Sam Walton did not invent the superstore. The Leonard brothers did. People used to say that you could get everything at Leonards Department Store but a new car, a haircut, or a coffin. That was not exactly true. Marvin Leonard once bought an undertaker’s closeout stock and went briefly into the coffin business. Chicago had Marshall Field, New York had Macy’s, and Fort Worth had Leonards, an authentic Texas institution from 1918 until 1974.
A small, little known memorial museum honoring it survives at 200 Carroll Street in Fort Worth. It’s worth the effort to seek it out especially if you remember the era of the complete department store that no longer exists in the United States.
Marvin Leonard was 23 and in the grocery business when he sought his 19-year-old brother Obie’s assistance. By 1937 the Leonard brothers’ bakery produced 576 one pound loaves of bread every 33 minutes. They oversaw a business empire with $26 million in annual sales by 1950, and Leonards had gained the reputation of being the store that sold almost everything–saddles, poultry and hospital supplies, boats, etc.
The brothers were philanthropic. It’s a Wonderful Life‘s George Bailey was fictional but the Leonards were not. In 1933 they printed their own store script and cashed customers’ paychecks to keep them going during The Depression. That same year Marvin gave $35,000 to the Fort Worth schools when the government financed meal program went broke. During a disastrous flood in 1949, the brothers sent store employes out in Sporting Department boats to rescue citizens. They collected water damaged appliances, took them back to the store for repairs, and returned them for free.
They were innovative. Leonards billing system was handled by a Honeywell H-200, Fort Worth’s 2nd computer. In 1965! Beginning in 1962 Obie supervised the construction of a 1,400 feet tunnel under Leonards, which had grown to 7 city blocks, to accommodate the world’s first privately owned subway. It brought customers downtown from a remote parking area. Snader Telescriptions, the world’s first music videos, went on sale in Leonards in the 1950s.
Tandy Corporation bought Leonards in 1967 and it closed forever 7 years later. But the subway didn’t make its final run until 2002.
The young woman named Lauren who gave Ruth and me a museum tour and answered many questions turned out to be both its curator and Obie’s great-granddaughter. Among other delights, Lauren activated the original Lionel factory-built train set used during Christmas season in Leonards Toyland Department for us. Marty Leonard, Lauren’s cousin, found it in an estate sale in the 1990s. Marty also kept one of Leonards historic subway cars. It was restored and installed in One City Place, a retail and office development in downtown Forth Worth, in November, 2013.
Leonards Department Store Museum is more fun than the Walmart Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Check it out.