Celebrating 100 years of memories with a look to the future

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Heer's cover 2
The Heer’s building opened for business 100 years ago today! According to an ad in the Springfield Republican, the day marked “the beginning of a new era of merchandising in Springfield.”


SPRINGFIELD – There’s no doubt that Heer’s was in the business of selling. For generations, “Your Dominant Store of the Ozark Empire” was a one-stop shop for clothing to culinary treats and everything in between.

But Heer’s was more than a store. It was a destination. And while it sold a great many items, the Springfield institution gave away more than anyone will ever know. Those freebies, however, weren’t merchandise. They were memories.

That’s why today — on the building’s 100th birthday — it’s time to celebrate. What many believed impossible has come to pass: The Heer’s building has started a new chapter. It’s getting a second chance. In celebration of that milestone, here’s a look back with the people who knew it best.

Heer’s through the years

1800s

The year was 1869 when Charles H. Heer opened his first store in Springfield. In those days, the city — more like a town at 6,000 people — was so rural that the railroad hadn’t even arrived.

When the store opened, it was a one-story, wood-frame structure with a minimal 20×100 square feet of space. And instead of its longtime location on Park Central Square, it was situated on Boonville Hill at the intersection of Olive Street.

As the store’s business grew, so did the building: Within ten years, two more floors had been added. The store received recognition beyond southwest Missouri when it became the second retail store in Missouri to become incorporated in 1882.


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In 1886, Charles Heer abdicated leadership of the store to his son, F.X. Heer. This pass of the torch brought many changes to the store, including the abolishment of the barter system and setting one price for all merchandise — something his clerks thought was crazy. In an article in 1940, F.X. recounted his employees’ response when he told them of the change:

“Oh, no!” they said. “You can’t do that. The habit of barter and trade and ‘throw in this’ or ‘throw in that’ is too deeply ingrafted in the Springfield public, ever to hope to change it.”

They were so upset that three of the clerks quit over it. Yet somehow the public managed to adjust, and Heer’s was a one-price store forever after.

1903

The first square-based Heer’s — yes, there was more than one — opened for business. “The building was constructed by Mr. T.B. Holland in 1903, reportedly under the condition that its design allowed it to be divided into smaller stores in the event that Springfield did not need such a large department store.”

1913

Heer's fire 2Heer’s was completely destroyed on June 9 in what the Springfield Republican dubbed the “City’s Worst Fire”
(Photo courtesy Springfield-Greene County Library – SGCL)


“The worst conflagration in the history of Springfield occurred yesterday when fire, believed to have originated from a broken insulation of a 500-volt electric wire in the basement of the Heer Dry Goods company store, broke out between 5 and 5:20 o’clock in the morning, completely wiping out the northeast quarter of the square and causing property losses in excess of $500,000,” the Springfield Republican declared the next day.

The fire -- the worst in the city's history -- was a great source of interest for the Springfield public. (SGCL)
The fire — the worst in the city’s history — was a source of great public interest (SGCL)

In current terms, $500,000 would equal a little more than $12 million — a cause of great concern for the store’s employees, who perhaps wondered if it would be rebuilt. Such a story was captured in the same article:

“Sobbing bitterly in the arms of an older woman, a young girl in a shabby waist stood on the square yesterday morning when firemen rushed through the thick black smoke and…water shot into the air and the unmerciful flames poured through the windows and doors of the store which had been her place of employment.

“I don’t know where I’ll get another job!” she said piteously. “I don’t know what I’ll do without a job.” After all, Heer’s was the first store in Springfield to employ females — how difficult might it have been for her to find employment elsewhere?

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Springfield’s Public Square before 1909. Heer’s would rebuild on the site of the former Greene County Courthouse (building on far left).


 Thankfully, the damages were covered by insurance and it wasn’t long before the store was back in business. The Heers were on vacation in Seattle, Wa. when the fire broke out, but F.X. wasted no time: Via telegraph, he secured another building on the Springfield square (where Netter’s would later reside) to set up shop in until another facility could be built.

