Schaller’s Department Store, a Piece of Watertown History

The places that filled us with wonder as children leave lasting impressions. In the case of artist Catherine Rademacher Gibson, she preserved her childhood haunts in “memory paintings” that she created to accompany the recollections she told her husband, children, and friends. These stories and paintings can be found in the new South Dakota Historical Society Press book Glorious Fourth of July and Other Stories from the Plains, as recounted by her daughter, Mary Gibson Sprague.

One of my favorite episodes in the book is titled “Mr. Schaller’s Artist.” It centers on a building that is still standing in Gibson’s childhood hometown of Watertown, South Dakota. H. F. W. Schaller arrived in Watertown from Sparta, Wisconsin, in 1887, with big dreams. Beginning as a partner in Rice Brothers general store, he became the sole proprietor in 1890 after buying out his associates. Over the next few years, Schaller rapidly expanded his small business into the sizeable Schaller’s Department Store that opened in 1914.1

In the early days of department stores, business owners went to great lengths to attract customers. At the Fantle’s store, in Yankton, South Dakota, for example, a pet monkey drew children, and their wallet-holding parents, from miles around.2 It is this type of attraction that Gibson remembers. For a period during her childhood, Mr. Schaller hired artists to create paintings in his large new show windows. “I had never seen such colorful thick paints, palettes, or easels before, and I watched whenever I could,” remembered Gibson. “I developed some silly notions about artists. For a long time, I thought they were men who wore berets, spoke with funny accents, and had thin, black mustaches. They were all pretending to be French—Mr. Schaller really knew how to put on a show.”

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“The front [of Schaller’s new building] may be classified as one of the showiest in the northwest. It enables the window display artist to give full sing to his artistic imaginations” (Watertown Saturday News, 22 Jan. 1914). 

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Map of the downtown commercial district in Watertown, South Dakota. National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service. 1989

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Advertisement for the “greatest suit and coat sale of the season.” (Watertown Saturday News, 9 Dec. 1910).

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Catherine Rademacher Gibson painted her Schaller’s “memory painting” in 1987 for her story “Mr. Schaller’s Artist.” It appears in the new book Glorious Fourth of July and Other Stories from the Plains.

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 The Schaller’s Department Store building is still standing in downtown Watertown. Today, it houses Slumberland Furniture. South Dakota State Historic Preservation. 2012

 

—Jennifer E. McIntyre

 


Notes:

  1. “Schaller’s Department Store,” Watertown Saturday News, 22 Jan. 1914.
  2. Bernie Hunhoff, “Fantle’s: The Big Store,” South Dakota Magazine, 12 Aug. 2012, southdakotamagazine.com/fantles.