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With retail coming to a close in the old Dayton’s building, a look at how it got started there

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Dayton’s at 7th and Nicollet

The announcement was tucked away in the back pages of the Minneapolis Tribune on May 19. On that day in 1903, Goodfellow’s, a Nicollet Avenue department store, told its customers that it was taking on a new identity: “Starting next Monday, this business will be known as the Dayton Dry Goods Company — Dayton’s, for short, instead of Goodfellow’s. The change is one of name only, not of fairness in dealing nor of good service, nor of progressiveness.”

That modest announcement launched one of Minnesota’s most iconic brands and a major institution that anchored downtown Minneapolis for more than a century. While the Dayton name was removed from the downtown landmark in 2001, the store established by George Draper Dayton in 1903 continued to operate at its prime Nicollet Avenue location up until this year. Now, a retail era spanning two centuries is coming to an end with the sale of the former Dayton’s flagship department store by its current owner, Macy’s, to a New York real estate investment firm.

The 1903 announcement stated that the change from Goodfellow's to Dayton's was “one of name only,” but that was not the entirely accurate. Goodfellow’s, then a second tier department store, had been located at Third and Nicollet, then considered the heart of the city’s retail district. In 1902, George Dayton pushed the boundaries of the district when he built an imposing six-story building farther south on Nicollet, at 7th Street. In order to entice Goodfellow’s to relocate to his new property, then outside the downtown retail core. Dayton, a successful real estate developer, invested in the struggling business but operated as a silent partner, at least initially.

Courtesy of Hennepin County Public Library Special Collections
George Draper Dayton

With Dayton’s backing, Goodfellow’s staged a formal grand opening at its new location on June 24, 1902. The event received extensive coverage in the local papers. “Thousands of men and women were present,” the Minneapolis Journal reported. “In the afternoon hundreds of shoppers combined business and pleasure. They made purchases, listened to a splendid orchestra and looked with delight at the beautiful goods and the beautiful decorations.”

“The new Goodfellow’s Store — rightly named the ‘Daylight store’ — is one of the handsomest and best-appointed emporiums in the country,” the Journal went on to report. “It is new in every particular respect and has the very latest and best in everything that goes to make up a great department store.”

The 7th and Nicollet property was George Dayton’s second downtown Minneapolis development. The young real estate developer was still living and working in his adopted hometown of Worthington, Minnesota when he built an eight story medical building, known as the Dayton block, at the corner of 6th and Nicollet in 1893.

Then in 1895, Dayton was presented with a new development opportunity when a fire destroyed the Westminster Presbyterian Church. Dayton purchased the abandoned site at 7th and Nicollet from the church for $165,000 and moved ahead with plans for his new commercial venture.

Courtesy of the Hennepin County Public Library
This ad from the May 23, 1903 Minneapolis Journal announced the department store’s name change.

“Prior to 1902, I had no idea of becoming a merchant,” Dayton would later write in his autobiography. Initially, he was merely an investor and a one-third owner in Goodfellow’s, along with two other partners. But the store was losing money and one of the partners was involved in some shady business dealings. “Very soon it became necessary for us to buy out one of the men; and little later, the other. Now, son Draper who graduated from Princeton in June, 1902 and I had a store on our hands,” Dayton recalled.

“It was a risky, but really there was nothing for us to do but go ahead with the store. We lost money but we gained experience. I kept track of the losses until they passed one hundred thousand dollars. Then, I said, ‘I don’t want to know the loss. We are going to make this win,’  and the result speaks for itself.”

By 1906, the father and son, working together, were finally able to turn a profit for their fledgling retail business. In 1906, the son, Draper Dayton, became the store’s general manager. Later, Draper was joined by his younger brother, Nelson. Together, the two brothers built on the foundation their father had established when Dayton’s was still known as Goodfellow’s.

With Draper’s sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 43 in 1923, Nelson became the majority owner of the family business now known as the Dayton Company. By the 1920s, Dayton’s had surpassed its main rival, the L.S. Donaldson Company, to become Minnesota’s leading retailer.

In 1950, Nelson’s five sons took over management of the department store their grandfather had established nearly a half-century earlier. The five — Don, Wallace, Douglas, Bruce and Kenneth — pushed the family business to even greater heights. The brothers established the country’s first fully enclosed climate-controlled shopping center at Southdale and a national retail chain identified by its red bull’s eye.

While the landmark department store at 7th and Nicollet will soon be a thing of the past, George Draper Dayton’s legacy has been preserved two blocks farther south on Nicollet at 9th Street. There, one of the country’s first downtown Target stores continues to attract Minneapolis shoppers, just at the original Dayton’s did more than a century ago.

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Comments (2)

timely story about the importance of the Dayton family

The family's start in Minnesota began in Worthington and is marked by their fully restored 1890 home that is open for public use: daytonhouse.org It is a true Minnesota treasure funded by the Dayton Family and Target with the leadership of Bruce Dayton.

Worth the trip.

Dayton's

Even though we had little money, we were still able to shop at Dayton's, if only in their Bargain Basement, full of wondrous foods, piles of nylon stockings, and french-milled soap.
The Daytons helped shape the Twin Cities with their generous contributions to building our cultural institutions. That the building is not being sold to local owners is tragic, as it may likely be torn down, whatever will bring maximum profit to its new owners.
It was also a beautiful store, rivalling the flagship Macy's in New York. It also seemed bigger, though it likely was not.
I received an award in the Oak Room, and I still sometimes dream about the place, and its hidden luxuries. We still have the Oriental rug my mother let me pick out, around 1970.
Good value, good service and good selection is how I'll remember Dayton's.
Oh, and I owe them for a 45 record of Funkytown that I shoplifted (the one and only time) in 1981.