After returning to Springfield, he dispatched all of his buyers to New York to stock the new store. And soon after that, construction began on their new building. This would become the Heer’s building found on Park Central Square today.

September 24, 1915

Heer's grand opening

On Sept. 25, 1915, Heer’s recapped its grand opening and welcomed shoppers for its first business day (Springfield Republican)


 On Sept. 24, 1915, Springfield’s fire marshal may have been slightly stressed. Nearly 21,000 people were in town, all with one aim in mind: To see the brand new Heer’s. That number translated into 44 people entering every single second for eight hours straight. After all, it was the store’s grand opening, and everyone was eager to get a first look at “the most extensive department store in the southwest.”

1940s

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F.X. Heer talks about his retirement after leading Heer’s for 54 years on Feb. 25, 1940 (Sunday News and Leader)

Heer’s began the decade with an enormous change: After 54 years in leadership, F.X. Heer decided to retire and sold a controlling interest in the store to the Allied Stores Corporation of New York. “It’s hard to sever all the associations and contracts that have been built up, both with our customers and our employees,” said F.X. in an article in the Sunday News and Leader recognizing his retirement. “They mean a lot, you know — I’m never on the floor that somebody doesn’t stop to speak to me, and to recall something from old times — we have customers that I know, and whose parents and grandparents I know — and a lot more know me. Yes — I’m going to miss it. There wouldn’t be much to me if I didn’t.”

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Public Square, circa 1946. Before…

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…and after, circa 1950s or early ’60s. Note the removal of the pie.

1950s

The 1950s brought an expansion of Heer’s second floor, as well as the installation of “moving stairs,” a novelty only a few stores in Missouri had at the time.

That addition, however, didn’t make Marilee Scott’s job any less important. Back in the early ‘50s, the store had so much business that its freight elevator was converted to one for customers — and Marilee was employed to run it. “The elevator that I operated was a manual,” says Marilee, now 88 years old.

Originally from Hartville, Marilee moved to Springfield in search of a job after graduating from college. In her case, that job was much more difficult than pushing a few buttons. “(You had to) push the crank down, and when it was almost to the floor, I would stop it.”

But deciding when to stop it was kind of a guessing game. Each floor number was printed on the wall as the elevator traveled, giving Marilee an idea of when to stop. But “it was difficult to level,” says Marilee. Sometimes, it’d go too far or too little and Marilee had to move it to fix the difference before customers could enter or exit. “There was a wooden handle that just kind of fit your hand,” recalls Marilee. “The part you were turning was metal. If you were going to the basement, you turned it to the right.”

Heer’s ended segregation on Sept. 19, 1960 (Springfield Daily News)

After leveling the elevator, Marilee opened a gate so people could exit. “And when I wasn’t operating the elevator, I’d sit and wait for passengers,” says Marilee, noting a small seat that was on the right wall.

However, there were other issues to think of besides the cantankerous elevator. While Marilee notes that “most everybody was really nice,” Marilee was an African American working in a segregated store. Desegregation didn’t come to Heer’s until September 1960, when the store followed suite with the the nearby Kentwood Arms Hotel and opened its doors to customers regardless of race.

1960s

Back then, Heer’s was Springfield’s one-stop shop for both goods and services. One of the people who remembers that era well is Jeanne Adams Stinson, a beauty technician who wasn’t quite sure what she’d gotten herself into when she moved to southwest Missouri in 1966.

An esthetician for Clairol, Jeanne relocated from the big city of Dallas on the recommendation of her brother, who was a watchmaker at Zales in Springfield. “He said, ‘Honey, why don’t you come here?,” recalls Jeanne. “It’s a lot smaller town but we’ve got a nice square…”

His sales pitch was convincing and Jeanne set off for Missouri. It wasn’t long before she was employed as a hairdresser at that “big, beautiful department store” her brother described.

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Jeanne was introduced to Springfield as a “top hair fashion stylist and color specialist from Dallas” in October 1966 (Sunday News and Leader).


“It was the neatest place to work,” says Jeanne in retrospect. “The square was absolutely wonderful…Everybody was so friendly, and it was just like a family down there. And especially at Heer’s.”

