Romance of Omaha, Chapter VII

Situated in the heart of the richest agricultural region in the world and peopled by the hardy and far-seeing pioneer stock of expanding America, it was inevitable from the beginning that Omaha should become one of the great commercial centers.

The destiny of the frontier hamlet on the eastern fringe of the great west was pointed for it when Milton Tootle, later to become a great merchant prince of St. Joseph, Mo., founded the first actual store in the city of Omaha.

A few wagon loads of goods comprised the stock of that store. They were brought north on a Missouri river steamer and consisted of boots and shoes, queensware and notions. That was in the late fall of 1854 or the early spring of 1855 and marked the advent of Omaha into the commercial world of the new west.

Great Merchandise Growth Shown

No records remain to tell what the total sales of the Omaha merchants were that first year, but even the most visionary optimist of that time could hardly have dreamed of the day when the wholesale business of Omaha would total $500,000,000 annually and the retail transactions would amount to more than $150,000,000 each year, as they now do.

The first store on the site of Omaha, if it can be called a store, was established before the city was founded.

Mystery surrounds it. According to Father DeSmet, noted pioneer missionary, a fur trader by the name of T.B. Roye or Royce had a trading post where Omaha now stands.

Apparently he was here from 1825 to 1828. He was quite a noted trader but where he came from and where he went remain a mystery to this day.

Trading Post First Store

His post was located between Ninth and Tenth streets and Dodge and Capitol avenue. Outlines of the foundations could be seen for years after Omaha was settled. Other traders who followed Royce preferred a site near Bellevue, or farther north and no other business was started here until Milton Tootle came north with his goods.

The Tootle store was located at Tenth and Farnam streets. James G. Megeath followed fast on the heels of Tootle and for a time almost monopolized the trade with the Mormons who established "winter quarters" at Florence when driven out of Illinois.

Wholesale and retail establishments came fast as the valuable trade with the Indians was developed. With the discovery of gold in Colorado, Omaha became the outfitting post of the west and the demand for bigger and better stores caused much large investments.

Quite a sensation was created in 1867 when Stephens and Wilcox, a pioneer business firm, imported mahogany counters and opened a palatial establishment.

Gold Rush Starts Wholesalers

The line was so loosely drawn between wholesaling and retailing and the two were combined by so many firms that it is difficult to say just when the first wholesale house was actually established in Omaha.

The first exclusive wholesale grocery was started as early as 1856 by J.H. Lacey and John McCormick. They were in time to profit by the rush for the Colorado gold fields.

Between this time and the coming of the railroads Omaha prospered mightily from the river traffic. At times the Omaha levee was piled high with goods unloaded from steamers and some firms, even in that distant day, did $1,000,000 worth of business yearly.

The earlier business firms were inclined to specialize in one line or another and when Ross and Cruckshank opened the first "department store" in Omaha, at Fourteenth and Farnam streets, in 1868, they were regarded as very unorthodox. They dealt in drygoods, notions, and house furnishings only, but they were the pioneers in the field that has now become general.

Customers Always Particular

From the very first, customers of Omaha stores were particular about the quality of the goods they bought.

Even the Indians wanted nothing but the best, and Omaha merchants acquired the habit many years ago of carrying only the highest quality of merchandise, a habit that has remained with them to this day.

The shopper of the 50s and 70s was not easy to please. Articles were bought to wear and to stand hard usage.

The ready-to-wear stocks of today were no-existent and milady of the pioneer days was a critical buyer, especially of goods for her gowns.

Dresses were dresses in those days of petticoats and flounces. "Undies" were voluminous and numerous. Stockings were sturdy bits of apparel even though they were rarely seen when on the "limbs" of their fair wearers.

Those Days Things Had to Last

Except among the wealthy a dress or suit was supposed to last for years and this required quality of the highest order.

From that time to the present is a rather far cry and the changes, especially in women's styles, have been startling. But the demand for high quality has remained constant and Omaha merchants are still catering to the discriminating shopper as they were 60 or more years ago.

Vast stocks of merchandise are now at the call of the man or woman who comes to Omaha to trade or of those who live in the city. Not even in the largest cities can better quality and more modern styles be found than in Omaha's mercantile establishments.

Omaha merchants have more than kept step with the growth and progress of the city and as a result the wholesale and retail business of the city has developed amazingly fast.

Came 1,000 Miles to Buy Here

Merchants come 1,000 miles and more to buy of Omaha wholesalers and jobbers. Shoppers from more than 100 miles away come in person to buy of Omaha retailers. Mail order business done by retail stores reaches 500 miles or more.

The whoelsale territory stretches into nine states, to the north, south, east and west. The retail section proper is regarded as that territory within a 50-mile radius of the city.

Within the wholesale territory live 6,000,000 people. They are served by thousands of merchants who in turn are served by Omaha firms.

Within the retail territory of 50 miles in all directions the population is more than 500,000 persons. They own more than 85,000 automobiles. Their savings total more than $100,000,000. Thirty thousand farms and 150 towns lie within this retail trade territory.

Omaha's Great Retail Center

The wealth of this section and the exceptional transportation facilities make Omaha the great retail center that it is.

Figures for the yearly wholesale and retail business of the city, carefully compiled or estimated are as follows:

Wholesale Retail
Total Sales $500,000,000 $150,000,000
Number of firms 550 2,634
Total Investment $65,000,000 $40,000,000
No. employees 12,000 15,000
Total wages paid $22,000,000 $23,000,000

The foregoing figures on wholesale and retail firms include concerns of all kinds. Retailers dealing in food products, clothing, house furnishings and drugs total 1,600 and that figure is used by the Chamber of Commerce. Other cities, however, include every variety of business and that plan is followed here.

Every year these business enterprises attract to Omaha more than 1,000,000 visitors from far and near. They come by railroads, bus and private automobile. Soon they will be coming by air.

Though vast the wholesale, jobbing and retail commerce of Omaha is in its infancy. The future holds promise of development so great that it may be visioned only through the lenses of the imagination.

Chapter VIII
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