By Jim Lyons
Above, an 1891 photograph of the first Dodson’s store in the Mohawk building, with founder, George Roley Dodson, standing far right, and Otto Kratzer, second from right. Photo courtesy of Dodson’s Jewelers.
The sun was bright on June 27, 1887 when George Roley Dodson stepped off the Northern Pacific train onto the dock at the Milwaukee and St. Paul depot in Spokane Falls, Washington Territory. The ride from Decatur, Illinois had taken him across the Rocky Mountains and into a world that he would describe as being filled with “unrivaled scenic beauty.” He spent the first day getting used to the gritty taste left in his mouth from the dusty streets of this pioneer outpost. Nonetheless, he was completely enthralled with all of the activity he saw. From the powerful falls in the river to comparing real estate prices and wages to his hometown Decatur, the twenty-six-year-old jeweler liked what he saw.
“The city, I am very pleased with and can’t help thinking it is bound to grow into a large place,” Dodson writes to his wife Meta. His descriptive letter written on just his second day in town has been published in a small pamphlet entitled: The Adventures of a Gentleman Traveler. Dodson was lured out west for many of the same reasons as multitudes of wanderlust pioneers seeking their fame and fortune. The result of these migrations was swelling populations in the burgeoning cities west of the Missouri during the late nineteenth century.
Issac Kaufman had left Decatur a few years before George. The childhood friends exchanged letters in which Kaufman would brag of all the money he had made in the real estate business in Spokane. Kaufman knew that George was a hard worker, and he also knew how tough it was to start a successful small business, especially in a town as established as Decatur. With a suitcase full of hope, and a heart full of optimism, George J. Dodson was off to open a jewelry store in Spokane Falls. The Dodson family jewelry business has been operating continuously in Spokane since 1887 making it one of the oldest retail stores.
Born on March 14, 1861, George was the only child of William Dodson and Mary E. White. William was an English immigrant who came to Decatur, through New York, in the 1850s. Mary White’s family included one of the founders of Decatur. William worked as a Master Bagger for the Union Pacific railroad for nearly fifty years. Although proud of his father, George worked as an apprentice jeweler specializing in engraving to rise above his father’s financial position. The excitement George felt at the opportunity Spokane Falls offered him, as well as mild culture shock, are heard in the tone of excerpts of his famous letter.
“There is more bustle and hustle here than you would see on any day in Decatur, except some Saturdays. I have met a number of very nice men here and everyone seems to think Spokane is the only place in the world. Yet there is one thing, they have the dustiest streets in the country that I ever saw. At any time you look, you can see from ten to fifteen ‘Cayuses,’ that is, Indian ponies, going at full tilt with an Indian or a cowboy on their back. Nearly everyone rides horseback here, and may be the hardest looking kind of Indian or cowboys with leather pants and a big 45 revolver buckled to their side. Along side of them may be seen an elegant looking lady and gent on splendid looking horses both dressed to kill; the gent dressed with velvet riding coat and stiff hat, buff colored knee pants with riding boots and whip; the lady with an elegant riding suit and silk hat. On the walks are dozens of Chinese, Canadians, English…, German, Irish, and last but not least, Americans, and everybody seems to be as busy as can be,” George writes in a compilation of quotes from his letter of June 28, 1887.
He continues in his letter stating, “The business portion is far ahead of what I expected and there [are] 5 or 6 large buildings in process of construction. They are to be 4 stories high and built of stone & brick. There are several blocks of buildings now that are ahead of anything in Decatur. They have the arc Electric light for street purposes, put up on nice looking poles. I don’t know how many but I counted 10 strung around the business portion this evening. They give a splendid light I think superior to ours. Besides this, they have the incandescent light in nearly all the stores, and it is not to be beaten as you know.”
“Rents are very high. A small house worth in Decatur about $12 per month brings $25 and $35 here and the cheapest board you can get is $5 a week; unfurnished room about $12. I got my shoes shined today and had to pay 15¢. Some things are very high while some things are lower than you would expect. But as a rule, things cost from one and one half again as much here as at home.”
“Labor is paid pretty well… A laborer on the street gets $2 per day, carpenter $3, brick layer $4 & $5, plumbers & with boy $7 to $7.50, clerks in dry goods $100 to $150 per month.”
