According to most family records that I can find, Reuben W. Bigelow and Mr. Abrahamson formed a partnership in 1893 to create the Abrahamson-Bigelow Company, which was the backing of a department store in Jamestown, New York. Reuben’s brother Franklin joined him after the turn of the century, and by 1910 Mr. Abrahamson had either died or been bought out by the brothers.
The store became known as Bigelow’s Department Store, and flourished until the depression. At that point in time, all five of Franklin’s children and their children who were of working age worked in the store to get it through hard times. Later, the store began to expand and purchased both extra land for expansion and other buildings in the downtown Jamestown area.
The main store was located on the northeast corner of Third Street and Washington Street. By 1960, it consisted of a six-story main building with mezzanine and basement, a four-story annex, and a two-story wooden annex. It was divided up as follows:
Basement – shoe repair, bargain women’s clothing, glasswear and small
1st Floor main building – mens’ clothing, cosmetics, notions, purses, womens’ leather goods
1st Floor main annex – notions, dry goods
1st Floor short annex – boys’ clothing
Mezzanine main building – gift-wrapping, public lounge and restrooms, cashiers’ cage
2nd Floor main building – womens’ clothing, shoes
2nd Floor main annex – millinery
2nd Floor short annex – office space, window decoration/advertising shops
3rd Floor main building – foundation garments, girls’ clothing
3rd Floor main annex – infants’ clothing
4th Floor main building – linens, books, beauty shop
4th Floor main annex -- storage
5th Floor main building – furniture, home decoration
6th Floor main building – toys, main offices and accounting, employees’ lounge and restrooms
There were also three annexed buildings at that time. Just up the street and behind the main building was a small shop called the Yodeler, which sold ski wear in season and youthful clothing in the summer. It was on top of the warehouse that contained storage and the shipping department. These were separated from the main store by an alleyway, as was the Hotel Jamestown building that was directly east of Bigelow’s. Bigelow’s had also purchased the old Jamestown Sun newspaper building, located at the corner of Fourth Street and Washington Street. This building was used for sales and preparation of floor coverings and large appliances. A small building located approximately two blocks west on Third Street was used for electronics and appliances for a short time, but this was eventually sold and the appliances split between the basement and Fourth Street buildings. The Fourth Street building also housed a small garage for Bigelow’s small fleet of delivery trucks. Bigelow’s maintained several vehicles for use as delivery vehicles and service: three GMC ½ ton panel delivery trucks, a GMC ¾ ton long body panel delivery truck for use in delivering rugs and linoleum, a station wagon for general use, and a compact car for home decorators.
There were also two parking lots located at the corner of Fourth Street and Lafayette Street, one block west of the appliance shop. One small lot on the south side of the street held 40 monthly rental slots (it had been the original lot in the 1930s to 1950s) and a new, large lot opened in 1960 held over 100 slots for store customer. Parking cost 35 cents or the purchase of $2 in merchandise at any of the store’s departments. At its height around 1960 Bigelow’s numbered around 375 employees.
The five children of Franklin Bigelow were involved in the store in its early days, but by the 1950s only three remained active. Fred Bigelow was the President of the company until his death in 1963, when he was replaced by his son Frank. Robert Buchan, son of Anna Mae Bigelow Buchan, was Chairman of the Board. John B. Sewell, son of Edna Bigelow Sewell Gokey, was the advertising manager from 1948 to 1972 and also secretary of the corporation. Her second husband, George Gokey, was the physical plant manager for the store and took an active part in maintenance and improvements.
Will Bigelow had moved back to New Jersey, and neither he nor his children were active in store affairs other than to participate in the annual store business meeting. After the 1930s, neither the widowed Anna Mae nor her sister Irene took an active part in the store’s operations.
Bigelow’s was one of two department stores in Jamestown; the other was the smaller Nelson Brothers Department Store located on Second Street near City Hall. Jamestown had originally been a center for furniture manufacture with 104 active furniture factories in town in 1900. It later attracted businesses such as Marlin-Rockwell Ball Bearings, Blackstone appliances, Art Metal Office Furniture, Crescent Tool Manufacturing, and American Voting Machine. In 1950, Jamestown numbered nearly 50,000 residents, and business was good for all of the local merchants. Until 1940, Jamestown also had a very useful and handy streetcar system that served many of the neighborhoods and provided handy access to the downtown. In 1941, the pride and joy of the system, a four-way “grand union” at the corner of Third Street and Main Street, was torn up; while no one realized it at the time, this was the beginning of a downslide in downtown Jamestown’s businesses.
