Printed in the Summer 2017 Issue of Lake Time Magazine
Written by Melanie Rice
In the heart of downtown Walker, Minnesota, Lundrigans Clothing is celebrating its 80th year of providing quality durable clothing brands we all love. Brands such as Pendleton and Woolrich, which are steeped in history, were the backbone of this little store that planted roots in northern Minnesota in 1937 and still stands strong.
Lundrigans provides a rich history of retail in Walker but the family and ownership behind that history is what makes their story so colorful.
We’re in the back corner of a local breakfast joint and I’m visiting with a couple of Walker’s most interesting ladies. The banter between them is much like Lucy and Ethel of I Love Lucy. Nancy Freeman, the owner of Lundrigans Clothing for the past 18 years is listening to a story Mary Lundrigan Amel, whose parents started Lundrigans Clothing, is telling about living above the store in the 60’s. “Dad worked downstairs all day,” Mary recalls, “and we all lived upstairs in the apartment. There was a heat register in the floor where we could see down into the store. When it was time for lunch, I’d take the grid off and poke my head down into the store to holler at Dad. Heads of customers snapped up to see what made the noise. Dad was frequently standing behind the counter wrapping up a purchase and talking about fishing or golfing. He stood in the same spot for so many years that he wore a spot in the floor.”
“That spot is still there”, says Nancy. “When we redid the floors a few years ago, we put glass over that spot and marked it.”
Mary continues, “Dad knew all the trouser sizes of most of the men in town. He did all his own alterations and wrote inseam measurements on the wall just under the beam downstairs.”
“Those are still there too!” exclaims Nancy.
It’s clear that history and tradition are gold standards for these ladies. It has been the cornerstone of the Lundrigans brand for 80 years. Located smack dab in the center of downtown Walker, the corner Lundrigans occupies has been a hardware store, a general store and lastly a men’s clothing store before it was purchased by Ed Lundrigan in the fall of 1937 and became Lundrigans Clothing.
Mary smirks and continues, “I started working in the store in 1959 when I was 12. I always got the ugly jobs,” she sighs, “like when the Pendleton shirts came in, they were always folded and pinned, that’s how they were displayed in the cases. There were no hangers for display blouses in those days. They were stacks in glass cases, waiting to fall over with any motion. If someone wanted to try something on, we would take the 3 or 4 chosen blouses and send them to the fitting room. I dreaded going in to find the remains once they were done. There were cardboard bones that held the blouse shape, crumpled pieces of tissue, and pins, pins, pins. My job was to return the blouse to pristine condition. There were 10 pins for the sleeveless blouses, 14 for short sleeves and 18 for long sleeves. To this day I still hate those damn pins!”
“I made 12 cents per hour. One cent per year of my age. One day I asked my mom why that was so. She snapped back, ‘You have food and a place to live!’ I never understood the answer and never asked again.”
Within a couple years of opening Lundrigans, Ed met and married Mabel. He had expanded beyond the overalls and long johns for farmers and fast became the largest merchandiser of the Pendleton brand in the 5-state area. Most notable from the Pendleton Woolen Mills was the plaid shirt - made for the first time by Pendleton in 1924. In addition to Pendleton shirts, they also sold seersucker pajamas and men’s trousers. The trousers shipped unfinished so Ed taught himself how to tailor – and was setup in the basement of the store- where the inseams were written on the wall.
One day a regular local customer, and friend of Ed’s, walked in with a yellow plaid Pendleton Shirt rolled up in a grocery bag. “There’s a hole in the elbow of the left sleeve. Can’t wear it anymore”, he claimed. Without a blink Ed told him to pick a new Pendleton and wrapped it up for him. At Christmas, Ed surprised this friend with a gift. Wrapped up in Christmas paper was the yellow plaid shirt with the hole in it. That shirt was passed back and forth for Christmas, birthdays, St. Patrick’s days, you name it. That same customer also returned a blue seersucker pajama set that was on sale… two years after he bought it. He claimed he didn’t need them anymore, so Ed credited his account. The shirt and the seersucker pajamas showed up for years between the two old friends.
Lundrigans Clothing was open Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm. On Sunday afternoon, Ed would take the week’s earnings and drive to downtown Minneapolis to buy merchandise directly from the manufacturers. He would sleep in the parking lot overnight. Bright and early Monday morning, he’d purchase pants, overalls and jeans. If he was lucky he’d have 25 cents after getting gas and he’d go the Nankin restaurant to get one order of egg rolls and tea before heading home to finish his Monday workday at the store.
