Monnig’s (1889-1988): The “Friendly Store”

Before John Marvin and Obadiah Paul Leonard came to town, before W. C. Stripling and R. E. Cox and J. C. Penney and H. C. Meacham came to town, the Monnig family was already here and selling corsets, collar buttons, hat pins, mosquito netting, curling irons, shaving brushes, and garters.

Family patriarch Otto Monnig was born in Prussia in 1826 and immigrated to America in 1847. He settled in Missouri with wife Emma. Their nine children were spaced about two years apart.

Otto operated a hardware store in St. Louis and Hermann.

In 1889 Otto, hearing that Texas was the land of opportunity, sent son William to scout out the commercial prospects. After seeing McKinney, Belton, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth, William bought two lots at 1304 and 1306 Main Street in Fort Worth.

The family moved here, hired architects Haggart and Sanguinet to design a commercial building: the only brick building south of 6th Street at the time. There were no sidewalks, no paved streets.

The Monnig’s building was only fifty feet wide, two stories high. Half the space housed Otto Jr.’s hardware store, half housed the dry goods store of brothers William and George.

The brothers lived over the stores.

Monnig’s dry goods store and hardware store opened in April 1889.

The store’s location in 1889 was in Hell’s Half Acre. Along one side of the same block three female boarding house (brothel) cribs were sandwiched between two saloons.

But William and George took in $44 ($1,200) on the first day of business and were encouraged.

In the beginning they had a work force of four: George and William clerked, and two boys swept.

The Monnigs priced much of their merchandise in increments of ninety-eight cents, giving two shiny new pennies in change and causing local banks to keep a larger supply of pennies.

When Otto Jr.’s hardware store faltered, George and William used a hatchet to chop down the partition between the two stores: Monnig’s first expansion.

In August 1890 the Monnigs celebrated seventeen months in business.

You might be as surprised as I was to find that before Monnig’s faced competition from Leonard’s, Stripling’s, or Cox’s, it faced The Fair, founded in 1890 by Frank Schermerhorn. Seventy-three years later Monnig’s would get rid of its early competitor.

By 1892 the Monnig brothers were no longer living over their store.

In 1900 the Monnigs bought $40,000 worth of merchandise from a failing store but were unable to sell it retail and were forced to sell it wholesale in neighboring towns.

Thus did Monnig’s enter the wholesale dry goods business.

The wholesale division soon employed twelve salesmen, each traveling around Texas and the adjoining states lugging one thousand pounds of samples in five trunks.

In 1901 Otto Jr. died. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

“Monnig’s wonderful 5c sale” of 1902.

In 1907 family patriarch Otto Sr. died. He, too, is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

The surviving brothers, William and George, prospered and built homes on the near South Side, William’s house (top photo, 1905) on West Leuda Street, George’s on Broadway Street (1910), replacing a house that burned in the South Side fire of 1909.

By 1912, as Monnig’s celebrated its twenty-third year, its space along Main Street had expanded from a building fifty feet wide and two stories high to a row of four buildings 125 feet wide and from three to five stories high.

The company now had 102 employees and did $1.5 million ($39 million today) in business annually.

In 1918 the Main Street store expanded into a six-story building behind on Houston Street.

But brother George died in 1919. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

William continued as president and treasurer.

In 1924 William Monnig announced an ambitious relocation and expansion of both the retail and wholesale divisions. The retail store would move uptown to 5th Street between Houston and Throckmorton streets.

The new store had a beauty salon, toyland, florist, bargain basement, candy shop, soda fountain, and lunch counter. Most of the lunch counter food was prepared at King’s Candy Store and Tea Rooms at 810 Main Street.

A new service was “Miss Shopper,” a Monnig’s employee who shopped for people who could not visit Monnig’s in person, for example, persons in west Texas who saw a Monnig’s newspaper ad in the Star-Telegram, which was delivered to much of west Texas.

The store would continue to expand until it was housed in six connected buildings that covered the entire block bounded by Throckmorton, Houston, 4th, and 5th streets. Its popular air-conditioned Tea Room opened in 1939.

In the late 1940s a new façade would give all six buildings a uniform exterior.

