By Kerri Rempp Discover Northwest Nebraska
HARRISON – The smell of fresh-pressed jeans, newly unboxed boots, hats and horse tack transports visitors to Whiteaker’s back in time to the days when traditional western stores served the ranching communities.
Owned and operated by Joe Whiteaker today, the Harrison institution keeps local and regional cowboys outfitted 90 years after Joe’s parents opened the store in the middle of the Great Depression.
“He said the banks wouldn’t loan him any money,” Joe said of his parent’s effort.
Finally, with an $800 loan from a friend and a line of credit from a wholesale house in Denver, Colorado, E.E. “Abie” and Mary Whiteaker opened for business in the Ted Phillips Building on South Main Street in November 1931. Press Wilson was the store’s first customer, purchasing an overall jacket for $1.69 before the doors officially opened.
Abie, a native of Missouri, had arrived in the area in the spring of 1925, going to work for R.N. Henry at the Golden Rule Store in Crawford. Mary Reed relocated to Crawford from eastern Nebraska around the same time to teach school. The couple married in 1928, the same year Abie was tasked with opening and managing a Golden Rule Store in Harrison.
But within the first year of business, the stock market crashed and the United States plunged into the Great Depression. The Whiteakers were transferred back to Crawford in 1929, but as banks began folding and the economic hardships took their toll on the community, their wages were cut. The couple decided to take the risk of returning to Harrison and opening their own store.
“How well Mary and I remember our starting business.,” Abie wrote in an advertisement in the Harrison Sun. “We had little cash, but through the goodness of the town’s people we managed to open with very little merchandise, which was put on tables and counters while empty boxes filled the shelving.”
Joe said his parents didn’t want the store to look empty on opening day, and that’s why they came up with the idea of filling the shelves with the empty boxes in which their limited merchandise arrived. Three years later, in 1934, the business moved across the corner to the Davis Building.
That December brought some excitement to town when the Sioux National Bank was robbed. According to Abie’s recollections printed in the Harrison Sun, he and Mary were working in the store on Dec. 4 with Jerry Kennedy and Lola Unitt. They were busy with Christmas shoppers when bank employee Harold Jefferies ran in to announce the robbery and urge Abie to join him in chasing after the man, who had headed east.
Jefferies, Abie, Albert Moody and Lawrence Moody jumped in Abie’s car and overtook the man 16-18 miles east of town and ran him off the road. The robber exited his vehicle and came out shooting, Abie wrote.
“I didn’t have a gun, so believe me, I laid close to the running board on the opposite side of the car, and finally after he had emptied his gun and started running down Smiley Canyon, Albert Moody shot him with a big Army rifle. … This was a horrifying experience, and one I care never to repeat. As my car was shot up considerably, the Nebraska Bankers Association and the local bank here paid the difference on a new car for us, a 1935 Ford.”
Joe said his father, who usually walked to work, was truly shaken by the experience.
“He was scared to death after that.”
Whiteaker’s moved to its current location in the Hoyt Building in 1938, sharing the site with the U.S. Post Office, as it does today.
While getting the business off the ground in the Great Depression was no easy feat, Saturday nights at Whiteaker’s was apparently the place to be.
“There would be some 25 or more cowboys who would come to town with their paychecks, and of course we would stay open to accommodate them, sometimes until 11 or 12 o’clock,” Abie wrote in the Harrison Sun. “Their paychecks might not have been very big, but they sure had a good time spending it!”
By 1938, Abie and Mary also had three sons, Robert, Donald and Joe.
Joe doesn’t remember paying much attention to the store as a child –
“I was out mowing yards and making money,” he said, adding that running the store was never in his plans.
“I never did think I wanted to come here.”
All three boys attended Oklahoma A&M and then served in the armed forces – Bob in the Air Force, Donald in the Army and Joe in the Marines.
After ending his stint in the Marines, Joe returned to Harrison, marrying Tonita Anderson, and went to work for the Sioux National Bank for 20 years. They also ranched but gave that up during the 1980s farm crisis.
With Mary’s passing in 1986 and Abie’s health declining, Joe and Tonita took a more active role in the store during the 1980s, but Abie continued to work until his death in 1989.
“The thought of closing (the store) was hard. The town really needed it,” Joe said. Instead, he and Tonita bought out his two brothers, and the days of filling the shelves with empty boxes are long behind them.
“We probably have too much inventory, but you have to manage your orders to make the freight worth it,” Joe said. Every surface of the store is filled with jeans, shirts, boots, hats, belts, ties, jewelry and more.
Abby Edmund, who has worked at Whiteaker’s for about 10 years, said cowboys from Lusk to Crawford know they can get what they need. Written down in the back are the styles and sizes of boots, jeans and hats that loyal customers prefer, Edmund said.
“I think it’s nice they don’t have to go elsewhere,” she said. “And they love him.”
As for Joe, he says meeting and visiting with people is his favorite part of the job, and though it wasn’t what he planned for his life, he’ll be behind the counter until his health prevents it, just like his dad.
“It’s been good to the Whiteaker family, the store has, and the community.”
Whiteaker’s will celebrate its 90th anniversary with a customer appreciation dinner and dance Aug. 21 at 5 p.m. at the Rocky Top Dance Hall in Harrison.
In Abie’s words, written in the Harrison Sun:
“I have often made the remark that had I had enough money to go back to Missouri in 1925, I would have gone, but thank goodness I didn’t have it and am still here. … We are mighty thankful for our many friends and customers who have made it possible for us to live, raise our family, and be a part of this wonderful western country. We all love it, and always will.”