50 years of retail therapy

Bon-Ton was part of Lewistown redevelopment project

LEWISTOWN –Opening just in time for the Christmas season in 1969, the Lewistown Bon-Ton department store opened its doors during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Nov. 6, 1969, with throngs of customers waiting to explore the new store. The store was proclaimed to be a “spacious 45,000 square foot structure which features the ultimate in modern shopping conveniences and luxurious appointments,” according to information from the Mifflin County Historical Society. The first 400 ladies to enter the establishment received a rose.

The store’s opening signified the first store to be completed under Lewistown’s Downtown Redevelopment Program of the East Market Street area. According to a Bon-Ton advertisement in The Sentinel in 1972, the owners of the store said “We believe that there is a great future for this area and have demonstrated our faith by providing a fine store to serve our many friends in Lewistown and the surrounding community.”

Prior to the redevelopment era, the block featured a Lewistown landmark, McMeen’s, a department store established in 1900 by Colonel Elmer M. McMeen. McMeen’s established a tradition of shopping in the downtown and Bon-Ton planned to continue this tradition by “providing the finest merchandise at the lowest possible prices for many years to come,” according to the 1972 advertisement.

McMeen’s, who had “upwards of half a hundred clerks and other staff” who served the Lewistown customers, sold its stock and business in March of 1957 by Colonel McMeen’s heirs to S. Grumbacher and Son of York, Pa., operators of The Bon-Ton Department Stores. In March of 1968, S. Grumbacher and Son sold the McMeen property to the Mifflin County Redevelopment Authority to help the progression of Mifflin County into the future.

According to an article in The Sentinel in 1972, Lewistown’s downtown rebuilding can be traced back to July 17, 1963 when Ner Goss was appointed executive director of the Mifflin County Redevelopment Authority. The authority’s goal was ambitious to change East Market Street and put up new buildings where old ones then stood.

The proposed project would cost too much money for individual businesses and residents in the two block Market Street area to be able to do the job themselves. Goss and the authority knew that the money would have to come from the state and federal funds.

After years of planning and delays in getting money for the project, in June of 1966, the Department of Housing and Urban Development okayed $2.5 million for the Lewistown rebuilding.

A public hearing was held with 200 people in attendance to hear Edward Smith, director of the Bureau of Business Services, State Department of Commerce, say, “The challenge is ours today. Grow if we choose or sit idly by and permit Lewistown to secede from the Twentieth Century.”

After some more hurdles with government bureaucracy, plans were submitted in early 1967 when HUD approved the plan and okayed $3.2 million for the project.

According to the article, Danks and Company, a department store, was the first business to sell its property to the redevelopment authority and by late summer, 1967, 95 percent of the two block area was lined up for rebuilding.

In early 1968, the authority began to condemn properties, all the while adding new properties to the rebuilding project. During the summer, building were finally starting to come down as each day brought more and more destruction of the buildings in the two block area. The wrecking continued throughout the fall and winter.

More demolition and rebuilding marked most of 1969 and on Nov. 6, the first new building to come out of the project opened its doors. The Bon-Ton store was ready to open for businesses following the ribbon cutting ceremony presided over by Lewistown Mayor John J. Lawler.

Pictures of ribbons being cut for store openings became a familiar site to Sentinel readers in 1970 as the new shape of Market Street became apparent. Ugly ruins of demolished building and huge holes in the earth began to take shape as modern buildings and the redevelopment continued through 1972.

Janet Walker, of Lewistown, who worked at Danks Department Store during its heydey, said she and former co-worker Mary Jane Noerr, both feel blessed to be part of the downtown shopping scene when it was bustling.

“It’s an era that will never come back because of online shopping,” she said. “It was a blast. I loved retail and the Christmas season was so exciting. I am blessed to share in that era.”

As 2018 enters the history books, the Bon-Ton, which has served as an anchor for downtown Lewistown, will close its doors this year and will live only in the memories of those who have worked, shopped or socialized at their beloved store.