The news about Sears these days is grim. The once mighty retail giant has failed to turn a profit since 2010. It’s shuttering 180 stores this year after losing $2.2 billion last year.
That’s quite a fall. In 1972, two out of three Americans shopped at Sears, Roebuck and Co. Half the nation’s households carried a Sears credit card and the company accounted for 1 percent of the country’s gross national product. With 1945 sales reaching $1 billion dollars, Sears climbed to the top eight largest corporations on the planet and its largest retailer.
But long before its dramatic arc of success and decline, the Sears story started at a train depot just north of Redwood Falls, Minn., roughly 115 miles southwest of Minneapolis. The tale actually began in 1863 in the southern Minnesota burg of Stewartville, near Rochester.
That’s where Richard Warren Sears was born — the oldest of James and Eliza Sears’ three children. Their home at 305 N. Main Street is now perched on the National Register of Historic Places.
Richard Sears’ father was a New York-born blacksmith, wagon maker and Civil War veteran who fashioned some of Dr. William Mayo’s first surgical tools. When Richard was 14, the family moved about 150 miles west from Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota so his father could try raising cattle. The livestock gig failed, forcing the elder Sears to go back to blacksmithing in Heron Lake, near Worthington.
Richard Sears went to school in Heron Lake, attended one year of high school in Mankato and studied to become a telegraph operator at 16. After telegraphy stints in rail depots in South Dakota and North Branch, Sears landed a job at 22 at the train depot north of Redwood Falls. He augmented his pay by selling coal and lumber and even pocket watches on the side.
“The idea of Sears began in 1886, at a terminal alongside a railway track in the middle of nowhere, when a twenty-three-year-old man came upon a means of selling gold-filled pocket watches to rural folks who previously marked their lives by the movement of the sun,” author Donald R. Katz wrote in his 1987 book, “The Big Store.”
When a Redwood Falls jeweler declined to sell a shipment of watches on consignment, Sears received permission from the Chicago watch company to sell them himself — peddling the $12 timepieces for $14 to turn a $600 profit.
“Within six months, Richard Sears’ watch business escalated so much that he resigned from the railroad in 1886 and moved to Minneapolis, where he could devote full time to his growing mail order enterprise,” according to a 2014 story in the Redwood Falls Gazette.
By 1887, Sears ditched Minnesota, moved his watch-selling business to Chicago and took out an ad in the Chicago Daily News.
“WANTED: Watchmaker with reference who can furnish tools. State age, experience and salary required.”
A quiet Indiana watchmaker named Alvah C. Roebuck — a month younger than Sears — responded to the ad, brought along some samples and was hired.
“Here began the association of two young men, both still in their twenties, that was to make their names famous,” according to Sears’ website. “For it was in 1893 that the corporate name of the firm became Sears, Roebuck and Co.”
Remembering his father’s struggles on the farm, Sears began offering farmers an alternative to the rural general stores, which were selling flour for twice what they paid the farmers in the 1890s. Parlaying volume buying, railroads and the post office — and later free rural delivery for their widely popular catalogs — the company mushroomed into a billion-dollar business by 1945. The 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago, since renamed, was the tallest building in the world from 1973 to 1998 — carrying the name of a Minnesota telegrapher and entrepreneur to new heights.
“If Sears were coming of age today, he would have been all over eBay,” said Scott Larson, the vice president of the Redwood County Historical Society. “He was an early adapter.”
Redwood County’s museum has a small room dedicated to Sears. The old depot was about to be moved to serve as a museum in 1960 but burned on the blocks, Larson said. There are some token items and old photographs in the existing museum.
The company sent the city of North Redwood some of those items in the 1980s around the 100th anniversary of Sears’ first watch sale, and included $50 pocket watches in its centennial catalog with a train depot on the case. Further attempts by North Redwood leaders to reach out to corporate headquarters were unfruitful.
“We got a dust-off; they weren’t interested in pursuing a relationship, ” Larson said. “I still have my replica watch, but they could care less that their company started in Redwood Falls. It’s kind of sad, but the bigger you get, the less you care about your roots.”
By 1895, Sears’ catalog had swelled to 532 pages, sparking $750,000 in sales. Richard Sears retired in 1908 — living in Oak Park and Lake Bluff, Ill., and Waukesha, Wis. — where he died at 51 from bad kidneys. The New York Times reported he was worth $20 million when he died. He’s buried in Chicago. Sears’ parents and his sisters, Alta (Kate) and Eva, clung more tightly to their Minnesota roots. All four are buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.