Billy Waples opens the Lynden Department Store on November 1, 1897.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/30/2007
  • Essay 8235
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On November 1, 1897, W. H. "Billy" Waples (1875-1962) opens a general store that soon grows into the Lynden Department Store. It is one of northwestern Washington's most successful department stores, and becomes often cited by university economic professors and authors of business textbooks as a leader in a community the size of Lynden (located in Whatcom County). The store operates successfully well into the mid-twentieth century, thanks to Waples's innovative sales techniques and dedication to his customers. Waples retires in 1960. The store continues to operate after his death, but by the 1970s is experiencing financial difficulties and closes after a final sale on April 26, 1979.

Billy Waples Arrives

William H. Waples -- known as “Billy” throughout his life -- was born on December 1, 1875, in Delmar, Delaware, but moved with his family to Chicago as a young boy. In 1888 he and his parents came to Washington and he graduated from high school in Montesano (Grays Harbor County). He studied law briefly, then worked as a clerk and assistant buyer at the Fair Department Store in Bellingham. 

An associate, Andrew Smith, urged Waples to come to Lynden and pursue business opportunities there. Waples formed a partnership with Smith (a team of horses and a wagon represented Smith’s share of the partnership) and they both ponied up $100 each to open a small general store, although Waples had to borrow $40 to cover his share. The Lynden Department Store opened on November 1, 1897. 

The store was located in the old Judson building on the northeast corner of 5th Street and Front Street. The store actually took up only half of the building, or a total of 12 ½ by 30 feet; the other half of the building was occupied by Ed Edson’s (1860-1944) City Drug Store.  Edson moved to another location in 1899 and the department store took over the entire building, and soon after that Smith and Waples moved another building to the east side of the existing building and added it as an annex to their store. 

From Buggies to Groceries

Keeping the store stocked in the early years was no easy task.  Smith made four trips a week to Whatcom (now Bellingham’s Old Town), a nearly 30-mile round trip via horse and wagon over muddy dirt or plank roads and across the Nooksack River ferry. On a typical trip Smith would leave at 4 a.m. and spend the day picking up merchandise at Whatcom wholesale houses, returning at 9 p.m. or later with an average of two tons of merchandise. 

Smith sold his interest to Waples in 1903.  In 1909 the Lynden Department Store was incorporated, with Waples as president, John P. Boerhave (1876-1944) as secretary and P. J. Van Hemert as treasurer.  By this time, the store was flourishing. In 1906 Waples purchased the new brick Miller building at the northeast corner of 4th Street and Front Street and moved the drygoods, hardware, and grocery departments to the new location, while using his old store in the Judson building for storage. From his new building he sold a variety of items, including “horse-drawn buggies by the carload. They could be purchased with or without decorative fringe on the tops, complete with a whip socket on the dash as standard equipment” (The Lynden Tribune, November 6, 1947, p. 8).  A few years later Waples had agencies for a variety of automobiles, including early Apperson “Jack Rabbit” models. 

Success and Expansion

In 1913 the Judson building burned down, leaving Waples without a storage building. But this was only temporary.  He had a new building built on the site and in 1914  moved his entire store there.  During the 1910s the store continued to expand, adding both a men's and women’s clothing department, a shoe department, and housewares.  During the twenties, the store added a commercial fertilizer plant to complement its farm machinery sales. In 1928 Waples purchased the vacant First National Bank Building just east of the store, tore it down, and rebuilt another, taller building to correspond with the three-story Lynden Department Store; the new building held the men’s clothing department. 

The store grew large enough to issue its own scrip, a special Lynden Department Store currency that circulated in the town early in the twentieth century.  The store paid farmers in store-issued scrip for their fresh produce.  The farmers, in turn, redeemed the scrip in regular purchases in many Lynden stores, thereby benefiting the entire community. 

