‘Good memories:’ Iconic bell rings with holiday experiences

MARK MARONEY/Sun-Gazette The iconic bell that once was displayed at L.L. Stearns and Sons department store is in the collection at the Peter Herdic Transportation Museum, 810 Nichols Place. It often is loaned to various merchandisers to be put in display windows for the holidays.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette offers the next installment in a weekly history series that tells the stories of those who came before us.)

Christmastime at L.L. Stearns and Sons, a department store anchoring downtown Williamsport for more than a century, was a festive experience. Santa was on the fourth floor, elves were prancing and shoppers caught the best deals of the year.

Spending the season in the store holds cherished memories for Cindy Stearns, whose family founded the company. She well remembers decorations such as a youngster in one-piece pajamas clinging to an iconic bell decorated for the holidays as well as the store’s bustling gift-wrapping section.

Laten Legg Stearns, founder of L.L. Stearns and Sons, is her great-great-grandfather. She is the daughter of Charles Robert Stearns II, the store’s last president before it closed in 1984.

Cindy Stearns recalled working in the store.

“The store was fun,” she said, adding that the bell decoration still evokes fond memories.

“I remember the bell,” she said, reflecting on the days when she thought, “When I got to be a big girl. that could be my job … to ride the bell.”

“I thought it was a real kid,” she said with a laugh. “I couldn’t wait to be a big girl.”

The atmosphere of the store reminded her of what it looked like on screen in the classic movie, “Miracle on 34th Street,” where a young girl played by Natalie Wood was taught to doubt the authenticity of Kris Kringle.

That was until a kindly, elderly man, wonderfully portrayed by Edmund Gwen, proved his worth by having a real beard and, toward the end of the movie, surprising her parents with a house in the suburbs and leaving his signature cane in the corner.

Shoppers did not see a hint of holiday decorations until Black Friday, as the store was decorated by staff in preparation for the biggest shopping day of the year, Cindy Stearns said.

“I remember there were elves that were stuffed dolls with plastic faces,” she said, preserving the memory by keeping one in the attic of her residence.

The elves were positioned throughout the floors and in various acrobatic states, including swinging or hanging on ornaments or doing somersaults.

Cindy Stearns recalled working one year in the gift-wrapping area. One of her fondest memories was when a woman wanted to bundle a broom in wrapping paper.

“It was a joyful time,” she said. “I am sure there were people who were stressed.”

About the founder

Laten Legg Stearns was the son of John and Abigail (Legg) Stearns and was raised in Speedsville, New York, according to the “Genealogical and Personal History of Lycoming County” by John W. Jordan and published by Lewis Historical Publishing Co. in 1906.

After attending high school and then an academy, Stearns taught school in Groton, New York, while spending time on his father’s farm.

In 1850, Stearns came to Lycoming County and began his first mercantile venture, becoming associated with his brother-in-law, L.N. Muir, at the general store in Jersey Shore, where they carried a large stock of goods, including drugs and chemicals.

Eleven years later, as the nation was embroiled in the Civil War, Stearns joined the Union army as a sutler — someone who follows an army and sells goods to the soldiers. He sold provisions to the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry for four years.

After the war ended, Stearns opened the first northern stock of goods at Lynchburg, Virginia, remaining there for six months.

He then returned and, in the fall of 1865, opened a general store formerly operated by Richmond & Van Fleet, at the corner of Market and Third streets. He sold dry goods and groceries there until October 1889, a period of almost a quarter of a century.

By 1885, Stearns admitted his three sons to the partnership and, two years later, they purchased the building, which thereafter was known as the Stearns block.

When the store was moved two blocks west to Third and Pine streets, it is said the business increased by more than $100,000.

The brothers conducted their business in a very systematic and methodical manner, their books being marvels of ingenuity and accuracy, and conducted business under the style of L.L. Stearns and Sons.

After the store closed, the advertising bell was donated to River Valley Transit in 1989 by Carole Smith, former manager of the Lycoming Mall.

The bell was prominently displayed at the Trade and Transit Centre I building for many years until it was put in the Peter Herdic Transportation Museum, where it remains.

William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director and general manager of River Valley Transit, said the bell again will be on display at Patinaz, a jewelry store at 38 W. Fourth St., for the holidays and through the Christmas season.

The memories stay as clear as they were yesterday, and the happiest ones are what most people choose to hold onto, according to Cindy Stearns.

“That’s why the store and bell evoke such good memories,” she said.