Many of us who grew up in the 1900s—the golden century of consumerism—were raised on brand loyalty just as surely as we were raised on Howdy Doody, AM radio, and My Weekly Reader. For example, in my household our cars were Chevys, our milk was Boswell’s, our bread was Baird’s, our supermarket was Buddie’s, our soda pop was Dr Pepper, our soft ice cream was Dairy Queen, our aftershave was—can we be forgiven?—Old Spice.
And our department store was Montgomery Ward.
The only charge card that some of us ever saw in our father’s wallet was one for Montgomery Ward. Our childhood memories of poring over the Ward’s Christmas catalog to compile our wish list and then, in the Ward’s catalog order department, having to “take a number” to begin the (seemingly) interminable wait with our parents rival our childhood memories of riding the M&O subway or Santa’s Rocket Express monorail in Leonard’s Toyland.
But the Montgomery Ward company predated even my pubescent lust for a Hercules three-speed English bicycle with whitewall tires and throttle-style gear shifter ($49.95). The company was founded in 1872 by . . . wait for it . . . Aaron Montgomery Ward. Ward had been a traveling salesman who decided to get off the road and put his feet up. So, he opened a mail-order dry-goods business in Chicago.
Here in Fort Worth we think of Fort Worth’s first and main Montgomery Ward store as being on West 7th Street. But the store began its history in Fort Worth more than a century ago on East 7th Street—at the corner of Grove Street on the east side of downtown.
On March 31, 1911 the Star-Telegram announced that the Montgomery Ward company would locate its “Texas headquarters” in Fort Worth.
Just ten weeks later, on June 12, the Star-Telegram showed the construction progress on the 200,000-square-foot building. The construction contract called for the building to be finished within ninety days.
From the June 22, 1911 Star-Telegram.
By December 10 Montgomery Ward was “entirely settled in” at its new Fort Worth building and ready for its first Christmas mail-order shopping season here. But in the beginning the new “Texas branch” didn’t ship many traditional Christmas gifts. It handled “only farming implements, heavy hardware and furniture.” Soon it added dairy supplies. Clip is from the Star-Telegram.
On December 7, 1913 Aaron Montgomery Ward died. Clip is from the April 8 Star-Telegram.
In the April 11, 1917 Star-Telegram Montgomery Ward announced that, yes indeed, “Fort Worth people can buy from us.” The company asked only that Fort Worth residents, like everyone else, shop from a catalog and mail in their order. There was no in-store shopping.
Remember Hawthorne, the Montgomery Ward store brand? The bottom clip is an enlargement of the top ad listing Hawthorne bicycles for sale at Christmas 1920.
That 1911 building on East 7th Street still stands, owned by the Tindall record storage company.
But by 1924 Montgomery Ward’s days on East 7th Street were about to “take a number.” And that number was zero. In 1924 Montgomery Ward followed the sun across town and into the former Chevrolet plant (1916) on Arlington Heights Boulevard (today’s West 7th Street):
On August 8, 1924 the Dallas Morning News announced in a two-page ad that the new Montgomery Ward store would open on August 9 and finally would offer in-store shopping. Instant gratification! The Fort Worth store was pictured alongside other major Ward stores.
Thousands of people attended the opening of the West 7th Street store on August 9 even though no goods were sold that day. Special streetcars ran on the Arlington Heights line, and “autoists took advantage of the free parking spaces south of the building.”
Twenty-five thousand people browsed Riverside tires, Red Wing bicycles, fine Madras shirts, garden hose, gingham house dresses, and “good lawn mowers.”
In the Dallas Morning News Montgomery Ward ran full-page ads for the new Fort Worth retail store (“all street cars transfer to Ward’s”). Dallasites who hopped the interurban to Fort Worth could buy an Airline receiving set for $79.50, a kerosene reading lamp for $4.45, a cypress-tub washing machine for $19.65. Ad is from the October 12, 1924 Dallas Morning News.
Four years later Ward began construction of a new $2 million ($26 million today) home across West 7th Street from the former Chevy plant. Clips are from the January 29, 1928 Star-Telegram.
The new store opened in September 1928. The building’s Spanish mission-style entrance made the store look like a retail Alamo.
