seamless bleached sheets for 99 cents. In the hardware department, you could get a Ford socket wrench set – practically all the tools needed to keep a Model-T running – for $1.39.
Prices were low but by today’s standards, were wages. A 1918 store ledger that has been preserved records the payroll. Long-hand entries indicate the vice president and Mr. Sperry’s top assistant, received $35 a week. So did another top executive. A “miss Wilson” earned $22.92 and $20.83 for two consecutive weeks, then reverted to a $15 weekly salary. Emma LaForge, head of ladies’ ready – to – wear, earned $22.50 per week. Also, on the payroll was Mrs. J. B. (Edna) Sperry, at $30 a week.
The following year in 1919, with the costly war finally over and the country and world looking forward to peace, Ben Sperry bought the remainder of the property he would need for the new building on the north side of Grand River Avenue between Huron Avenue and Superior Street. He would begin to plan the finest most customer-convenient, most complete and most up-to-date store he could design, and afford.
At around this time according to seasoned furniture department manager, that Mr. Sperry met Arthur Leath. Both families had been vacationing on a cruise that took them through the Panama Canal. When Mr. Sperry referred to his plans for a new store – then envisioning it as a two-story building. Mr. Leath, who was in the furniture business, was impressed. He proposed, if there was space, to add a furniture department. Whether the decision was made then or later, Mr. Sperry added a third floor, which would provide room for a furniture department.
Planning was completed and owner, architect, and builder were ready to move forward by the summer of 1922. Excavation for the block-long, three-story Sperry building began in August 1922. By the year of the store construction, the occupants of the “Sperry block” were all businesses. But the site had a non-commercial historic claim:
Three-quarters of a century earlier, the corner held the first structure built in Port Huron for Religious worship — Grace Episcopal Church. A small frame building seating about 125 people was dedicated on the site on Aug. 8, 1841, a little more than two years after the congregation was organized by 13 early settlers. The church’s rector was the Rev, Charles Reighley, chaplain at the Fort Gratiot Military Reservation.
The building remained the center of Grace Church activities until 1854 when the congregation moved to a larger structure on Sixth Street.
The church dedication is memorialized on a plaque on the south side of the Sperry Building, placed there in 1941, exactly a century later, by the Sperry company in cooperation with the Grace Church vestry.
With spring right around the corner, the time for occupying the new building at 301 Huron Street drew closer. The anticipation of it brought excitement to many customers and store employees. The block-deep stone- and brick-faced structure contained 63,380 square feet of space on four floors, Including 16 third-floor office suits. The cost of the steel and concrete building, along with fixtures and Equipment, was $250,000.
When asked if his volume of business would support such a big store, Mr. Sperry replied: “If it won’t, we’ll increase our volume.”
The Walter H. Wyeth-designed structure was built for a little more than $2 per square foot, less than half the going rate. It was an accomplishment that drew wide attention in building circles.
Saturday, March 17, 1923, was the last day in the old “Sperry building.” Employees and countless recruits worked through Saturday night packing and hauling equipment and stock across the Huron-Grand River intersection to the new building. The store was able to open for business on the following Tuesday. However, the new store’s formal grand opening wasn’t held for another week—on March 29.”
Unusual for the time was the self-serve grocery store in the basement. It offered vegetables, cakes, cookies, rolls, doughnuts, etc., at all times.
In 1924 a significant event occurred for Sperry’s. Clare R. Sperry, the only child of Ben and Edna Sperry, made the decision after graduation from college that he would join his father in the business. This gave Ben Sperry special pleasure and also a second -generation proprietor. It also gave the Port Huron Community another business and civic leader.
In the summer of 1924, Clare Sperry was a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan.
When he was still in grammar school, he began sweeping and doing odd jobs on Saturdays at Sperry’s. He continued to work in the store during summer vacations after he went away to finish school and while he was in college, gaining experience and knowledge in several different departments.
In 1926, Clare Sperry became the store’s manager and was elected secretary of the Sperry company. In addition to his father, other officers were his uncle, O. C. Sperry of Chesaning, Vice President, and his mother, Edna, secretary.
Stay tuned for Sharon’s look back at Sperry’s.
• Sperry’s The First Hundred Years by Bernard P. Lyons
• The Big Screen Cinema Guide
• The Voice
• Trip Adviser
• The Times Herald