Also in 1925 architects Sanguinet and Staats designed a new building for Monnig’s wholesale business at 100 East 15th Street next to Joseph Brown’s wholesale grocery building.

Years later William’s son Oscar, by then president of the company, would fight to save the building when it was threatened on two sides by construction of the Water Gardens, convention center, and east-west freeway.

And he would be successful. In 1982 Monnig’s left the building, but it was renovated and lives on as Water Gardens Place.

The Monnig’s buildings in the store’s original location were less fortunate: They were demolished for the convention center.

By 1930 Monnig’s had branded itself as “the Friendly Store.”

And by 1933 the grand alignment of downtown department stores (and dime stores) that many of us remember was in place. (Sanger’s had closed in 1930.)

This photo was taken in 1937 from the roof of the Kress Building. The building on the right is the 1925 Sanger-Meacham Building. (Courtesy of the Genealogy, History and Archives Unit, Fort Worth Public Library.)

Monnig’s, like most of the downtown department stores, offered customers the option of shopping by phone or mail via a “personal shopper.” Miss Peggy Prim would be glad to assist you.

After fifty-eight years as president of the family business, William Monnig died in 1947. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

He was remembered as a civic leader: head of the chamber of commerce, Community Chest, Retail Merchants Association, Fort Worth Centennial Association, and Casa Manana. He also served twelve years on the city council.

In 1919 Monnig, W. C. Stripling, Amon Carter, and other civic leaders had formed the Citizens Hotel Company to build a showcase hotel for Fort Worth: the Hotel Texas.

Upon William’s death son Otto W. Monnig took over as president.

In 1974 William’s son Oscar became the last Monnig to hold the presidency.

In 1951 the school board voted to name a new junior high school for William Monnig.

(That year Monnig’s Department Store became the first store in town to offer charge-a-plates.)

In 1963 Monnig’s Department Store got rid of its early competitor, buying The Fair. Monnig’s closed The Fair’s downtown building (1930, Hedrick) at 307 West 7th (now home of the Star-Telegram) and rebranded The Fair’s four suburban stores: River Oaks, Westcliff, Meadowbrook, Ridglea.

Monnig’s ad of 1967.

In 1980 family ownership of the Monnig’s chain ended when the company was sold to Eugene Adelson and Gerson Bernstein.

Then began a wild roller-coaster—make that escalator—ride for the department store chain.

In 1986 local businessman Ken Landers bought the chain from Adelson and Bernstein. Soon the chain had fourteen outlets. In 1987 Monnig’s opened a branch in a West Monroe, Louisiana.

Escalator up.

But that same year Monnig’s closed its branch in Amarillo.

Escalator down.

In 1988 the escalator ride was one way: into the basement. By May 25 Monnig’s Meadowbrook, Monnig’s River Oaks, Monnig’s Westcliff, the Outlet Store, and the Ridgmar Mall and Irving Mall branches closed, leaving the chain with seven stores.

In June 9 Monnig’s filed for bankruptcy and closed its branch in Louisiana and its Ridglea Mall and Hulen Mall stores in Fort Worth, leaving it with four branches.

In October the Wichita Falls and Hurst branches closed. Two stores were left: downtown Fort Worth and Arlington.

In November 1988 Monnig’s closed its downtown store and then the Arlington branch.

Just five months short of its centennial Monnig’s, the “Friendly Store,” was gone—lock, stock, and Tea Room.

Postscript: The Basses bought the downtown property and demolished the building to erect a parking lot for Sundance Square.

He Was the Sherlock Holmes of the Heavens

Life Span of Major Fort Worth Retailers

Stripling’s 114 years (1893-2007)
Washer Brothers 106 years (1882-1988)
Ellison’s 104 years (1888-1992)
Monnig’s 99 years (1889-1988)
R. E. Cox 74 years (1933-2007)
The Fair 73 years (1890-1963)
Meacham’s 69 years (1905-1974)
Leonard’s 56 years (1918-1974)
Sanger’s 36 years (1875-1880, 1896, 1917-1930, 1970-1987)

If You Shopped ’til You Dropped, You Were Ready for Betty

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