Dunham’s in Wellsboro 1 of the last family-owned department stores in US

PHOTO PROVIDED During the Great Depression, the Dunhams created the Rolling Store, a truck that carried their goods to people throughout Tioga County.

(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.)

WELLSBORO — Dunham’s Department Store, 45 Main St., has been in operation for 112 years and is one the last family-owned department stores in the United States.

On March 19, 1905, a farmer, Roy J. Dunham, and a teacher, Fannie Treat Dunham, bought interest in a grocery store in Wellsboro’s downtown that was owned by Roy’s uncle, W.A. Hammond, according to the pamphlet, “Celebrating 100 Years, Since 1905,” published for the department store’s centennial anniversary.

In 1908, the couple purchased Hammond’s half of the interest, becoming the sole owners of the grocery store. They also began to sell farm supplies, houseware and tobacco.

Five years later, the restaurant next door caught fire and badly damaged the grocery store. But, this did not deter the Dunhams.

They temporarily moved their operations down the street to a new building, now Pop’s Culture Shoppe, 25 Main St., while they rebuilt. They built a feed store that connected to the new grocery store with an overhead walkway. This building now is the Dunham’s Do-It Center, 8 East Ave., and Dunham’s Furniture, 17 Waln St.

Dunham’s suffered another bout of bad luck when the flood of June 1919 struck. Though the store sustained significant water damage, the misfortune did not dampen the couple’s spirit. They expanded their dry goods and clothing, calling it the Dunham’s Ready Pay Store, now Cafe 1905, 45 Main St.

As the Great Depression started, the Dunhams added a hardware store to their business. That same year, their son, Frank Dunham, joined and became the second generation to work in the family business.

During this time, they also created the Rolling Store, a truck that carried various goods and traveled throughout Tioga County until World War II.

“A lot of farmers and other families in the area had no way of getting to town,” said John Dunham, Frank Dunham’s son, president of operations and a part of the third generation to work in the store, in the centennial pamphlet.

They “delivered things, and traded with the farmers so they could get the produce, eggs, syrup and all of those kinds of things to sell in the grocery store,” said Ann Dunham Rawson, a fourth-generation Dunham to work in the family business, and John’s daughter.

“It was like Amazon before Amazon,” said Ellen Dunham Bryant, a fourth-generation Dunham, president of the Penn Wells Hotel, and John’s daughter.

In 1932, Roy and Frank built the three-story department store that exists today.

Frank “decided they needed something to keep the local people working, so they decided to build this store to prevent people from losing their jobs. Families were having issues because of the war and the Depression, so they put them to work on the building,” Rawson said. “They built the department store as a means to build the economy in the area.”

Roy passed away in 1937. Frank took over the hardware, milling operation and farm supply departments while Fannie operated the office.

“They would get the grain from the people and they would mill it and make it into flour, pancake flour, all different types of flour. There was a mill across the street, where (From My Shelf Books & Gifts, 7 East Ave. #101) is now,” she said.

Frank loved making food, and the Dunham family still owns some of his equipment. In Cafe 1905, 45 Main St., the coffee grinder still is on display.

Growing up, John said he would be “bagging the potatoes in pack bags, making donuts in the window. It was called the Downy Flake Machine; they all went around in a circle in the oil.”

“Everyone remembers that donut machine! People told me they would just cry when they would come down and it wasn’t working,” Bryant said.

Frank’s oldest son, Jim Dunham, joined the business in 1955 as management in the department store. John joined in 1961 after he went to college. Bob Dunham, former president of Dunham’s Furniture Store, operated the department store in 1966.

Fannie Dunham passed away in May 1970. She worked in the office until her last day.

“People will tell me stories about how your grandmother, my great-grandmother (Fannie), was always up in the office and looking at the store, watching what was going on,” Bryant said to John.

As time passed, the store continued to change. In 1968, the feed store became the furniture store. The grocery store closed in 1973 so the owners could expand the building to create the gift department. In 1985, John and Jim had the men’s and shoes department and coffee shop built.

With the turn of the century, John and his wife, Nancy, purchased the store in July 2000 from Jim, and their daughter, Rawson, joined the business.

“We are a traditional department store. There aren’t very many of them left; we are one of the few,” John said.

Over 112 years, a small grocery store has grown into a local, and one of the last family-owned, department stores in the U.S. The store has weathered some bumps along the road, but nothing ever deterred it from trying to succeed and providing a service to residents.

“It’s a pillar of the community. It’s something that our community needs, to have a thriving business district, for a thriving downtown to work, so it is not just us. It’s providing something for the town,” Rawson said.

“One of the things we always say is it is our family serving your family, and by our family we don’t just mean the Dunham’s family,” she added. “It’s our service to the community.”