Biggar to LONE ARRANGER
“the life of a building”
James W. Biggar came to Corning in 1871 when his parents moved here from Canada. Two years later, at age 15, he was employed in the mercantile business of A.B.Turner, Sr. who had moved to Corning from Chicago in 1868. He continued to work there for 20 years. In 1893 he partnered with William Scott and S.C. Scott, one of whom has a shoe shop and the other dry goods. James W. added men’s clothing to their two buildings south of the current TS Bank and by 1904 he was the sole owner.
In 1907 he began construction of a new building at 625-627 Davis Avenue. To put it in perspective, recall that the 1910 census listed nearly 11,000 residents in Adams County; 1,700 of whom lived in Corning proper, the undisputed county hub of business. Iowa had only been a State since 1846. Sidewalks appeared in the business district in 1906 and brick paving and electric streetlights made Davis Avenue modern in 1911. The main street was replete with restaurants, cafes, shoe stores, grocery stores, general stores and more, plus doctor’s, dentist’s and lawyer’s offices.
According to an article in the Adams County Union-Republican, on April 8, 1908 J.W. Biggar took possession of his new store which measured 60’X100’ with an annex of 20’X109’. It was essentially three stories. On the top floor to the SE was a lady’s suit and cloak department. Opposite was the millinery display. The west section held carpet and curtains. Below was the balcony which was devoted to the ladies’ rest room. On the main floor in the rear was a grocery store. The front held dry goods and a shoe department. The annex offered men’s furnishings. There were four entrances, two on Davis Avenue and two on Benton Avenue. Handsome projecting show windows were present. The basement was used for remnant sales and storage. The article noted the presence of an elevator, electric lights and an American radiator system of steam heat and concluded with the statement: “The building is not surpassed in Iowa as a modern store, and it is one of which not only the owner but the entire community may well feel proud.”
J.W. himself died in 1909 at the age of 51 and his wife took over, adding two more buildings to the south and connecting them all with passageways that Dolores Parcher recalls made a handy warm shortcut walking to school as a teenager. Son William Biggar took over the business when he returned at the end of WWI and in March 1939 remodeled extensively, putting stairs to the basement near the front entrance, enlarging the front display windows and adding public restrooms at the rear of the basement. He died in 1951 and his sister and brother-in-law kept the business alive. Colleen Bickford recalls working there with Kathleen Murdock on Saturdays in the early 1950’s starting at 8am and ending the day at 10pm. People shopped once a week usually on Saturdays and downtown was busy. The basement area included everything a typical 5 & dime offered; toys, candy counter, dishes, comic books, plus hundreds more. The first job each day was dusting the dishes. Interestingly, she also remembers a basement room set aside for women to nurse their babies.
In 1955, the two smaller Biggars stores were sold to P.M. Place Stores, and the main building to W. Rittel who ran it as W.G.Woodward then C.R. Anthony Stores. The connecting ways between the stores were closed off. Anthony’s closed following a fire at the SW corner of the store in February 1959.
Turner’s moved their successful business down the street into the Biggar building in June 1959 handling fabrics, clothing and domestic goods. Their men’s and boy’s department were moved two doors south. The Biggar building was extensively remodeled to update the sales displays in 1962 and the balcony area became office space with views of the sales floor. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the basement staircase was closed off, the north facing windows were covered over and the staircase to the upper levels was moved to the north wall. Modern light fixtures were added and were just recently replaced. Unfortunately, Turner’s closed in 2003, a victim of changing retail trends, and the building sat empty until Jessica Wilson rescued it with her flower shop LONE ARRANGER in January 2011.
Old buildings, like old bodies, accumulate marks and scars from operations and accidents. Upstairs, Jessica can still show you the original 1900’s ceiling light fixtures and the soot stained wall. The balcony has the iron railing and traces of the old office area, but the lady’s restroom is long gone. On the main floor, the ornate tin ceiling still attracts the eye, but the old connection through to HyVee Pharmacy is hidden behind the large flower cooler against the South wall. In the basement remain the staircase coming down from near the front entrance and the two restrooms. And, oh, that long-lived boiler bragged up in the 1908 newspaper article? It finally died in 2016, but it is still there facing the old coal chute that opened onto Benton Avenue. Mr. Biggar’s jewel still stands proud at age 111.
Main Street Public Relations Committee
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