The high water mark for both Jamestown and Bigelow’s was 1960, the year of the city’s sesquicentennial. After that, things began to go downhill. Jamestown was a solidly union town, but as furniture manufacturers began to find cheaper labor in “right to work” states such as North Carolina the furniture business began to move out. Businesses also began to move out of downtowns to the coming thing of the late 1950s, strip malls. Businesses in downtown Jamestown began to suffer, and Nelson’s was one of the first big casualties in 1962. Bigelow’s still thrived, and even had a new façade put on over the old building at that time to show it was still progressing (see photo).
The crunches began to come in the 1970s. With declining jobs in the Jamestown area, and many young people leaving a depressed job market for other areas, business began to fall off. The climax of the internal problems with Bigelow’s, which was now seeing the rise of the third generation of Bigelow’s into the company, came in 1972 at the annual meeting. There was a clear delineation between family members who wanted to expand into what they saw as the coming thing – malls – and those convinced that staying in downtown Jamestown and relying on improved parking for a customer base would keep things going. After a very sharp meeting, John Sewell and George Gokey were essentially fired, and the son-in-law of Frank Bigelow, Thomas Anderson, appointed to the board.
Unfortunately, the progressives were proven to be correct. Jamestown suffered a massive blow when, after a long and protracted strike, Art Metal, the biggest remaining employer in the Jamestown area, closed its Jamestown plant and moved to North Carolina. In the same time frame, new discount stores such as Hills Department Store had moved into Jamestown, and with the loss of jobs and income cut deeply into the Bigelow customer base.
Even though Jamestown tried hard to put on a good face, things kept sliding downhill. In 1976, Tom Anderson was among those backing a complete redesign of downtown Jamestown, a move that eventually got the city an award as an “All American City”. But it also cut off nearly all access to downtown stores, and that essentially killed Bigelow’s business.
Bigelow’s suffered constant hemorrhaging due to poor management and the advent of discount stores selling the same brand names at greatly reduced prices. They lost the one advantage they had over other stores – service provided by highly knowledgeable clerks and department heads – for cheaper and less personable young clerks in order to save money. Due to a lack of income, goods available shrank and shrank until few departments had a viable selection left. By 1979 the store was out of business. Attempts were made to revive it, including a move to amalgamate with the Adam, Meldrum and Anderson Department Store chain out of Buffalo, but all this came to naught. Several attempts were made to use the buildings for shops or community centers, but all of these also came to no avail.
Currently, Jamestown is a “rust belt” city of
less than 32,000 people. The city recently purchased the main store and is
preparing it for use as a community center, including knocking down the two-story
The motto was "The Store that Quality Built".
see Bigelow Department Store page 2.
Thanks to Steve Sewell AMPSOne@aol.com from Aberdeen, Maryland for this info.
Forge: The Bigelow Society Quarterly; Oct 2002; Vol 31, No 4; published
excerpts of this article..........ROD
Subject: Bigelow's Dept. Store
Date: Mon, 26 Nov 2007 18:30:24 -0500
From: Tom Goodwill < email@example.com >
I enjoyed reading the pages of information about Bigelow's Department Store
in Jamestown, especially the Bobby Kennedy story. I happened to be at the
rally for him, held on Cherry Street between Third and Fourth. I was an
aspiring musician then, and had the opportunity to play on a real Fender
bass owned by the bass player in the group that played for the Kennedy
crowd while they waited. The band was called The Crickets, and the lead
guitarist was Ron Ecklund, who later joined the Jamestown Police Department
(and I later joined the Jamestown Fire Department). I had purchased an
inexpensive Sears Silvertone bass from __ Kubinski (the bass player for The
Crickets), but the "taste" of the Fender bass made me never look back...
I'm in Florida now, but still interested in Jamestown's goings-on. What I
most enjoyed about your pages was the "behind the scenes" information. It
wasn't all rosy, but I found it to be factual, based on my experiences.
Too bad I wasn't as interested in Jamestown history at the time that I
lived there! Now it's difficult to get back to the area with enough time
to do any research. I've resigned myself now to collecting postcards of
the area, and created a web presence to showcase the cards:
Please visit the site (if you're the Jamestowner) or share the link with
anyone who might have an interest.
I remember shopping at Bigelow's as a kid, and especially remember the
elevators (with their controls that DID require an operator, and reminded
me somewhat of a "necker's knob", the little handle that mounted on a car's
steering wheel to allow one-handed steering). We thought the escalators
were just the greatest, and we grew up knowing that Bigelow's might be more
costly, but that's where the quality was.