Then & Now: J.M. McDonald Co.

Then: In its heyday, the J.M. McDonald Co, which was headquartered in Hastings, was one of the largest retail outfits in the area. At its peak, it had grown to include 108 stores in 12 states.

The company’s namesake started the chain with an acquisition in 1934 and grew through purchasing other businesses and opening new stores. Ironically, these same corporate purchases led to the company’s demise. In 1968, J.M. McDonald was bought by Gamble-Skogmo Inc. In 1980, Wickes Corp. of San Diego, Calif., purchased Gamble and its subsidiaries in 1980. Two years later, Wickes filed for bankruptcy, forcing the closure of McDonald’s.

Now: Herberger’s stands in place of the J.M. McDonald Co. store at the Imperial Mall.

Herberger’s bought the McDonald’s store at the mall within weeks of the announced bankruptcy.

Clint Calkins of Hastings was with J.M. McDonald Co. more than 20 years before the doors closed. He was sad to see the company go. He said it was a good company for employees.

Calkins started in 1961 as a sales clerk in Wichita, Kan. Through 1975, he worked his way up to assistant manager before being transferred to Grand Island to help open a store at the Conestoga Mall. He moved to Helena, Mont., to serve as a store manager until he moved to Hastings in 1977 to work in the main office.

“When it started falling apart when Wickes bought it, it was very disturbing,” he said. “There was no personal touch to it. You had to do everything through somebody on the West Coast.”

After J.M. McDonald Co. closed in 1982, Calkins moved to Burbank, S.D., to work at another Gambles company, Fashion Crossroads. He served as district supervisor and was later stationed in Montana and then Iowa. Then he moved back to Hastings in 1992, where his two daughters lived.

Don Kissler of Hastings, who is now the Tribune’s business manager, worked at J.M. McDonald’s for 20 years, starting as an auditor and then moving into the financial department.

He said the company was unique in its approach to employees. The company culture helped with the longevity of employees. Several co-workers in the main office had been there 40 or 50 years.

“You couldn’t find any company with employee relationships better than they had,” he said.

Upper management acknowledged any employees they came across and would chat with them, no matter where they were on the totem pole.

“You just don’t see that anymore,” he said.

He recalled one company president during his time had a knack for remembering names. Charles Blair was able to call people by name when visiting stores as far away as California.

“He was a very personable individual,” Kissler said.

J.M. McDonald’s was a department store featuring shoes, clothing for the entire family and accessories, similar to Dillard’s or J.C. Penney.

In fact, the store was closer to J.C. Penney than many may realize.

J.M. McDonald got into the retail business early in his life while helping his father out at the mercantile store he operated, according to the J.M. McDonald Foundation website.

At the turn of the century, McDonald joined three older brothers to start a dry goods and grocery store named McDonalds. It was sold in 1904.

The following year, McDonald helped his boyhood friend J.C. Penney open his first store. After six months, McDonald left to help his brothers start a department store. He went back to J.C. Penney Co. in 1911 and helped grow the company until he left in 1929.

The company that became J.M. McDonald started as a single retail store in Holdrege. It was founded as a Golden Rule store owned by the Brown-Ekberg Co. in 1915. A second store opened in Minden three years later and by 1934 there were 18 stores in the chain.

Even after leaving J.C. Penney’s, McDonald continued to be active in the merchandising business. In 1934, he purchased the Ekberg interest in the Brown-Ekberg company and the name was changed to Brown-McDonald.

In 1936, the company’s offices were moved to Hastings. Ten years later, the company had grown to 40 stores. The original owner Eban Brown died in 1937, but the company name wasn’t changed to J.M. McDonald Co. until 1948.

In 1953, 33 stores were added to the company with the purchase of W.W. Virtue Inc. Another 10 stores came into the fold two years later with the acquisition of J.P. Croff Co.

Combination executive offices and a warehouse were built at the 2600 block of West Second Street in 1956. The building now houses Johnson Cashway Lumber Co.

By 1967, there were talks of a merger with Gamble-Skogmo, but the vote fell through. The following year, Gamble made a bid to buy the company.

The retail store moved to the Imperial Mall in June 1970.

In early 1980, Gamble and its subsidiaries were purchased by Wickes Corp., which had been the nation’s largest retailer of lumber and building supplies. The enlarged corporation suffered financially in the two years after the purchase and filed for bankruptcy in 1982. Herberger’s bought the Hastings’ location at that time.

While here, the business left a legacy through the J.M. McDonald Foundation. The foundation helped with a variety of projects through the city, including the J.M. McDonald Planetarium and Hurley-McDonald building on Hastings College campus.

Kissler helped close down the business, completing the required paperwork for the bankruptcy. He felt like it was the end of an era.

“It was a unique company,” he said. “It really was.”.

To read more, see Friday's Hastings Tribune or the Tribune e-edition.>>

Copyright © 2015