Energy and Generosity

Contemporary Robert Emmett Hawley in his book Skqee Mus: or Pioneer Days on the Nooksack describes Waples as “rapid in speech, energetic in action, and quick in decision.” Waples used these talents to become a remarkably successful businessman, and he continually came up with new ideas to promote business to all of his customers.  In one example, each week a clock was wound up and covered. When a customer purchased a certain amount of goods, he or she was given a paper upon which a clock was drawn with its face fixed at a certain time. Whoever came closest to the time the clock showed when it eventually wound down a few days later won a prize, and these were not always small prizes -- for the grand finale, the store gave the winner a piano. 

But Waples is also remembered for his generosity to the Lynden community. He purchased his merchandise in bulk quantities at lower prices, which enabled the store to frequently hold special sales, often in conjunction with anniversary events. The store also held large suppers: During the store’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1922, more than 3,000 persons were served dinner on the store’s second floor.  This was not a light dinner -- it included seven hind quarters of beef, 2,000 pounds of mashed potatoes, 50 gallons of gravy, several thousand biscuits, and an equally enormous amount of dessert. 

Waple’s generosity to Lynden was particularly marked during the Depression years of the 1930s. For many years after, Lynden citizens said that Waples carried Lynden through the Depression.  This was proven in 2004 by the discovery of 10 boxes of business ledgers stored in the attic of the Lynden Department Store (now [2007] Delft Square) containing the store’s credit records.  These records showed that Waples extended credit in the millions of dollars (possibly as much as $30 million) to the local citizenry during the 1930s. 

Last Years

The store continued to flourish during the 1940s and 1950s. Billy Waples retired in 1960, and he died on June 23, 1962.  The following October, true to tradition, the store held a gala 65th anniversary sale. In 1947 Waples had purchased another adjoining building (the Parberry building) and by October 1962 the Lynden Department Store had grown to include a store and warehouse that occupied most of a city block, totaling 75,000 square feet of space that consisted of a full basement, two stories, and a mezzanine. 

In 1960 Waple’s son-in-law, Lymon Judson (1900-1980) and grandson (Judson's son Richard) succeeded Waples in the management of the store. Business declined after Waples’s death, and by the 1970s the store was having financial problems.  In April 1975 the store was sold to Community Stores, Inc., who sold it to Fargo, Wilson and Miller (an Idaho firm) in June 1976. In October 1977 the store was repurchased by Community Stores, but its finances had seriously deteriorated.  On April 25, 1979, John E. Boerhave -- son of one of the original incorporators -- announced the closure of the Lynden Department Store.  A final liquidation sale started the next day.

Sources: Robert Emmett Hawley, Skqee Mus: or Pioneer Days on the Nooksack (Bellingham:  Miller & Sutherlen Printing Company, 1945), 169; Mildred Hersman, “Drug Stores in Lynden: The Edson Story” in Gems from the Past ed. by Phyllis Huestis (Lynden:  Lynden Tribune, 1984), 30; Mildred Hersman, “Early Day Merchants: John P. Boerhave” in Gems from the Past ed. by Phyllis Huestis (Lynden:  Lynden Tribune, 1984), 25-26;  George Hinton, “Arthur Clark Remembers Lynden’s Early Days,” in Echoes from the Past ed. by Peter Elenbaas and Mary Gillian Hamilton (Lynden: Lynden Tribune, 1979), 3;  Dorothy Koert, The Wilderness Days: Lynden, 1858-1904 (Lynden:  Dorothy Koert, 1989), 51-52;  William Lewis, . . . at Deadline: 70 years on Front Street (Lynden:  Lynden Tribune, 1991), 12;  “Store Celebrates 50th Anniversary,” The Lynden Tribune,  November 6, 1947, p. 1, 8;  “Wm. H. Waples, Pioneer Lynden Merchant, Passes,” Ibid., June 28, 1962, p. 1, 8;  “Lynden Department Store Started Business In Small Wooden Building In 1897,” Ibid., October 11, 1962, p.1, 2, 4;  “Lynden Department Store To End 82 Year Career,” Ibid., April 25, 1979, p. 1; Phil Dougherty interview of Mary Michaelson of Lynden Pioneer Museum, July 14,  2007, Lynden, Washington.

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