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George met a Daniel Wetzel from Ohio, who owned the first jewelry store in Spokane Falls. The two soon formed a partnership, and Wetzel and Dodson Jewelers opened a storefront in the Hyde Building at 607 W. Riverside Ave.
August 4, 1889 is a black day in the history of Spokane. A devastating fire swept through the downtown business district on that balmy summer afternoon destroying most of the buildings in the central business district. Wetzel and Dodson’s store was destroyed by the fire, and moved into temporary quarters in the Crescent Block, a few offices east of the Review Tower. The partnership did not last long after the final ashes of the fire settled on Spokane.
The merchandise on hand was divided in true pioneer fashion – each man took turns taking one piece of stock until nothing was left. The reason for the break-up is not known, but both George Dodson and Daniel Wetzel immediately opened their respective shops. Wetzel’s operated until the family sold the store to Weisfield and Goldberg in 1929, three years after Wetzel’s death. ·
Dodson Jewelers opened up in the Mohawk Building, 517 W. Riverside Ave. Otto Kratzer was the watchmaker for Wetzel and Dodson, and chose to stay with George at the Mohawk location. In the early years, Dodson’s shared the space with a bookstore. Eventually though, the steady increase in business led George to take over the whole store. Kratzer eventually became the manager and actually owned 1/5 of the stock. George Dodson catered to the “carriage” trade, or high-end merchandise. This included fine watches, gems, and also sterling silver flatware, china, and lead crystal.
The wealth from the mines of the Coeur d’Alenes was responsible for a majority of the prosperity in Spokane. Many of these wealthy citizens made purchases at Dodson’s. A page from the store ledger in 1903 shows purchases by such prominent citizens of the day as Mrs. A.B. Campbell, Patrick Clark, and even Kirtland Cutter.
“James Clark’s wife purchased a lighter set which included a lighter, a cigar cutter and a matchbox made here at Dodson’s and we have a little drawing of the set on our 1899 ledger. The name Dodson’s is engraved on the set. A few years ago an individual came in with it and we purchased it back, a hundred years later,” recalls Edward (Barney) Barnet Fix, great-grandson of George Dodson. “For a while we were getting people bringing in old opera glasses inlaid with mother of pearl that read: Dodson’s Jeweler’s Spokane Falls,” continues Fix.
George was an innovative merchandiser, and his slogan was that Dodson’s was a “Store for Everybody.” While the wealthy were obvious customers, George truly believed that all people, no matter their stature in life, appreciated and desired the finer things in life. The success of the firm was due in part to George’s strict pricing policy. George ‘insisted on selling only the finest merchandise available at an honest price and one price only, for everybody, regardless of their stature in the community. He was indeed able to make Dodson’s a store for everyone by his innovative variety of credit plans.
George and Meta had a daughter Lois, who married John Penn Fix (John Sr.) of Lewiston, Idaho in 1919. The Fix family were early pioneers in Lewiston where they ran a general store. John Sr.’s family emigrated from Germany to Louisville, Kentucky in 1851. His father traveled by train to San Francisco in 1875 and then went by steamer to Portland, Oregon where he boarded another boat headed up the Columbia River towards Lewiston.
John Jr. (Jack), Dodson’s grandson, recalls the story of a famous Madam from a house of ill repute in Wallace that was a loyal customer. Some of the other girls would come into town seeking credit from George, who would approve the purchase if the madam would vouch for them.
In 1914, yet another fire would force relocation. When the Mohawk building burned, George and Otto opened a temporary store in the Zukor building on the southwest corner of Riverside and Wall while George rebuilt the Mohawk building.
John Sr. was a New York Life Insurance salesman when he married Lois. The family joke is that he sold insurance to all of his friends and family and then married the local jeweler’s wife. John Sr. came on board at Dodson’s in 1923. Otto retired in 1924, leaving George and John Sr. to run the small business. George was President and John Sr. was the General Manager.
Tragedy struck the next year when George had a stroke. Poor health followed for George until his death from a heart attack in 1927. John Sr. maintained as the General Manager, and Meta now took over as the President. Meta retained this position until her death in 1939. John Sr. then took over all aspects of running the company.
