H.C. Prange, A Sheboygan Institution
By Beth Dippel
Executive Director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center
Mention the name Prange’s and no matter your age from 40 to 90 you probably have personal memories of the legendary Sheboygan department store. Whether those memories are of the annual animated Christmas window displays and caramel corn, the use of due bills, charge-a-plates, layaways, will-call, the x-ray machine in the shoe department or the escalators, they are shared by many and are part of the cherished collective history of the H.C. Prange Company.
This publication is by no means a comprehensive history of the H.C. Prange Company. It is more a trip down memory lane, filled with images, stories and recipes submitted by former employees and loyal shoppers. The story is further enhanced by clips from Prange Company publications, old newspaper articles and images, along with just enough original text to connect the pieces and tell a good story. There are so many stories it’s impossible to tell them all so we have chosen to document some of the happenings of the company from its beginning in 1887 to the old store’s demise in 1983. Prange’s continued on for a number of years after 1983 before it was sold to Younkers, but in a different building and in a different way. The era of the giant “H.C. Prange family” and the big city store in a small town was over. But what a life and influence it had! Enjoy the memories.
The Prange story in America began in 1848 when William Prange, born in Hanover, Germany in 1817, immigrated to Sheboygan County. He married Miss Eleanor Ackermann on March 8, 1849. Mrs. Prange was also a native of Germany, although from Schaumburg. The couple purchased their 160-acre farm located one mile west of the Green Bay Road (now Highway 32) in the town of Sheboygan Falls. They had seven children, the youngest of whom was Henry Carl (H.C.).
When William Prange died in 1865, his wife was left to support and raise seven children. Henry was a frail child who according to his parents wasn’t up to the rigors of farm life, and as he approached his twenty-first birthday Eleanor Prange suggested young Henry go to Sheboygan to find a job better suited to his health. And so began Henry Prange’s life in retail.
Few would have been able to foresee when partners H. C. Prange, his sister Eliza Prange and brother-in-law, J.H. Bitter opened the original H.C. Prange store on Tuesday, October 4, 1887 that it would turn into a Sheboygan landmark and icon. That first store, located on the southeast corner of Eighth Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Sheboygan, occupied a space of just 30 feet x 110 feet. It was a small two-story building with offices and living quarters upstairs. Louise Rosenthal and John Bertschy were the first and only employees for the first eighteen months when Otto J. Kohl joined the staff.
It was a true family business from the start. For many years Mr. Prange and his sister bought the dry goods, while Mr. Bitter bought the groceries and had charge of the books. Mr. Otto Kohl, who at first devoted his energies to the Grocery Department, in 1891 took over the Ladies’ Ready-to-Wear and Men’s Apparel sections, which he successfully handled until his death on July 1st, 1920.
After leaving home at age twenty, Henry Prange found employment in John Plath’s general store where he spent the next 11 years coloring butter, packing eggs, delivering groceries and learning the business. Hours were long, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and even later on Saturdays, 9 p.m.
After working with Plath, the Wieboldt brothers and several other businesses, Henry Prange began his own business in 1887 always keeping in mind the shopper and the need for superior customer satisfaction. This philosophy helped make his business a success from the beginning. Personally greeting everyone who entered the store by name, he would inquire about their families. Those close relationships with customers made Prange’s the place to shop. Those relationships were the key to his business success.
Henry married Miss Augusta Bodenstein on December 29, 1891. The couple originally lived on Michigan Avenue, but later built a home at 617 Erie Avenue where they raised their six children. The family attended Trinity Lutheran Church in Sheboygan. Henry and his sister Eliza were generous donors to their church. Gifts from the Prange family paid for the eighth grade addition to the Trinity School. Prange was always interested in civic organizations and was a great philanthropist.
One of Henry Prange’s favorite places was his summer home at Elkhart Lake, which he acquired about 1907 after spending many years staying at summer hotels there. The lake property was the scene of many family reunions and company parties.
The Pranges enjoyed traveling especially in their later years when they spent a number of months each year in Florida escaping Wisconsin’s harsh winters.
Henry C. Prange died of pneumonia in St. Augustine, Florida on January 25, 1928. He was 69 years old. His son H. Carl Prange took over the store upon his father’s death. Under H. Carl’s leadership, the business grew from a single store in Sheboygan to a company with twenty-six stores in three states. But, the emphasis on customer service remained; “It’s not yours ’til you like it” endured.
