In past years, I have written about the Christmas hustle and bustle on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, and the excitement of visits to Santa at Toyland in Peck’s department store.

Today there’s a couple of generations who never saw that local hub of holiday cheer, and even the oldest of us were not around for the earliest years of “The Great Department Store.” I’ll try to paint a bigger picture of that nationally-known landmark and the unusual vision of its founder.

It was 1880 when Bradford Peck opened his first store, but it was in the Music Hall block on Lisbon Street, not in the large building at “the head of the street” (Lisbon and Main streets) that was known as “the Christmas store” for many years.

Peck’s merchandising career began in Boston, where, at the age of 12, he was a cash boy in the Jordan Marsh Company department store. He earned steady promotions and kept up his studies at night school. It was not many years later when, as a representative for a lace and embroidery firm, he made his first trip to Lewiston and saw opportunity in the Twin Cities area.

In partnership with Edward Plummer, a longtime friend who also had been a Jordan Marsh cash boy, they opened a small Lisbon Street store in 1880. Miss Charlotte Furbush was their first and only employee, and their first day’s sales amount to 37 cents for one pair of stockings. Within a few years, Peck bought out Plummer. By 1886, the business had grown to such an extent that it was moved to a new block on Lisbon Street. It was located about where the Kresge’s department store was to operate for a long time.

Peck’s store, at that time, had grown to employ 46 clerks. He decided within three years that he should build at the “head of the street,” where a boarding house stood.

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It was a bold move. Some said foolhardy. People ridiculed the idea, saying customers would never cross the street there, and some joked that “It’ll make a good stable when he moves out in six months.”

The Great Department Store opened its doors on April 7, 1899, and it went on as B. Peck Co., winning national acclaim. In the mid-1950s, a writer in Collier’s Magazine called it “the finest small city department store in America.”

When the Lewiston Evening Journal ran a special Peck’s 70th anniversary edition in 1950, a reporter said, “When you are joining the throng crossing the street to Peck’s, you might remember that it never is very wise to sell the future short.”

The basement Toyland at Peck’s and the spectacular decorations in the 18 sidewalk-level show windows are wonderful memories for shoppers and kids through the years. It could be argued that 1950, the store’s 70th anniversary year, marked the high point of a holiday marketing formula that went back four or five decades. A look at many old newspapers showed that the familiar arrival of Santa was a major local event as early as 1911. Ads in those papers invited families to visit Santa and his assistant, a character called “Barnacle Bill.”

In 1927 and 1928, Mother Goose, dressed in typical costume with a billowy multi-colored skirt, made one-day appearances at Toyland. That was in the person of Fan Fuerst, an internationally-known children’s entertainer, representing a doll manufacturer.

As soon as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse became world-famous in the early days of film animation, local Santa parades and Toyland at Peck’s featured the cartoon star, as well as Minnie Mouse. In 1934, ads promoted Mickey Mouse’s castle at Toyland, and Mickey invited children to fish in the moat. That was the beginning of a Toyland tradition where kids could hook a prize in the fish pond.

The Christmas decorations throughout the four floors of the Peck’s building were must-see features for shoppers from throughout New England. Nearly life-size reindeer pulling Santa in a sleigh flew high above the first-floor main aisle.

In November 1981, management of B. Peck Co. announced that the store would be closing after 101 years. Declining profitability and the shift of shopping to malls were cited as reasons. Following Bradford Peck’s ownership, the store’s owners included Filene’s of Boston, Alden’s of Chicago and others. At its peak, employment topped 150, but that was down to 60 in its final year.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He may be reached by sending email to [email protected]


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