On December 16, 1943, the jewelry store was robbed of $12,000 worth of precious jewels. A report in the Spokane Chronicle a few days later reported that a daring thief, who apparently perpetrated this crime while Christmas shoppers thronged the store, made off with the valuables in a box and included 500 diamonds.
The stolen jewels, all loose, were in a steel hinged-top box, which was taken from the store by a “sneak thief,” probably in the late afternoon. Several city detectives were assigned to the case. Police said the theft was the biggest of its kind in Spokane history. A $100 reward was offered for the arrest of the people involved in stealing the jewels and the store posted a substantial reward for the recovery of all or part of the precious stones.
Because the store was a member of the Jewelers’ Protection Alliance, city police were not called for several days until the alliance investigator arrived. When investigator O.L. Johnson arrived, he concluded that, “I am positive this was not a ‘local’ job and that no employee of the store is implicated.” He went on to say in a Chronicle interview, “We have definite clues which link the Spokane jewel theft with similar crimes in other parts of the country, one committed only three days previously. The methods used in obtaining the jewels were almost identical.”
Detailed descriptions of two suspects were given by store employees and those descriptions matched with those of participants in the earlier crime, the investigator disclosed.
The war years of the 1940s were difficult for retailers. Merchandise was in short supply with many manufacturers turning their effort towards the war machine. For example, the Lennox China Company limited itself to only six patterns during the war. Dodson’s even sold GE electric blankets.
In 1944, John Sr. and Lois suffered tragedy with the loss of one of their sons, George Dodson Fix, who was killed in the war.
After the war, consumer demand led to more prosperous years. In 1947, Dodson’s employed 60 people in a store of 3000 sq. feet. The 1950s and 1960s were years of little growth in the retail industry in Spokane. Jack recalls a popular saying among merchants was that “you could shoot a cannon down Riverside and not hit anybody.”
“I would say that our sterling flatware business practices might be what actually cemented Dodson’s name in the minds of Spokane,” Jack shares. Dodson’s filled this niche by offering a unique line of credit for their prized silverware. Dodson’s had exclusive distribution rights in Spokane for famous sterling flatware by companies such as Towle and Gorham. Dodson’s had a sign in the window offering the silver at the price of 61 cents a week per place setting. This enabled anyone to purchase heirloom silver, a luxury that was once reserved only for the wealthy. During the 1950s, every female graduating from High School in Spokane received a “starter” sterling silver teaspoon.
One of the favorite memories of the family is the story of Charlie Roosevelt. During the 1940s, mail started coming in with various amounts of cash in the envelope and only a signature of the name Charlie Roosevelt. This unusual trend continued for several years. The envelopes arrived with no return address, no note, and just a plain piece of paper with a signature and some money. The staff kept putting the cash in an envelope marked: Charlie Roosevelt. One day, a Native American came to the counter and announced: “I am Charlie Roosevelt, and I want to buy a watch please.” The excited clerk called to the office and every employee rushed down to see who this Charlie Roosevelt was. Charlie looked puzzled at all the attention, not quite understanding what the big deal was.
In 1950, Jack (John Fix, Jr.) joined the business. Jack is a Certified Gemologist, and served several terms as a Governor of the Gemological Institute of America, the educational branch of the jewelry industry. He also served as Director of the Washington State Jewelry Industry Council. Once again a father-son team ran the company until John Sr. retired in 1962. Another long-term employee, Alice Penninger retired at the same time, and Alice and John Sr. shared a festive retirement bash together. John Sr. joked in a toast that even though she had been there for fifty years, and was hired in 1912 by George Dodson himself, even Alice had to wait the full year of sales training required before sales staff were “let loose.” More big news for the company came in 1962 with the expansion into the new “Super Mall” at Shadle Park. The company had four branch stores as far away as the Tri-Cities.
A fourth generation, John Penn Fix III (Penn) and Barney Fix came on board in 1979 and 1986. The company moved across the street in 1989 to the location at 516 West Riverside. They consolidated all of the stores into the Riverside location in the early 1990s in a successful effort to streamline operations.
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