116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: Cedar Rapids had largest Woolworth’s in Iowa before its closing in 1986
Five-and-dime store opened in city in 1902
A new five-and-dime store opened on a rainy July 2, 1902, at a double storefront at 217-219 First Ave. East in Cedar Rapids.
The Woolworth’s opening got billing in The Gazette that day.
“An immense crowd of prospective purchasers surrounded the entrance for several hours before the establishment was in readiness to receive them,” the paper reported. “At one time the store was so crowded that the manager was compelled to close the doors and deny admittance until those on the inside had been waited upon.”
The reporter speculated the crowd would have been twice as large if the weather had been nice.
The store’s manager, Walter M. Smith, was conscientious, as evidenced in an item Smith asked The Gazette to publish before the month was out.
“Last Saturday evening, three boys came into our place of business and one of them purchased a 5-cent ball. In changing the red ball purchased for a white one, the clerk being present, I made the mistake of thinking that a ball had been stolen. I took two of the boys and detained them for a little while.
“I regret the mistake that I made more than I can express in words. The store was full of people, and I took the action I did without proper investigation or care, and I ask space to make this correction and apology, that it may reach those of the large number of customers who heard the boys wrongfully accused.”
Frank W. Woolworth conceived of the idea of a 5-cent store in 1879 in Utica, N.Y. That one failed, but a few months later, it was followed by a 5-and-10-cent store in Lancaster, Pa., that succeeded.
Woolworth associates opened other stores, and in 1912, the 596 stores merged into the F.W. Woolworth Co.
Cedar Rapids store
The chain’s first expansion to the west included the store in Cedar Rapids, Woolworth’s No. 836.
In 1906, the popular store was remodeled and improved at the cost of $6,000 -- just under $200,000 in today’s dollars.
In July 1913, Woolworth’s gained a competitor when S.S. Kresge Co. leased the Hubbard building on First Avenue and Third Street to open its second store in Iowa after the one in Des Moines.
On May 19, 1916, the public was invited to visit the second new Woolworth’s that would be opening at Second Avenue and Second Street SE and listen to the music of the Ballheim Orchestra. Nothing was sold until the next day. Woolworth’s operated both stores until closing the First Avenue store in 1917.
Frank Woolworth died in April 1919. By then, he was the head of an enterprise that encompassed more than 800 stores.
In 1939, a two-story addition was added to the Woolworth’s building under the supervision of a former West Liberty man, R.K. Johnson of Minneapolis, who was the district construction superintendent for the Woolworth stores.
The addition offered a kitchen, air conditioners, a freight elevator and a lounge for women. The store’s entrance was widened and an 86-foot-long luncheonette counter added with stainless steel equipment. Wood floors were replaced with asphalt tile linoleum.
The store expanded again in 1950, acquiring the space at 213 Second Ave. SE and building on a vacant lot at the rear. Woolworth’s then occupied a quarter of the block with the exception of the space occupied by the Dows Building.
In 1956, a second Woolworth’s opened at the new Town & Country Shopping Center on First Avenue East at 36th Street.
Biggest in Iowa
The downtown Woolworth’s made its final move in 1964 across the street to the United Fire and Casualty building, 117 Second St. SE.
It took the company seven months and $400,000 to prepare 30,000 square feet of sales space on the main floor and basement and another 11,000 square feet for offices, stockrooms, a bakery and utility rooms on the second floor before its grand opening Aug. 25, 1965.
The new Woolworth’s was the largest in Iowa and one of the largest in the country.
It featured two “crystal balustrade” escalators, a main floor Coach Light Room restaurant that seated 124, a signature lunch counter, and 48-inch-tall letters on two sides of the building in the company’s signature red.
The popularity of five-and-dime stores waned in the 1970s with the growing popularity of malls.
The Cedar Rapids Woolworth, after more than 80 years of operation, closed after Christmas 1986. A Gazette photographer recorded the removal of the giant Woolworth letters on the United Fire building on Jan. 7, 1987.
By the end of 1993, the company had closed all of its Iowa stores, including ones in Clinton, Dubuque and Keokuk. The chain’s remaining 400 stores closed in 1997.