Her time in Dallas — not to mention her schooling in New York — earned Jeanne billing as the high-fashion expert on the store’s staff of 20-something hairdressers. And it wasn’t long before the word got out.

“I didn’t have to wait around and advertise for nothing,” says Jeanne, a twinkle in her eye. “They were running in like cattle.”

An October 1966 ad for Heer’s Beauty Salon (Sunday News and Leader) 

Vintage styling 

Those women came searching styles like side-flips, pixie cuts and giants curls, the latter which was created with magnetic rollers. Some of those styles, however, weren’t complete without a little extra help. “You had to use about five bottles of spray on their head,” says Jeanne with a laugh.

Once their hair was anchored in place, many of Jeanne’s clients didn’t touch it until they came back for another wash and style. Back then, the going rate for such service was $2.50. But that changed for Jeanne when she got special permission from Heer’s executive Bent Agee to raise her price by $1 because she was so busy.

At other times — like in the case of window displays — Jeanne was called upon to style hair for the live “mannequins.” “They had big windows, huge windows, and they’d put me down there to style my girlfriend’s hair and people would stand around and watch us,” Jeanne remembers.

Looking back, Jeanne wonders why some of those polished, sleek styles haven’t made a comeback. “(Stylists have) tried everything else since ’66,” she says, noting she feels today’s styles generally lack femininity. “I just wonder…why they can’t look back however many years that’s been and go back to that trend. And make women look like women.”

The magic of Heer’s

The hustle and bustle of Heer’s is something Jeanne remembers well. “Every day was like Christmas,” she says — and that magnetic atmosphere wasn’t the store’s only draw. Despite her time in Dallas — or perhaps because of it — Jeanne can testify to the quality of Heer’s merchandise.

They were up on everything,” says Jeanne, noting that buyers were sent to markets in New York and other big cities to select their wares. “Accessories, jewelry, makeup, handbags. It was all right there at Heer’s.”

“They were up on everything,” says Jeanne, noting that buyers were sent to markets in New York and other big cities to select their wares. “Accessories, jewelry, makeup, handbags. It was all right there at Heer’s.”

Another thing they had at Heer’s was food. On afternoons when she had time to spare, Jeanne remembers visiting the store’s mezzanine for an afternoon Coke. And then there was the upper floor — she wasn’t one of its main visitors, but she remembers people who were.

“All the older women in town would dress up in their hose and their heels and play Bridge up there,” Jeanne recalls. “(They’d) have little cupcakes or a piece of pie and that was neat to watch. They loved it. Absolutely loved it.”

Dining delights 

In the late ‘60s, the person responsible for those yummy sweets was Anton Tasich, a Serbian chef originally from Omaha. Even though he hasn’t worked at Heer’s in decades, you may have sampled his cooking: After all, he owns Anton’s Coffee Shop, a Springfield dining landmark that’s been around for 41 years.

But long before he began his namesake cafe, Anton was manager of food service at Heer’s. The job allowed Anton to move permanently to the Ozarks, something he’d wanted to do ever after he was stationed for two years at Fort Leonard Wood.

I love the Ozarks,” says Anton. “I love the people. Love the lakes. Love the hills. I’ve had a great life here. Thank God I made that decision (to move).”

“I came Aug. 8, 1966,” recalls Anton. “I can still remember the date.” The move, which he made specifically for the job at Heer’s, is something he’s never regretted. “I love the Ozarks,” says Anton. “I love the people. Love the lakes. Love the hills. I’ve had a great life here. Thank God I made that decision (to move).”

Heer’s Tea Garden Room in 1959 (Sunday News and Leader)


As food services manager at Heer’s, Anton oversaw food for employees as well as the Tea Garden Room. “That was the place to go,” says Anton, who recalls the popularity of tea-room items such as his Prosperity Sandwich and popovers. “We sold a hell of a lot of those,” he remembers.

He also ran the Gravel Bar, which was located in the store’s mezzanine and sold coffee shop fare and other assorted menu items. “I can remember that they gave away free doughnut holes with the coffee,” says Anton.

