Leonard’s Department Store: A Buy-Gone Era

It was as big as a suburban mall (before we knew what a suburban mall is). It was as well stocked as an urban shopping center (before we knew what an urban shopping center is). And it was all in a single store downtown (when we still shopped downtown).

leonard toylandIf you lived in Fort Worth—or even in a neighboring county—during the half-century from 1920 to 1970, you probably have memories of Leonard’s Department Store: of riding its subway, of passing the three street vendors on the sidewalk outside the store, of exploring the store’s seemingly endless departments, of throwing Hasbro hissy fits until your parents let you ride the Santa’s Rocket Express monorail in Toyland at Christmas. (Photo from Lauren Leonard.)

leonard 1949 cdLeonard’s called itself a “one-stop shopping center.” Hard to argue with that boast. Indeed, at Leonard’s you could buy a piano, a petticoat, or a packet of pumpkin seeds. A fur coat or a windmill. Leonard’s made its own pasta and candy. It even had its own creamery to make dairy products. It roasted its own coffee, baked its own bread, put its own Leonard’s brand on products: laundry detergent, bicycles, freezers. You could smoke a Leonard’s brand cigar while pushing a Leonard’s brand lawn mower lubricated by Leonard’s brand motor oil. The kingdom of Leonard’s contained a beauty salon, a grocery department, an auto service department, a farm department. Leonard’s even printed its own script as store currency.

The store was a master of promotion. For example, it gave newcomers to town a “welcome box” containing a city map, a loaf of bread, a pound of coffee, and an egg separator. When a child was born in Fort Worth, the store sent the parents a welcome box that contained a baby rattle and a pair of baby shoes. The store sent the child a birthday card annually for the first three years and included a coupon for a free eight-by-ten photo at the store’s studio.

leonard 1900 census

But the sprawling kingdom of commerce that we remember began humbly. Brothers John Marvin and Obadiah Paul Leonard were born in Cass County in northeast Texas. The boys were five and one years old, respectively, in 1900. Father John was a farmer, but he and wife Emma Clementine briefly operated a small general store in Linden.

leonard 1916 cd

By 1915 Marvin Leonard was in Dallas, clerking for Lee W. Gardiner in Gardiner’s salvage and grocery business for $27.50 a week. Each morning before dawn Leonard and Gardiner went to the Dallas rail yards to buy unclaimed freight to sell at a low profit margin. (Green Thomas Leonard, listed above in the 1916 Dallas city directory as a painter at Dallas Coffin Company, was the eldest brother. Green and Marvin had the same address.)

leonard passportIn 1917, after the United States entered World War I, Marvin Leonard tried to enlist in the Army, but poor vision disqualified him. Instead he joined the Red Cross and applied for a passport for England and France. But the war ended on November 11, 1918, before Leonard was sent overseas. Within days Leonard moved to Fort Worth, beyond the sales territory of his mentor, Gardiner.

In Fort Worth Leonard bought the stock of a merchant who was going out of business. A month after the war ended, John Marvin Leonard on December 14, 1918 opened his own store at 111 North Houston, west of the courthouse, taking over the space of Texas Salvage and Storage. Leonard had learned his lessons well from Lee W. Gardiner: On its first day the first Leonard’s store sold $195 ($2,900 today) in merchandise—mostly canned goods.

leonard 2 interiorsThe store originally measured just twenty-five by sixty feet. In the top photo Marvin is on the left wearing a white apron and holding a sack. In the bottom photo Marvin is on the left with hand on hip. Behind him is brother Green. (Photos from Lauren Leonard.)

leonard 1920 cdYoungest brother Obadiah Paul joined John Marvin in 1919, and the store became “Leonard Brothers.” In 1920 Marvin and Obie were living above the store. Brother Green also worked at the store but lived on Arlington Heights (Camp Bowie) Boulevard.

leonard 9-24-19This September 24, 1919 Star-Telegram ad lists the Leonard brothers among dozens of grocers selling a Quaker Oats cooker. I have enlarged listings of three merchants we still remember.