The window displays have always been a source of pride for Lundrigans. Mary recalls one of the women’s mannequins used strictly for ladies’ trousers; only the waist down with crossed legs. One of the legs could be removed but it was still very, very difficult to get the pants on. The men’s window had a half-male torso fondly named George. He was much easier to dress as he only wore shirts, sweaters, and jackets. Mary spent many hours trying to figure out how to exchange those two mannequins but George refused to surrender his broad arms and flat chest.
In 1949 Pendleton came out with their first collection of womenswear.
“What was that jacket with the plaid and iridescent buttons?” asks Mary.
“The 49er Jacket” - Nancy
“Nancy always remembers the names.” She says to me under her breath.
Pendleton couldn’t have predicted the popularity of this garment. It was post WWII and women were borrowing their husband’s Pendleton plaid shirts. Women just didn’t have work wear of their own. So, Pendleton took the opportunity and redesigned the men’s Pendleton shirt adding some tucks and black shell buttons. It was a massive success.
1960 brought the Pendleton Donut Skirt. It was a full circle of Pendleton fabric with a waist cut out in the middle of the fabric. Mary remembers the skirt well. “It was $11.95 in 1960. We got that in and we said, nobody can afford this, we are going to eat this!” But it lasted a few years and was followed up with the pleated reversible skirt which was even more popular.
It was Mabel that started Lundrigans on the path of women’s clothing. She was the first to notice at market that the women’s merchandise had a higher markup than the men’s. She talked with Ed and they decided it would be worth trying. They bought several blouses and pants for women. Mom cleared out an area in the store and started a small women’s corner. It was a hit and to this day Lundrigans is one of the leading women’s clothing retailers in the north woods
Mabel was also the first one in town to offer free wrapping to the customers, and not just at Christmas. Boxes were wrapped in black paper and said “from Lundrigans Clothing” on the box. This tradition continues today at all the Lundrigans stores, and at Christmas, the festive boxes are recognized under trees all over the area. “Oooh, looks like something from Lundrigans”, people say, when opening gifts on Christmas morning.
Around 1976, Ed had a stroke and the family knew it was time to sell. As it would happen, Ed’s son Hap, who lived in the Twin Cities mentioned this fact to his barber. The next day, the same barber had Tony Doughty in his chair. Tony had been involved with the retail business in Chicago and the Twin Cities for over a dozen years as a buyer, department store manager and general manager of a specialty store chain. Tony recalls, “In early 1977 I was getting my haircut at a barbershop in St. Louis Park and told the barber that I was looking for a business up north that would allow more time for family life and be somewhat removed from the retail rat race of the big cities.”
"You should call this guy, he was in yesterday and said his parents have a clothing store in Walker that they want to sell", the barber shared.
Two days later Tony and Hap framed out a deal on the back of a small napkin in a diner. They gave the napkin to the lawyers who turned it into 27 single-spaced pages without changing a dime.
“We probably could have all just signed the napkin and had things work out just as well.” jokes Tony.
Three months later Tony, his wife Patti and their 3-year old son Charlie were up north and the second owners of Lundrigans Clothing in 40 years. They ran the store for 15 years, expanding to Nisswa and Bemidji locations. “In retail, resources are constantly changing. Old ones die out and hot new ones come on the market and take their places. Woolrich and Pendleton are likely the only two resources who were with us for the entire 22 years of our ownership. Some of the other lines we added that would still be around and well known today are Levis, Nike, Nautica, and some of the more popular priced divisions of Ralph Lauren's conglomerate. For a while we had some manufacturers who produced shirts and sportswear items for us under our own label as well.”
“During the 22 years we were privileged to own and operate Lundrigans, it grew from one to three stores and from three to thirty employees. Walker was a wonderful place to live and we consider our years there to have been a great gift and blessing.”
Nancy started working for Tony at Lundrigans in 1985. “The Levi Action Slacks were a hot item when I started working at Lundrigans.”
Not action pants. Action slacks. Pleat front or flat front.
It was clear early on that Nancy had the basic requirements for entrepreneurial success; a self-starter with a strong independent streak. She gave them a younger set of eyes to help shop, evaluate, and edit the constantly changing clothing markets. “She could spot trends that we never would have seen. She kept us current and up to speed.”