That time at Heer’s offered Anton a lot. To begin with, there’s the fact it facilitated him meeting his wife, Roberta. “She was managing four departments on the main floor,” says Anton, who says the couple was introduced by a mutual friend who also worked at the store. “She’s a smart girl. Very intelligent. She married me, didn’t she?”

Other things stick out in his mind as well. He remembers featuring international menus from time to time, and the transformation of the Gravel Bar into Americana cafeteria.

In the '60s, Heer's Christmas packages came in all shapes and sizes.
In the ’60s, Heer’s Christmas packages came in all shapes and sizes.

Then there was Christmastime at Heer’s, with flavors of Norman Rockwell and animated windows festive enough to attract even the most Grinch-like passerby. “It was that kind of Christmas I miss,” says Anton. “I think the people of this town miss it, too.”

But time marches on. As Anton saw businesses moving away from the downtown area — as he formerly had seen in Omaha — he guessed good things weren’t ahead. “I saw (the collapse) coming, so I got out of there,” says Anton, who left the store in 1969. After spending time managing a variety of restaurants across the Midwest, he set up shop at Anton’s — formerly McCormick’s Drive-In — and he’s been there ever since. “I love what I do,” he says. “I’ve never hated to go to work.”

1970s

1970 marked the beginning of Heer’s second century. While downtown Springfield had long been a bustling magnet for commerce, things began to change as business pushed further south. Heer’s tried to keep up with the times by opening a 26,000 square-foot store at Battlefield Mall in 1976, and for a period of time also operated a store at North Town Mall.

1980s

In an effort to keep up on current trends, Heer’s had long enlisted some special help through its Teen Board. Comprised of teenage girls, the group modeled clothing for Heer’s, for which its members were allowed to choose outfits. Those selections gave higher-ups a pretty good idea of what styles were most popular.

“(Heer’s) wanted our opinion because we were the teens,” says Libby Trantham Toth, who was a freshman at Kickapoo High School when she became a member of the board in the mid-1980s. “We were the ones setting the trends.”

Heer’s Teen Board was shown in Springfield! Magazine’s October 1986 issue. Libby is pictured directly below the Heer’s tower on the back row.


 But joining the group wasn’t as simple as just signing up. Girls had to submit an application and be interviewed before being selected as a member of the group. And Heer’s had high expectations for the board’s members even after the application process was over. “You had to work almost every weekend,” recalls Libby, mentioning the time she spent in the windows of Heer’s Battlefield Mall store as a human mannequin.

But mannequins do more than model clothes: They also stay perfectly still. That’s especially a challenge for teenage girls with teenage friends — friends who would come by and try to get the girls to laugh as they stood in the windows. “When you did (laugh), it freaked people out,” says Libby.

In addition to weekends modeling at the store, members of Teen Board also participated in seasonal fashion shows and a big annual event held at Heer’s downtown location. In light of such events, the girls were were taught skills like walking with poise and turning on a runway. But for all of their work, the girls weren’t compensated monetarily — unless one counts a discount at Heer’s as a financial benefit. But Libby notes that there were other great rewards.

You got a lot of work ethic out of it,” she says, counting the experience as her first job. “You were on a schedule. You did it without pay, but you did it happily. You knew you were selected out of a lot of girls.

“You got a lot of work ethic out of it,” she says, counting the experience as her first job. “You were on a schedule. You did it without pay, but you did it happily. You knew you were selected out of a lot of girls.” And of course, enjoyment was a factor, too. “It was really fun,” says Libby looking back. “It was a unique experience you wouldn’t find anywhere else.”


Debi Williams Nixon feels the same about Heer’s. “I had experiences (through Heer’s) that I never envisioned happening,” says Debi, who began working at Heer’s downtown location shortly before graduating from high school in 1981. “It was the job that got me through college and ended up shaping my career.”

And shape her career it did. “Within six months of working at Heer’s, I switched to Business Marketing with an emphasis in Retail Management,” says Debi, who was originally a biology major at then-Southwest Missouri State University.