leonard classified 5-21-20This modest classified ad is from the May 21, 1920 Star-Telegram.

leonard salvage 10-19-20By October 19 the ads were bigger.

leonard prunes 1-30-21By January 30, 1921 the brothers had apparently cornered the market in California prunes.

leonard groceries 6-9-22By June 9, 1922 the store no longer advertised salvage.

second storePhoto from Down Historic Trails of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

leonards in 1920 utaThe Land of Leonard continued to expand. Looking northwest from the corner of Houston and Weatherford streets. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

leonards-toyland-1928By 1928 a Christmas ad featured Toyland with Daisy air rifles, roller skates, split reed doll cabs . . . “the nearest thing to paradise for the youngsters.”

leonard 1930 cdIn 1930 the brothers bought the block two blocks south of their original location and built a store that covered the block. Leonard’s had become the dominant retailer in Fort Worth.

everybodys ad 31In 1931 the brothers opened Everybody’s Store in their former Leonard’s space on Houston Street west of the courthouse. Everybody’s would expand its space in 1948.

colonial 36Marvin Leonard was an avid golfer. So avid that he built his own course. In January 1936 his Colonial Club golf course opened.

colonial 41In 1941 Leonard persuaded the United States Golf Association to hold the U.S. Open at Colonial. Leonard sold the club and course to members in 1942.

Intermittently during the 1940s and early 1950s Leonard’s sponsored free movies in city parks and schools. The movies, which included commercials for Leonard’s, were projected from a truck.

leonard pete 46Meanwhile downtown, by 1946 few shoppers would dispute the store’s claim to offer “everything you need under one roof.” (Ad from Pete Charlton’s “The Lost Antique Maps of Texas: Fort Worth & Tarrant County, Volume 2” CD.)

Leonard exteriorBut Fort Worth continued to grow, and so did Leonard’s. In 1948 the brothers greatly expanded their retail realm—to six city blocks. (On the right, note the Metropolitan, Cadillac, and Morris Minor.) (Photo from Lauren Leonard.)

greater leonards

By 1950 Leonard’s had become “Greater Leonard’s.” (Photo from Down Historic Trails of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.)

leonard 48 fishingThe store’s advertising also expanded. This 1948 ad was in Fort Worth Press sports editor Pop Boone’s annual fishing special section.

In 1953 Leonard’s opened its sprawling parking lot along the river where first the enclave Battercake Flats and later the barrio La Corte once stood. Shuttle buses carried shoppers to the store.

leonrads-rocket-56Just in time for Christmas 1956 the store installed its Santa’s Rocket Express monorail in Toyland.

leonards 1960

The 1960s brought more change.

In 1960 Leonard’s offered shoppers free rides on its Shopper Hopper (no audio with WFAA-TV film clip.)

The M&O subway opened in 1963. (Ad is from the 1960 city directory.)

Watch 1973 WFAA-TV film clip (with audio).

Obadiah bought brother Marvin’s interest in the store in 1965. And in 1967, one year shy of the store’s golden anniversary, Charles Tandy bought Leonard’s Department Store for $8.5 million.

The store (and its subway) continued to operate under the Leonard name until 1974, when Tandy sold the store to Dillard’s Department Stores. Later that year Dillard’s dropped the Leonard’s name.

The Leonard’s buildings were demolished in May 1979. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

The M&O subway rolled on a while, making its last run on August 30, 2002.

faces leonardsThis commemorative plaque is in the 100 block of north Houston Street at the site of the first store.

leonard marvin obitJohn Marvin Leonard died on August 26, 1970 at age seventy-five.

leonard op obitObadiah Paul Leonard died on December 25, 1987 at age eighty-nine.

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

The Leonard’s Department Store Museum is located at 200 Carroll Street.

This entry was posted in "Read All About It", Advertising, Downtown, Downtown, All Around, Heads Above the Crowd, Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to Leonard’s Department Store: A Buy-Gone Era

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *