No More Mañanas for Monkey Ward's

by Bill Monson

Good grief, what next?

First Oldsmobile, now Montgomery Ward's.

After 128 years, the brainchild of Aaron Montgomery Ward is going out of business. Monty Ward invented the general merchandise catalog almost 15 years before Sears-Roebuck, and he was supposedly the creator of the promise ''satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.''

However, Ward was slow to take his company into the retail store business. Sears-Roebuck got the jump on him there, and henceforth, Ward played second fiddle throughout the twentieth century.

There was a Monkey Ward's (as we called it) in Galesburg as I was growing up. It was never a favorite of mine. Its merchandise always seemed somewhat second-rate. Sure, it was low-priced, but I was never fond of anything I got from there. I remember with particular horror the baseball glove I once tried out at the store. It was made especially for Ward's and as flimsy as cardboard. The stitches in the webbing were so poor that they tore when I slammed a baseball into the glove to test it. Hoping no one had noticed, I quietly put ball and glove on the shelf and slipped away.

My other main memory of Monkey Ward's in Galesburg is from Christmas time. I always paid at least a courtesy call on the store's Toyland when I made my Christmas scouts (Zephyr Dec. 21). Sometimes the store would offer something decent as a loss leader -- like a Louisville Slugger baseball bat or a Lionel train accessory.

However, to visit Monkey Ward's at Christmas time, you had to endure Gene Autry singing ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' over the store's P.A. system. A Ward's adman created Rudolph as a come-on to kids; and the company passed out millions of promotional copies of the poem. (Yes, I got one, too -- as an illustrated brochure. Wonder what it's worth today?) An enterprising songsmith turned the poem into a song. Gene Autry was approached to record it, but declined because he thought the song was dumb and beneath his reputation as a recording artist. His wife persuaded him to change his mind, and ''Rudolph'' became Autry's biggest hit. Now, the character of Rudolph is a part of Christmas just like Santa's other eight reindeer. But I still wince every time I hear Autry sing the song.

Mongomery Ward's never really did get the knack of retailing. Competitors like Sears and J.C. Penney stayed afloat as killer operations like K-Mart, Target and Wal-Mart rose to compete with them; but Ward's fell farther and farther behind. The quality of its merchandise improved, but even corporate partners like Mobil and General Electric couldn't help it survive.

Now Montgomery Ward's will join W.T. Grant and Woolworth's variety stores on the scrap heap of retailing. Thirty-thousand employees across the U.S. will lose their jobs. Another famous American name will pass into history.

You want one last irony? I wrote this column sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner I bought on sale six years ago at Mongomery Ward's.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 28, 2001

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