Debi was profiled in the November 1982 issue of Springfield! Magazine for her work at Heer’s. In the article, she talked about the Polo shirts she’d chosen for the store on her buying trip to New York.


 That degree and her time at Heer’s paved the way for a decade spent working in fashion, both in corporate and freelance settings.

When she began at Heer’s, Debi was assigned to the better sportswear section — not her first choice as a teenage girl. “I was so disappointed when I didn’t get juniors,” laughs Debi.

But the placement ended up to be a good one. As she rose through the ranks, she took her first flight on a buying trip to New York. She was also responsible for planning regular fashion shows in the tea room, which turned out to influence more than just her career. “My now husband was someone I asked to model,” says Debi, “And now we’ve been married 32 years.”

Heer’s was still a destination,” says Debi. “People came to shop, they drove there to eat at the restaurant or to look at the windows.”

Even though business was pushing to south Springfield, Debi doesn’t recall any nervousness about what was happening in the downtown area or the store’s future. “Heer’s was still a destination,” says Debi. “People came to shop, they drove there to eat at the restaurant or to look at the windows.”

By the time her fourth year with Heer’s rolled around, she left the downtown location to work as assistant manager of Heer’s Battlefield Mall store. After the move, Debi quickly noticed a difference in the stores’ atmosphere: The mall store was fairly casual, and was “really geared toward a different customer,” says Debi.

Downtown was different. “I had regular customers who would come in and schedule time when I’d be there,” says Debi. “You developed relationships with them. As a college student, you felt like you had extended family.”

Early 1990s

A few years before then ‘90s began — in 1987, to be exact — Heer’s was sold to one of the store’s former employees. It was the first time the store had been locally owned since F.X. got out of the business back in 1940. However, this transaction began a chapter that would shadow the store’s remaining years in operation.

On June 28, 1990 — a little more than three years after its sale — front-page headlines proclaimed that Heer’s executives were being investigated by the FBI for insurance fraud. But if that wasn’t enough excitement, Heer’s was also for sale, and executives were discussing options with Cleveland-based Kline Brothers Inc.

Less than two weeks later, Heer’s stores filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in emergency proceedings in federal court. Within moments, Kline Brothers offered to purchase the Heer’s stores for up to $3.8 million. The sale went through.

At the time, it was said that perhaps Heer’s had filed for bankruptcy protection to force the Battlefield Mall to transfer that store’s lease to Kline Brothers. The mall’s leadership hadn’t formerly wanted to work with the potential buyers, citing that the company wasn’t upscale enough.

1994

It’s safe to say that Kline’s presence in Springfield didn’t go as expected. In 1994, it was announced that Heer’s locations on Park Central Square and at the North Town Mall would close as part of the company’s plan to eliminate its retail division. And while the Heer’s at the Battlefield Mall remained profitable — the company’s most profitable retail store, in fact — it, too,  was eventually slated for closure.

Going-out-of-business sales quickly popped up, offering customers the chance to come by and say goodbye to the store where they’d made so many memories.

Trent Condellone was one of the last people at Heer’s downtown store on that final day. “Everyone was sad,” recalls Trent. “But people were reminiscing, talking and just stopping by to visit.”

He remembers being there with local businessman Jack Victor, who he encouraged to make a purchase after the last customer had left. “(I said) ‘You’ll be the last person to buy something from Heer’s,’” says Trent.

By 1995, Heer’s locked its doors for the last time.

 1995 – 2010

Heer’s closure marked the beginning of a slow slide into near death for the Springfield landmark building. The property was initially purchased by Davis Properties, and was considered for a wide variety of uses over the following years — some ideas which seemed hopeful but all of which came to naught.

As time passed, the building began to fall into disrepair: Glass panels, falling from far above, threatened the safety of passersby. Other issues, like lead-based paint contamination, hindered its future even more.

In 2010, another well-intentioned plan ceased to materialize. When the developer confessed to Springfield representatives that he didn’t have immediate plans to continue the project, the city decided to board up the building.

