Tuesday, January 24, 2012

West Lafayette Business and the Society Pages at the turn of the Century : Ray M. Southworth

Ray M. Southworth and West Lafayette
By Susan Curtis

                The decision to clean up a site in the Village known as “Gum Ball Alley” led to a fascinating trace of the history of West Lafayette.  A black and yellow sign painted on the brick wall on the east side of the alley advertises Southworth Books.  If you look closely, you can see that it was painted over another advertisement for apartments available for rent.  From an aesthetic point of view, the sign is, well, pretty uninteresting.  But from a historical perspective, the sign restores to our awareness a business that anchored the West Lafayette Village for the better part of a century. 

For those of us who are relative newcomers to West Lafayette—I first arrived in greater Lafayette in 1989—the name Southworth is completely unfamiliar.  In order to learn something about the business and the person whose name it bore, I dug into some local archives to figure out who the proprietor, Ray M. Southworth, was and what role he played in the civic life of West Lafayette.  This is a report on my preliminary findings.

Ray M. Southworth
Ray Southworth was born on February 11, 1885, in Indiana, and he died sometime in the mid-1930s.  From the early 1900s until the time of his death, Ray Southworth was the proprietor of a store located at 308-310 State Street.  He sold clothing, books, and supplies primarily of interest to Purdue University students.  From accounts I have read so far, Southworth was a highly respected civic leader, involved in both politics and society in Lafayette and West Lafayette.  His life reflects the impact of modernization on personal life.

Southworth’s first appearance in a public record is in the 1900 Federal Census, where he is listed as a grandson of Mary and William Martin, his maternal grandparents who lived at 413 State Street in West Lafayette.  His mother, Laura Southworth, and a cousin, Geneve Jamison, were also living with the Martins, and Mrs. Southworth is identified as a seamstress.  This living arrangement at first glance suggests a broken family—Southworth’s father is nowhere to be seen, so it is not clear if Laura was a widow or a divorcee. Furthermore, the census record is smeared where William Martin’s livelihood is entered, so it is not certain how the family was supported.[1]  But in just six years, Southworth’s wedding announcement made Society Page news in the Lafayette Morning Journal.

  The wedding to Flossie P. Minch took place on June 27, 1906, and the Lafayette Morning Journal on that date included no less than three stories on the event about to take place.  It noted first that “Ray Martin Southworth whose marriage to Miss Flossie Minch will occur this evening will entertain his ushers at a 11 o’clock breakfast today in the ordinary of the Hotel Lahr.  Covers will be laid for six and a twelve-course breakfast will be served.”[2] A twelve-course breakfast was obviously meant to mark the wedding as an event on the society calendar.  It turns out that the evening before, Mrs. Richard A. Moore of Lafayette hosted a “pretty luncheon” in honor of Minch and Southworth and their bridal party.  There were flowers, place cards, candles, and food.  The evening was capped off by a private concert by Miss Viva Johnson, and the story hinted that this was not the only party given in their honor; indeed, it “proved a fitting close to the numerous parties” they already had attended.[3]  Finally, the Morning Journal offered a preview of the evening wedding, noting the names of the ushers, flower bearers, the minister, and the musicians.

The detailed account of Southworth’s wedding discloses that already at age 21, Southworth was considered “a young man of excellent standing.”  He was further identified as “proprietor of the West Side students’ supply store.”  Flossie was described as “an attractive and accomplished young woman,” and “popular in social and musical circles in the city.”[4]  The newlyweds took a two-week honeymoon trip before settling in to a routine of managing their student supply store.

Southworth’s business took off in a big way three years after his wedding.  Publisher’s Weekly announced in mid-1909 that Southworth had joined forces with Jaques-Mueller Co., which carried books, stationery, office supplies, pictures, and school supplies in Lafayette.  The consolidation did not result in a new corporate name; the business continued under Southworth’s management.  But most importantly, it was announced that “They have broken ground for a new store at 308-310 State Street, in West Lafayette, which will be 40 X 100, two stories.”[5]  The new store provided one of the anchors to the business district in West Lafayette’s Village in the early twentieth century.

What do we know of Ray Southworth as a person?  Without personal papers and private archives, of course, it’s hard to say.  But here’s what can be gleaned from various records.  Southworth seems to have been a perfect example of the modern American impulse to join organizations.  He was a 32nd degree Mason, a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a member of the West Lafayette Country Club, a Mystic Shriner, and the permanent treasurer of the Harlequin Club of Purdue University.  His involvement in these organizations may well have led to his reputation for trustworthiness and to his position as president of the Remedial Loan association and the Hoosier Chemical company, as a director of the Farmers’ and Traders’ bank, and ultimately to his election as a State Senator, a position he held from sometime in the 1910s to the mid-1920s.

