In 1975, a crowd of thousands gathered around the former Tiedtke’s Department Store as it burned to the ground. Others, like Toledoan Wendy Chorney Millenbach, sat in front of their televisions in horror as they saw the grand, almost magical venue of countless childhood memories collapse into ruins.
“All I could think of was [that] all of that’s just going to go down. It’s all going to be rubble,” she said. “It was heartbreaking for a majority of people in Toledo. It was the place to shop.”
Although the recently closed building was soon to be demolished anyway, the fire shocked the city — a premonition of the changing economics of downtown.
Like many other cities of the time, Toledo’s twentieth-century retail identity was tied to department stores. Tiedtke’s, Woolworth’s, The Lion Store and others served not just as a place to shop, but as a community gathering space, as well.
In the U.S., many department stores developed out of family-owned dry goods stores that focused on only a few products, such as fabric. In the 1870s and ’80s, shop owners saw the economic wisdom in offering a wider range of goods under one roof. As both urban populations and sales of consumer goods grew, department stores soared in popularity in cities across the country. They became more than a place to find household goods; department stores were a destination where shopping was a leisure activity.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, department stores held peak influence over American society, defining middle class culture and establishing advertising’s place in American society. Department stores were symbolic to America’s own journey of modernity, specifically regarding the infrastructure of local consumerism.
Today, department stores continue to exert influence on Americans, especially on the generations that experienced them at their peak. From the delicious lunch counters at Woolworth’s to Tiedtke’s giant cheese wheel celebration, Toledo’s department stores offered a unique sense of wonder for all who visited; and so long after the brick and mortar buildings have been bought out or demolished, many Toledoans still hold on to an enduring sense of sentimentality and nostalgia.
“The most amazing part of Toledo [that] I miss the most…is the hustle and bustle [around] the shops,” Millenbach said. “When you went downtown…it was like a little New York, where you see sidewalks full of people heading to wherever they’re going.”
The sheer size, breadth, and quality of service of these department stores were unparalleled by any other shop in Toledo. Those memories stay alive today through both digital and physical means; Tiedtke’s now serves as the sole topic of a “Tiedtke’s of Toledo” fan group on Facebook, and is now the inspiration for a new coffee shop of the same name.
First opened in 1893 by brothers Charles and Ernest Tiedtke, Tiedtke’s began as a small grocery store. By 1910, the store was well-known amongst locals for its massive selection of merchandise and reputation as an entertaining destination for shoppers. It quickly grew in size, and by 1920 it had outgrown its previous locations.
“You walk in the front door. The streets were busy. You walk into Tiedtke’s and there was this enormous area that had handkerchiefs and gloves [and] an enormously long candy counter. [People] didn’t necessarily go in to buy anything. It was just something you did on Saturdays. You name it, they had it,” Millenbach said.
Downtown Toledo in its golden era offered a promising opportunity for retail downtown, as the city was experiencing an economic and population boom.
The prominent department stores rested in the heart of downtown. Owners adopted Toledo as a part of their identity, even if they were not native to Toledo, like Frederick Eaton, the owner of the Lion Store. It was important to them to be embedded into the community, and that mindset made them not only a shopping destination in Toledo, but city icons that remain to this day.
“In that golden age, they really became a part of the city. So many of [the store owners] from early on were Toledoan, too. They knew that if they were going to survive, they had to become a part of the community. They had to become identified with it,” Lou Hebert, semi-retired Toledo reporter and author, said. “It meant more than just making money. It meant giving back to the community — trying to be generous, trying to be a part of it.”
Tiedtke’s, for example, is said to have maintained a close, familial relationship among the staff, and also hosted charity events at Christmastime to give toys to children from low-income families.
“The managers were all very kind and they knew everybody by their first name. When you have that cohesiveness and a good sense of security and familiarity with the people you work with — and the people you work for — you know that they have your back. And that’s the kind of employers that they were; that’s what made them so very special,” Kathy Steingraber, a former Tiedtke’s employee of eleven years, said.
Famous for many treats including its signature coffee, Tiedtke’s sold baked goods, fresh produce, giant cheese, toys and more. Larry Wagner, former Toledoan and Tiedtke’s customer, recalls the store playing the role of a “one-stop shopping destination” for the citizens during its prime. From years of trips with his grandparents, he can remember the combination of aromas and flavors coming from the store.
“Tiedtkes was designed to lure you with smells. They ground their own coffee with huge coffee grinders. They had a system that transported the smell throughout the store,” Wagner said.
Going to Tiedtke’s was an event in itself.
“You dressed up to go to Tiedtkes. It was a destination place,” Wagner said.
When interurbans were still used in Toledo, shoppers would ride the train into the hustle and bustle of downtown and begin their day of shopping. Tiedtke’s prided itself on being an iconic meeting place; whether you planned to go inside or not, Toledoans viewed the store as a landmark. Entertainment was also an essential element of visiting the store, so much so that the wondrous atmosphere of Tiedtke’s has been compared to going to a carnival, particularly around the holidays, when celebratory activities and Christmas shopping were in full swing.
Other prominent department stores in Toledo’s downtown area included the Lion Store, originally known as Frederick Eaton & Company. A few years after its establishment in 1857, Eaton purchased two cast iron lion statues to flank the entrance of the building. The lions attracted a lot of attention from customers, and it eventually became known as the Lion Store.
“I don’t think there was a kid in Toledo…who did not get a chance to sit on those lions and get their picture taken,” Hebert said with a laugh.
Like Tiedtke’s, the Lion Store was popular because of the quality of its products and the top-notch customer service.
Close in proximity was Woolworth’s, a dry goods store that gained huge success with its five and ten cent merchandise tables when it first started in New York. Established by Frank Winfield Woolworth in 1852, it was known for its aesthetics, such as its polished wood floors and bright lighting, that eventually became a standard for department stores. But above all, Woolworth’s was known for its incredible lunch counter. Talk to those who experienced downtown Toledo in its heyday, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear raving reviews of Woolworth’s lunch counter menu, friendly waitstaff and delicious food shared with friends.
In the 1970s, department stores across the country saw a sharp decline. Population migration to the suburbs coincided with a rise in discount stores that offered cheaper alternatives. After Tiedtke’s announced its closing in 1972, the other popular department stores in Toledo soon followed suit. Downtown began to decline, and retail was later replaced with suburban shopping mall centers.
“The ’70s… that’s when everything really started to change. And then of course, we had a terrible downturn in the economy, which [put the] final nail in the coffin of downtown Toledo,” Hebert said. “I wouldn’t say it was the department stores that caused the decline. It was just a general decline in the importance of downtown core areas across the country.”
In 1975, the Summit Street building that once housed Toledo’s beloved Tiedtke’s went ablaze in a heartbreaking fire. According to The Blade, “thousands of [people] jammed the downtown area to watch the blaze which [continued for over five hours and]…more than 100 firemen…battled the blaze overnight.”
“I know that I had tears in my eyes. I may have even openly cried,” Steingraber recalled. “But it was a very sad day. Probably only a more sad day was the day they came out and told us they were closing.”
Many viewed the fire as the end of an era. The malls that followed had big shoes to fill; stores like Tiedtke’s created an immersive and grand yet personal experience that was not easily replicated.
“If you subscribe to the premise that downtown areas in almost any city are the heart of the city, you have to look at the retail and retail stores as the heartbeat of the city,” Hebert said. “It’s what pumps the blood of the city — the lifeblood of the city; they kept everything moving.”
Julia Conti contributed research and writing to this article.