2012 – 2014

The boarded-up eyesore got one more chance at a future when E and J HIDC, LLC bought the mortgage on the building from Heartland Bank in 2012. The company later sold the building to itself. Next May, Heer’s Luxury Living, LLC — led by Jim Nichols, CEO of Dalmark Group and Ernie Straub of Straub Construction — came forward and asked the city to discuss possible incentives connected to a new redevelopment plan. The next month, Springfield City Council voted to grant tax abatement for the project, and in February 2014, environmental remediation work began.

But those things weren’t enough to convince everyone that the project would actually happen. After all, many other false starts left locals jaded about any proposal coming to fruition.

2015

If nothing else, the Heer’s building proves that miracles can happen. After nearly 20 years of hoping and wishing, a “wouldn’t it be nice” idea became reality: Heer’s Luxury Lofts officially opened on August 11, 2015.

It’s been kind of nice to be here at the beginning and see it all come together,” says Kent, who moved in shortly after the building was open for tenants.

One of the building’s new residents was Kent Otto, a 30-year-old local who leased a two-bedroom apartment overlooking Park Central Square. “It’s been kind of nice to be here at the beginning and see it all come together,” says Kent, who moved in shortly after the building was open for tenants.

A walk through the Heer’s building today reveals a space that looks nothing like it did years ago. Clean lines and carpet fill the common areas, and instead of clothes, escalators and eateries, there are amenities like fitness facilities, a theater room, a rooftop patio, game room and clubhouse, the latter of which can be rented out for events. “I’m going to host my family Christmas here,” says Kent. Such amenities cater to the 20 and 30-something demographic that Kent’s seen largely filling the loft apartments.

There are, however, a couple of throwback features. One is obvious: In the entrance, vintage letters spelling out Heer’s have been repurposed as wall decor. It’s name-only, but there’s a link to the past in the aforementioned clubhouse — “or garden room, as they’re calling it,” says Kent. And if you know where to look, you can find exposed brick in a few areas of the building.

Take a look inside Heer’s Luxury Lofts

But even though the building looks different, all isn’t lost. In reality, much has been gained. After all, new generations are being exposed to the Heer’s name — and even though it’s different, the legacy is preserved and continued by a new group of people. “I think for most people so far, (moving in is based on) nostalgia or just wanting to be part of the history makers,” says Kent. “That’s kind of why I did it, too.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating 100 years of memories with a look to the future

  1. What a great look back! My memories of Heer’s go back to the 1970s. Not only shopping, but lunching in the Garden Room with my great aunt Lucile Morris Upton and her friends. The food was delicious, but more than that, those lunches were full of reminiscences of earlier days at Heer’s and of Springfield.
    Thanks for the memories.

  2. My great Uncle used to work there in the 1950’s. He used to be in charge of decorating the large display windows on the first floor. His favorite time was at Christmas. In the 1980’s, my mother used to take me to Heer’s to go have breakfast with Santa. In 1994, I remember going to Heer’s for the last time and having lunch in the Garden Room. I still own a lot of memorabilia from the downtown Heer’s store. In 2004, I had a chance to tour the building before it was gutted. I took many photos. I love this site you have created.

  3. Heers has a special place in my memory of growing up in the 1950s. The store was special in that it meant that I had to be on my best behavior as a young man when visiting the store. Especially, if I wanted to ride the elevator to the top floor. Being of the Niangua rural farm roots, this was certainly an adventure and one in which we often felt we were visitors from another planet when we went to the store. My mother with the two kids in tow, would wander around the store while dad waited impatiently in the car, not wanting to venture into such a big store and be lured into spending money. It was a shopping bonanza of the period, because of the volume of merchandise and the specialty item floors. Some floors were never visited but noted as the elevator attendant acknowledge the floors for their type of merchandise. Such an adventure it was. I was so scared to ride the elevator, but it was worth it because of the thrill it gave me.

  4. Two of my sisters worked at Heer’s in the early ’40’s. Ruby in the post office on the mezzanine and Ila in the basement in Layaway.

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