                Southworth was married three times.  After all of the hoopla surrounding their 1906 wedding, Flossie left her husband sometime after 1920 to marry Bruce Gollaw, a state representative.  She and the two children she bore to Southworth moved to Indianapolis after her marriage to Gollaw.  In 1925, Southworth married Mrs. Suzanne Zartman Retherford of Kokomo.  Obviously married before, Suzanne Retherford had been supporting herself as the manager of the Victory theater in Kokomo.  She had graduated from the University of Illinois and was a member of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority.  And regardless of the circumstances surrounding his divorce from Flossie Minch Southworth, he was described as “the proprietor of the Ray M. Southworth company establishment in West Lafayette and…one of the best known members of the upper house of the Indiana general assembly.”[6]  Moreover, when that marriage ended, it did not prevent him from marrying another “highly accomplished young woman”—also a college graduate and member of a sorority.  Sixteen years Southworth’s junior, Mary Simison had returned to the area from a summer’s trip abroad, where she must have acquired the “Paris model of green flannel, fashioned with a pleated skirt and silk blouse, embroidered in silver,” that she wore on her wedding day.[7]  The couple remained married until Ray’s untimely death in the mid-1930s, around the age of fifty.

                What stands out in this personal history is that attitudes toward divorce and re-marriage may have been changing at this juncture.  As late as the 1930s, notices of divorce that appear in the Journal and Courier always explain the basis of the suit—cruelty and abandonment being two stock reasons for divorce.  Perhaps the end of Ray and Flossie’s marriage produced a local scandal; more research is needed.  Perhaps the second marriage came about when Ray was on the rebound—the two children from his marriage to Flossie moved with her to Indianapolis—and it just didn’t work out.  It certainly did not last long.  Who knows what might have happened with Mary Simison Southworth had Ray not died sometime between 1935 and 1937, when the Lafayette City Directory listed her for the first time as his widow.[8]

                The other issue that stands out in these bits and pieces of personal information is that Southworth lived at a time of transition in which education became increasingly part of what set the most “promising” and prominent people apart.  Southworth succeeded with no more than a high school education; he was in business already at the time of his first wedding.  But by the time of his second wedding, he was attracted to women who had gone to college, who had traveled, and who were accomplished in their own areas of endeavor.  Politically, Indiana in general and the Lafayette area in particular remained staunchly Republican, but that did not hamper a wider interest in changing ideas, ideals, and ways of being in the world.

Ray M. Southworth Company

                Like other businesses in the twentieth century in West Lafayette, Southworth’s is one that catered to Purdue students and that evolved as standards and expectations on campus changed.  Southworth’s Co. was in business before the building at 308-310 State Street was erected, but once the building went up, the business had a continuous presence in at least 308 State Street until the early 1970s.  In the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, Southworth’s positioned itself as a place where gentlemen would acquire fine clothing as well as other “furnishings” to signal refinement.  Intermingled with the Hart, Schaffner & Marx suits, fine jewelry, and writing implements, one could find school supplies.  Only later did Southworth’s cater more directly to the school supplies and textbooks demanded by students in West Lafayette.

                Advertisements from the 1920s focus heavily on the high quality clothing available at the store.  A 1922 advertisement, for example, promised shoppers, “YOU WILL ENJOY THE SUMMER IF WE FURNISH YOUR FURNISHINGS,” among which were Dixie-weave and Gabardine suits, straw hats, and summer underwear.  Beneath the company name, appears this tag line:  “Home of Hart, Schaffner & Marx Good Clothes.”[9]  A little more than a year later, Southworth insisted, “We sell Furnishings for the Ambitious Man.  You never saw a wide-awake up-and-coming progressive man who did not appear the part.  The many little details that go to create the effect are hard to describe, but you feel them instantly when they are there.  Let us show you furnishings that are correct.”  He also invited denizens of Lafayette to “Cross the river and save money.”[10]

                A curious story published in the Jewelers’ Circular in 1922 confirms the fact that Southworth sold more than clothes at his store.  Walter R. Miller was arrested in Logansport after having robbed the Southworth store in West Lafayette, and Southworth himself went to that city in order to find out what had happened with the fine jewelry, gold pens, pencils, and other items taken from the store.  After interviewing the thief, Southworth traveled to Springfield, Illinois, where Miller had succeeded in fencing the goods.  The story ended by reporting that Southworth “went to Springfield and wired the Lafayette police that he had recovered much of the stolen property.”[11]

                When Southworth placed an advertisement in The Debris, he listed much more than clothes, however.  Under the name of Jaques & Southworth Company, Southworth’s College Store at 308-310 State Street offered:  “College text books, instruments, jewelry, pennants, shields, fine confectionery:  Ice cream soda, general students supplies, cigars, tobacco, billiards, pool, bowling, students’ lunch room and restaurant.” 

