Tags: Featured Feature story, Geneva Lake West, Highway 14, News Page
January 15, 2013 | 03:01 PMWALWORTH — One building on Heyer Park in Walworth holds a lot of memories for the village, but that long-standing part of the community may fall once the highway construction project begins.
The state Department of Transportation, the village board and the school board have been at arms over the Highway 14 project to ease traffic problems around the village square.
While the options given by the DOT for the highway vary greatly, they all contain one thing: the demolition of the antique mall on the corner of Beloit and Main streets.
Current owners of the building, John and Roberta Hunt, declined to talk with the Regional News. John said the village's constant chaos surrounding the highway plans have hurt his business.
Previous owner, Kelly Freeman said the store is a "closed chapter" of her life. Freeman owned the Waal's department store from the 1960s to 1996.
"When we sold the building, I no longer felt an attachment," she said. "It was just, OK, we're opening up a new door. We're going in a different direction."
Freeman and her late husband Richard sold the store in 1996 to the Hunts.
"Richard and I were interested in finding a new owner," Freeman, elementary school board president, said. "We didn't want to be landlords. We wanted to sell. We deliberated about that for a long time. That was a decision we came to, and it was the best decision for us and it worked out."
In selling the building, the Freemans wanted an owner who would take care of it.
"John and Roberta (Hunt) were very interested," Freeman said. "They were over in the shopping center. They were doing very well, and they needed more space. We thought it was terrific. We knew that they were good business people. They seemed to appreciate the old building. It just seemed to fit for them."
Freeman said it was hard to tell store employees they planned to close the store.
"It had served our family well," she said. "Our girls all worked in the store. I worked in the store. It was a family business. We had wonderful employees. We had two employees who worked for us for over 50 years each. It was difficult telling them we were going out of business."
The original building was built in 1913 by Freeman's grandfather, Myer Cohn. Freeman said "Myer" is the family-preferred spelling of his name, the closest translation from Cohn's Hebrew name.
Cohn owned property across the square, "at the old Heyer building and one on the corner by Highway 14 going out of town."
At the current location of the store, Cohn bought an existing house and lot and moved the house to Randolf Street, Freeman said.
The Myer Cohn Dry Goods store relocated across the square to a new building on the corner. Cohn's wife, Dora, worked right along side him.
"It was a general store," Freeman said. "The family lived on the second floor. My father (Sam) was one of six children."
Freeman lived on the second floor when her parents started running the business in the 1930s.
"My grandfather died in 1933," she said. "The store was left for my grandmother, but she wanted to move to Milwaukee to be closer to one of her daughters."
Freeman's father returned to Walworth to run the store.
"My parents were married about that time," she said. "They all just lived here in Walworth... they paid (my grandmother) monthly installments so she had something to live on. That's how they got the store."
"I lived above the store until I was about 9 years old," Freeman said. "Then my parents built a house on Park Street."
Looking back, Freeman said she was probably spoiled as a child.
"I was given a puppy," she said. "My mother was ill for some time, so my dad gave me a cocker spaniel puppy. I would dress that dog up, and I would come down the stairs. The employees all talked to me, of course."
About the time the family moved out of the second floor apartment, Freeman said her father gave her a job in the store.
"I think I was about 10, my father gave me a job of cleaning all the mirrors," she said. "Then I had to help empty the trash. I got paid 25 cents a week. Then it was cleaning the bathrooms. My mother didn't think that was right, but my father said it wouldn't hurt me. And it didn't. I always had that job."
It wasn't just a summer job. Freeman worked during holidays and after school.
"At Christmastime, I wrapped gifts," she said. "I just knew that I had to be a participating member here. It taught me a lot when I think back, just talking to people. Learning how to handle myself in public. It was a wonderful experience. I'm very lucky."
As she grew up, Freeman found more to do at the store.
"We had a record department downstairs," she said. "At that time, we had booths to listen to the records. When no one was down there, I played music all the time. I would have such a good time down there. I was there of course when it wasn't busy. That was great fun for me."
Business was good
The store became Waal's department store, a name that Freeman said has no family tradition.
"It was supposed to be All of Walworth," she said. "Some people said it was about an uncle whose name was Al, but he never really worked in the business. It never really made too much sense to me."
Regardless of the name, the store did well in the village.
"When we moved out, part of the second floor become linens and domestics and the other part was furniture, floor coverings and window treatments," Freeman said. "As in all businesses around here, it's the summer business that carries it through the winter."
After Freeman's father died, her mother, Clara, continued keeping the store.
"Richard and I were in Columbus, Ohio, right out of college," she said. "We came back to help her with the business. I don't remember what year we bought the next building and expanded the store that way. Then we bought the house where the parking lot is in the back of the store."
Myer had tried to expand the store earlier, building the footings for an overalls factory, Freeman said.
"All the footings for the building were in, but he died suddenly," she said. "Nothing ever happened. It was just that way."
Freeman and her husband used the same footings later to build a warehouse for additional storage. The warehouse stood where the existing school parking lot is.
The school has other artifacts from the store.
"At the grade school, in the art room, there are some cabinets from the store," Freeman said. "In the guidance department, they have our large sofa from the shoe department."