July 11, 2024
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Montgomery Ward – A Newport, VT Icon From the Past

by Scott Wheeler

Newport’s Main Street was once the shopping mecca of Orleans County

A costumed Montgomery Ward crew in front of the Main Street store. Photo courtesy of Loretta Hunt
A costumed Montgomery Ward crew in front of the Main Street store.
Photo courtesy of Loretta Hunt

Shoppers flocked from other communities and the hills to shop in the many stores that lined the street—stores including several chain stores such as JC Penny, Woolworth’s, JJ. Newberry Co., and Grants. One of the longest surviving stores was Montgomery Ward.

“Montgomery Ward was an important part of Newport,” Roland Raymond of Derby said, reflecting back about 30 years since the store closed its doors for good on December 22, 1976. “At the time it was the only full-line department store in Newport,” Raymond said. The Derby man was a longtime, dedicated employee of the store chain. He managed the Newport store from August 1961 to October 1963.

On October 13, 2005, about 40 people, many of them former employees of the Montgomery Ward store on Newport’s Main Street, gathered at the Eastside Restaurant in Newport for a reunion. They enjoyed good food and hearty laughter as they reminisced about the old days at the store. Raymond, Loretta Hunt of Newport, and Harvey Robitaille of Newport organized the reunion. Hunt and Robitaille are also former employees of the store. “I thought it was fantastic,” Raymond said. “I was completely beside myself with the turnout.” Hunt was equally impressed. “I think it was highly successful. Everybody seemed to get a pleasant, warm feeling from it.”

Montgomery Ward was an important part of Newport

“Montgomery Ward was a very spirited place to work,” Hunt said, looking back. “The people celebrated with you in good times, and they were there for you in bad times.” Hired in April 1955 as the store’s fashion manager, Hunt remained with the store until it closed. She made it quite clear that the years at the store were some of the happiest of her life.

Hunt recalled that in the months leading up to the official closure notice, rumors circulated around the store that the store’s cooperate headquarters planned to close all of its smaller stores, including the store in Newport. “Then we received the news,” she said. “The store was going to close.” It didn’t matter that the Newport store was one of the most productive small stores in the Ward’s chain.

In the months leading up to Christmas, the store held huge sales in an attempt to liquidate the merchandise, Hunt said. Some workers left the store for new jobs before the store closed, but Hunt remained with the store until the end. “I remember the last week. It was pretty sad.”

Newport Main Street has changed but a lot has been lost

Looking at Main Street today, Hunt said a lot of change came to Main Street during the early 1970s. “People started shopping differently,” she said. “Saturday used to be a wild time. Now you look up Main Street on a Saturday and there might be 20 cars.” The other chain stores also slowly disappeared from the downtown.

On the positive side, Hunt said she thinks the revitalization of Main Street in recent years was a right step in bringing new life to the downtown district. Robitaille also has many fond memories of his former employer, a store that arrived on Main Street in the 1930s just as the country was pulling itself out of the Great Depression. “We had a lot of good times,” he said fondly. “We had a good group of people. We liked our work most of the time.”

The Newport man was hired in 1955 and worked at the store until 1970. He was the department manager for automotive and sporting goods, both located in the basement of the store. “We had a wide assortment of stuff,” Robitaille said. The department sold everything from tires and tools, to boats, guns, and garden tractors. He explained the layout of the store. Men’s and children’s clothing were located on the ground floor. Women’s clothing, where Hunt worked, was located in the mezzanine. Furniture and appliances were housed on the second floor. “Wards had just about anything, you name it, and if we didn’t have it, we could usually get it.” The store’s customer base was far greater than just the people of Newport, Robitaille explained.

Estimates are that the store’s sales region included about 30,000 people, some who traveled from as far away as Island Pond and St. Johnsbury to shop in the store. “Our big night was Friday night. People came to Main Street from all over.”

Robitaille doesn’t keep it a secret that he liked the Main Street of yesterday when the street was lined with chain stores interspersed with locally owned stores. “Main Street just isn’t what it used to be—it’s nowhere near what it was.”

Photo courtesy of Harvey Robitaille
Photo courtesy of Harvey Robitaille

Many of the people who worked at Montgomery Ward saw each other as more than co-workers; they were like an extended family that liked to have fun together. (The picture on the right, was taken in 1961. Pictured are three of the employees “hamming it up.” Shown left to right are Al Humphrey, Harvey Robitaille, and Ed Allen.)

While Hunt and Robitaille grew up in the region, Raymond’s journey to Newport was a winding one, one that was intertwined with the Montgomery Ward’s chain. His first job with the chain was in 1952 in Lawton, Oklahoma. From there he worked in stores in such places as Las Vegas, Nevada; Roswell, New Mexico; Portsmouth, Hampshire; and Kingston, New York. He quickly worked his way into management positions. But the one drawback of being in management for the department store chain was that his handlers kept the managers on the go, most of them staying at a store for only a few years, sometimes only a few months, before being relocated to a different store.

Corporate confusion sent Raymond to manage the chain’s store in Putnam, Connecticut in 1961. There was only one problem—the store didn’t need a new manager. Ten days after arriving in Putnam, Raymond and his family headed out to Newport, Vermont where he would manage that community’s store.

Arriving in Newport in August 1961, Raymond’s time with the Newport store was short. Hearing rumors that corporate headquarters planned to reassign him once again, he quit the chain all together in October 1963. He explained that he and his wife had vowed that once their oldest child reached high school age they would put down their roots so the children wouldn’t have to keep switching schools during their high school years. Besides that, he said that he and his family had fallen in love with the Newport area.

Photo courtesy of Harvey Robitaille.
Photo courtesy of Harvey Robitaille.

The former employees of the store held a reunion on October 13, 2005. Harvey Robitaille of Newport (first person in second row) worked at Montgomery Ward from 1955 to 1970. The following is his attempt at naming all the people in the above picture. The picture was taken in October 1961 during the store’s Crazy Days promotion.

Front row left to right: Ed Allen, ?, Yvon Wood, Loretta Hunt. Second row left to right: Harvey Robitaille, Pete Norway, Pete Robert, Irene Anderson. Rest of people left to right: ?, Pearl Norway, Roland Raymond, Maynard Currier, Dot Hackett, Carolyn Collins, Ludger Daignault, Penny Hurlburt, Al Humphrey, Tom Bouthilier, Myrna Nadeau, Omer Joyal.

“I never regretted leaving Montgomery Ward,” Raymond said. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to us. I think I sometimes feel more like a Newporter than some locals.” Raymond explained that over the years the painted sign that read “Montgomery Ward” on both sides of the building that once housed the store, kept capturing his attention, so in September, he decided to contact Hunt and Robitaille to see what they thought about holding a reunion. With both of his

Photo by Scott Wheeler
Photo by Scott Wheeler

former co-workers agreeing that it was a good idea, the three of them worked to track down as many former co-workers as possible. One person drove from Connecticut to attend the gathering.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are coming up or going down Main Street in Newport, you cannot help but see the “Montgomery Ward…

which was painted many years ago on both sides of the building next to the library,” Raymond said. “The paint they used was a huge testimony to the quality of paint sold at the Montgomery Ward store.” He also said that the enduring signs are symbolic of the quality of the employees that worked within the walls of the store throughout the several decades that the store was a fixture on Main Street.

In the photo on the right: These three former employees of Montgomery Ward organized the October reunion. Left to right are Harvey Robitaille, Loretta Hunt, and Roland Raymond.

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