'Wish book' inventor has S.D. ties by Bob Karolevitz The recent �merger� of the Sears company and K-Mart has South Dakota connections which go w-a-a-y back. That�s because Richard Warren Sears started his business in the Chicago and North Western Railway station at Wolsey some 120 years ago.
Apparently Sears was just 20 when he took a job as freight and express agent for the tiny depot in Beadle County. As such, he could sell unclaimed merchandise to supplement his meager salary of six dollars a week.
According to the story, in 1885 he received a shipment of several hundred watches consigned to a local merchant who refused to pay for them. Instead of sending them back, Sears unpacked the time pieces and began to sell them on commission to crew members and passengers as each train came through the crossroads at Wolsey.
It turned into a bonanza for him, and he ordered more watches which he also peddled to other station agents along the line.
The results were so good, in fact, that he eventually quit his railroad job and opened the R.W. Watch Company in Minneapolis. From there he moved to Chicago where he produced a small catalog which pictured only watches.
He sold so many by mail-order that some of them came back for repairs, so he placed an ad for a watchmaker in a Chicago paper on April 1, 1887. One of his respondents was Alvah Roebuck, a young correspondence-course repairmen. Needless to say, he hired him.
Another publication calls him Curtis Roebuck, but regardless of the name discrepancy, that was the beginning of a relationship which we now know as Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Actually, Roebuck did not last long. When he became the victim of poor health, he was bought out by Sears for a measly $25,000. Meanwhile, the company had added other wares to its catalog line.
In time Roebuck was succeeded by Julius Rosenwald, a merchandising genius, who ran the mail-order company while Sears devoted his time to writing advertising copy for the �wish book� which many South Dakotans read, ordered from and used in their visits to their outhouses.
Customers everywhere throughout America bought guns, fishing equipment, patent medicines, men�s and women�s clothing, feminine hygiene needs (including bust-developers), horse-drawn carriages, plows, houses and even windmills.
Strangely enough way back in 1908 Sears sold his interest in the company for $10 million, not bad for the boy who had started it all with a fortuitous shipment of watches.
While the name of Roebuck was discarded, his partner has been remembered down to the present day!
Richard Warren Sears died long ago in 1914, but his name lives on in the many retail stores around the country. No longer can you buy a complete men�s outfit � including a suit, shoes, underwear, shirt, socks, tie, gloves and a Stetson hat � for $17 like you could in the thousand-page catalog of 1903.
Times obviously have changed, but � like Paul Harvey says � I thought you should know �the rest of the story.�
� 2005 Robert F. Karolevitz