On Saturday, October 1st, 1887, before the store was officially open, while the shades were drawn and the store filled with lumber, shavings and dry-goods boxes, and the carpenters still busy putting on the final touches, there came a rap at the door. Imagine the surprise of H.C. Prange, J.H. Bitter and Miss Eliza Prange who were busy unpacking goods at the time, when they were met by Mr. William and Mrs. Otillie Fiebelkorn, who inquired in German, “Kann man schon was kriegen?” meaning “Are you ready for business?” Of course, they were ready. The Fieblekorns bought a generous bill of goods — the first ever sold by what is now the H.C. Prange Company.
The Fiebelkorns owned a large farm west of Cascade and traveled nearly 25 miles to shop, quite a distance in 1887. Something caused them to come back time and time again. Odds are that service and quality caused them to become lifelong customers. The Fiebelkorns’ loyalty helped the store grow steadily year after year, until it became the largest store in this part of Wisconsin.
In the days before World War I, German was heard in the store nearly as often as English. The German colloquial expression, “Down by Prange’s” came to signify the high regard of the community for Prange’s as the downtown center of the city.
Henry Prange was credited with the large patronage among the people of the city and county. He spent a great deal of time in the grocery entry greeting customers, many of whom he learned to know by name, visiting with them in German.
At Prange’s in Sheboygan it has always been the customer who is central, ergo the mantra, “the customer is always right.” The slogan, “It’s not yours ’til you like it,” was another hard and fast rule, created by H.C. Prange and put into action by Prange employees. Customer service was one foundation of the Prange business. This was seen and put into action through the constant changes that kept the store fresh and attractive to customers.
The backbone of Prange’s business was the farmer. Farmers brought their produce (i.e. apples, potatoes, eggs, milk, berries) to the store and were given “due bills” in exchange.
These due bills or certificates (booklet seen at left) could be used only at Prange’s and were spent like cash. This exchange system was a way for people for whom cash was scarce to buy items they needed (shoes, clothing, cooking utensils, and a few fineries). For some farmers it was a weekly stop; for others it was a highly anticipated special event. Prange’s treatment of the farmer created an intense loyalty which benefitted both shopper and store.
Prange’s always had a policy to pay two cents more per dozen for eggs than any other competition would pay. Once, during an egg pricing war in the 1930s, the store bought 400 cases of eggs, thirty dozen eggs in a case (That’s 144,000 eggs). The company had to ship an entire freight car load to Boston just to get rid of them.
During the national bank holiday of 1933, Prange’s accepted checks from customers and issued due bills, many of which were used to pay dental or doctor bills or buy groceries. People had no money. The checks weren’t cashed until the moratorium was over.
The summer of 1937 witnessed the opening of Prange’s new escalator . . . The only moving stairway, as it was called at the time, in Wisconsin. Prange’s escalator preceded those in Milwaukee by five years. The escalator took shoppers from the first floor to the second floor, but not back down.
The escalator was electrically driven, running continuously and silently, and was capable of carrying as many as 6,000 people per hour. Situated at the rear of the store the escalator ran from the first to second floors and could accommodate as many as 42 people at one time.
The escalators were upgraded in 1947 when shoppers could go from the second to the third floor and also take the escalators down, as well. The originals only went up.
Among other improvements made in 1937 was the installation of an up-to-date soda fountain and luncheon service. This new department on the main floor offered the latest in comfort and convenience for customers. Tables were Formica-topped steel tables and had comfortable genuine red leather and chrome chairs. The table tops were advertised as scorch and scratch-proof. The tables also had purse and package rails for the comfort of the customers. Ninety people could be seated at one time.
Improvements were constantly being made at Prange’s as the need for them arose. As a result the store enjoyed the reputation of being one of the finest and most complete stores in Wisconsin. Prange’s placed customer confidence first among all its assets.
This book takes you through the growth of the landmark and then the demise of the great store in 1983, all because of a leaky pipe. You can find recipes for treasured lunch specialties including the sour cream donuts. You will take a trip back in time through newspaper ads and article, images, recipes and much more. This is a fun read.
This book can be found at the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, 518 Water Street, Sheboygan Falls. Check out schrc.org/shop to order online. Call 920.467.4667 for curbside pickup.
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