The store opened just in time for Christmas shopping. Santa was on duty in Toyland, which was crammed elbow to elbow and elf to elf with sidewalk bikes, coaster wagons, velocipedes, scooters, and bicycles.
The two West 7th Street homes of Montgomery Ward. Behind the 1928 Ward building can be seen the oval ghost of the 1905 driving park. (Scan from 1930 TCU yearbook by Pete Charlton.)
In 1939 Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May created the character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for a poem that stores handed out to children that Christmas.
Fast-forward ten years. When Montgomery Ward moved across the street into its new home in 1928, it never suspected that in 1949, . . .
the great flood would give its home a place in Fort Worth history.
This 1952 aerial photo shows the U-shaped 1916 Chevrolet/Ward building (labeled “GM”) and the 1928 U-shaped Ward building (labeled “MW”). Each building had a spur off the St. Louis, San Francisco and Texas (Frisco) tracks that allowed freight cars to roll directly to the building. At the top of the photo can be seen a small arc of the oval footprint of the driving park.
In 1959 Montgomery Ward announced plans that made East Siders’ charge cards throb: The company would build a second Fort Worth store at the intersection of Riverside Drive and East Berry Street.
A year later, as Elvis was about to be discharged from the Army, plans for Richland Plaza shopping center, with a new Montgomery Ward store as the anchor, were announced.
Stores would be built in Hulen Mall, Northeast Mall, and Forum 303 (1969). Montgomery Ward also had a truck tire center on Northeast 28th Street and an appliance center on Trail Lake Drive.
Forum 303 in 1974. (Photo from UNT Libraries Special Collections.)
But in December 2000, as Texas became the second-most-populous state, Montgomery Ward—by then owned by General Electric—declared bankruptcy and announced that its stores would close in 2001.
Montgomery Ward needed one of the “family monument”s it sold in 1958.
In 2004 conversion of the West 7th Street building began.
By 2006 the renovated Montgomery Plaza housed retail and condos. Which means that its condo residents can shop and sleep under one roof. Why, today if a resident wakes up in his condo and faces an aftershave emergency, he can just rush downstairs to a store and buy a bottle of Old Spice.
What would Aaron Montgomery Ward have thought?
Other than going to the back to get our orders, I remember the “Bargain Bazaar” in the basement, and the warranty shop outside where you could buy rebuilt/repaired items for cheap. My very last memory of the building was right after the tornado hit in 2000, we were able to move some equipment from the Cash America building into that facility to keep operations going.
I remember the telephone orders from the catalog that could be picked up at the back of the building on 7th Street using drive -in theater style speakers while sitting in your car!!
I worked in a series of bike shops in Louisiana in the 1970s, and remember seeing Hawthorne bikes along with Sears and other retail brands.
Several years ago, a FB friend gave me 29 copies of photos of the construction of Montgomery Ward’s (on W. 7th).If you would like to have a copy of these photos, I have gladly email them to you.
Thanks, Larry. I have sent my e-mail address to you. Will credit you with any photos I post.
We have a group of former employees of Montgomery Ward, I manage our Facebook page, called Montgomery Ward friends. Could we have permission to post small portions of your article on our Facebook page.
I didn’t know all of the early history of the Fort Worth location, thank you, it was a wonderful article.
Sylvia, feel free to use whatever you’d like. Montgomery Ward was an institution in my family as I grew up in Fort Worth.
Mr T.H. Lewis was manager of the Wards store for years … Then he became stricken with Alzheimer’s and his wife Georgia L. Lewis hired me a nurse to care for him. She was head of personnel then. R . Lewis passed away after 9 years of the disease. Brings back memories…
Montgomery Wards was a Godsend when it first came into being, and stayed that way for a long time. It employed a lot of people too. My husband, Johnny, worked there when he was in college & the first year we were married after college. That saved our lives because first year teachers had a poor paycheck each month. Mine paid our bills, and his paid for food and other expenses. Thanks, Mike.
My last memory of MW was a mob breaking through the wall of the Hawthorne CA store to loot in the 1992 LA riot.
That place on W. 7th was awesome. A lot of history before I set foot on it. I would look at things I could not afford. Just change in my pocket. Thanks Mike.
Thanks, Ramiro. I didn’t even remember that the building is Spanish mission style, which I really like. Back then all I noticed was merchandise.