The F.W. Woolworth and Company, most often referred to simply as Woolworth’s, was a mainstay of small-town main streets for many decades. It was a significant part of Rhinelander’s Brown Street as well. Historian Gary Entz as the story:
The way in which we shop has changed considerably since the late nineteenth century, and one reason for the difference is due largely to the impact of two major retailers: Sears and Woolworth’s. Sears, of course revolutionized the mail order method of retail shopping, but it was the F.W. Woolworth & Company that truly democratized face-to-face retail shopping.
Before Frank Woolworth built his five-and-dime stores in small towns across America, people purchased goods either in a General Store or a specialty store. In the nineteenth century, patrons usually had to ask a clerk for merchandise held behind the counter. Prices were not marked and could change on a whim depending on how the merchant perceived the customer. No one engaged in recreational shopping as it was considered rude to enter an establishment without buying. Woolworth changed all that. His merchandise sat on counters for everyone to see and touch. Prices were clearly marked and the same for everybody. He also encouraged people to enter the store even if they were just looking.
Starting with his first shop in 1879, the Woolworth business model proved successful. By 1905, the F.W. Woolworth & Company had 120 stores, but in the early twentieth century the company expanded at an incredible rate. By 1929 it had over 2,100 five-and-dime stores across the United States. The company extended into Wisconsin during this period, and by 1927 it had moved into Rhinelander and the Northwoods.
Woolworth’s had four different locations during its existence in Rhinelander. The F.W. Woolworth & Company’s first location was in the north storefront on the ground floor of the old Oneida Hotel on North Brown Street. This was small for a Woolworth’s, but it served the company well while it established itself in Rhinelander.
By 1941, Woolworth’s had moved to the Hilgermann building on South Brown street and took over the ground floor store fronts. This was a much larger space and one that a few older residents still remember. In 1960 Woolworth’s purchased four older storefronts on South Brown Street and demolished them. The company built a fully modern facility at 51 N. Brown Street. All the amenities that people associate with Woolworth’s, including a 25-seat lunch counter, were a part of this new outlet. When the store opened in 1961, company managers boasted that the new Rhinelander store was not only the finest merchandising outlet in town, it was also among the finest the company offered nationwide. This is the one that most Northwoods residents remember today.
The Woolworth’s model worked well for many years, but it was also a company that endured the Great Depression and World War II rationing. It entered the latter half of the twentieth century with a conservative outlook and was not ready for the transportation revolution that encouraged urban sprawl in the 1960s. Like other downtown businesses, Woolworth’s struggled with competition from big box retail outlets. Customers abandoned downtown, and Woolworth’s responded by relocating to the Trig’s mall shortly after that facility opened, but it was not enough. Rhinelander’s Woolworth’s closed permanently in 1993.