                Sometime before 1931, Southworth had severed ties with Jaques.  He listed himself as the President of Ray M. Southworth Co. and his third wife, Mary B. Southworth, as the Secretary and later Vice President of the company.  The couple had moved to an up-and-coming neighborhood in Chauncey into a modern house at 429 Littleton Street, where they resided and had the headquarters of the Southworth Company.  In 1937, Mary B. Southworth appears in the City Directory as the widow of Ray M. Southworth, but the company headquarters remained at her residence on Littleton Street.

                By 1953, Southworth’s had confined its business to just one building at 308 State Street—gifts could be found in the basement and books and school supplies on the main floor.  The business also advertised itself as a Western Union Branch Office and noted that a Notary Public was on site.  Seven years later, in 1960, Southworth expanded to a “West Branch Store” at 1410-1412 West State Street in the Purdue Service Center.  And by 1964, the west branch began carrying the additional name of “Follett’s.”

                Mary Southworth makes her last appearance in the City Directory in 1967, but Southworth remained in business at both the 308 State Street and 1400 State Street locations through 1970.  It is not until 1971 that one finds only Follett’s books and supplies in business.  In the image below, we can see that in 1962, when the picture was taken, one of Southworth’s competitors across State Street was a book store owned by Horace G. Reisner and Son.  Reisner lived just down the street from the Southworths at 492 Littleton Street.

                The business started by Ray M. Southworth at the dawn of the twentieth century anchored the Village business district for nearly seven decades.  His business was part of the fabric of West Side life.  The faded sign recently uncovered clearly dates from the end of that era and is part of the faded glory of the Southworth story in the city.  The man whose store evolved with the twentieth century helped shape the city, represented Tippecanoe and Benton counties as a state senator, filled the society page with his gala weddings, and served in long-standing social and civic organizations.  He is a person whose life sheds some light on the emergence of modernity in West Lafayette in the 1910s and 1920s.

                This brief sketch raises as many questions as it answers.  I wonder how Southworth campaigned for public office—what were the issues that mattered to him and that resonated with local voters? Why did two failed marriages within less than a decade fail to tarnish his standing in the community?  Was Ray Southworth a leader in the business community in West Lafayette?  How did his lack of a college degree affect his business in furnishing supplies to men and women seeking a college degree?  When Ray and Suzanne moved into the Varsity Apartments after their 1925 wedding, how was that decision perceived?  What about the move to Littleton Street with Mary—was that decision evidence of his desire for one of the “modern” bungalows that line the street?  Perhaps most importantly, I wonder if the evolution of the Southworth Co. can shed light on some of the critical watershed moments in the history of the West Lafayette community.  

[1] All references to the Federal Census are to the manuscript census.  I viewed the census documents through Ancestry.com.
[2]“Stag Breakfast,” Lafayette Morning Journal, June 27, 1906, 3, col. 3.
[3]“Entertained Bridal Party,” Lafayette Morning Journal, June 27, 1906, 3, col. 3.
[4]Minch-Southworth,” Lafayette Morning Journal, June 28, 1906, 3, col. 4.
[5] “BUSINESS NOTES,” The Publisher’s Weekly 1956 (July 24, 1909):  219.
[6]Saturday,” The Kokomo Daily Tribune, Tuesday, June 30, 1925, 7; and “Retherford-Southworth,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, June 29, 1925, 5, col. 4.

[7]Weddings:  Simison-Southworth,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, August 1, 1928, 3, col. 5.
[8] The Tippecanoe County Historical Association and the Tippecanoe County Public Library have long runs of the City Directory.  They are organized alphabetically by year.  Although there are special sections devoted to business and to advertising, the entries for individuals and businesses are intermingled through much of the twentieth century.
[9] See ad in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, May 12, 1922, 4.
[10] See ad in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, October 30, 1923.
[11] “Trade Conditions,” The Jewelers’ Circular, November 15, 1922, 121.

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