The building stands on Davis Avenue in Corning, directly across from a park. On a street that is full of character, this multistory brick structure sets itself apart. Its exterior is covered in metal and stone ornamentation, and the name “Z.T. Widener” is etched into the building along the top.
Today, many who drive by the building don’t realize that they are looking at the footprint of a great success story.
In about 1880, Zachary Taylor Widener walked into the small town of Corning, Iowa, for the first time. Originally born in Indiana, he had earned a high school education and made his way gradually west. He first came to Illinois, where he began working in the mercantile business, and he took that experience with him when he came to southwestern Iowa.
Within a short time of his arrival, he had re-entered the mercantile trade, opening a store in partnership with a man named Chapman. Eventually, Widener was able to muster enough funds to buy out his partner and take sole control of the business.
Once he was on his own, Widener made the decision to specialize in dry goods.
In the early 1880’s, each farm was almost its own individual financial enterprise. They were largely self-sufficient, producing their own food, clothes, and other goods, in addition to producing livestock and raising crops for trade or sale.
But in spite of this self-sufficiency, a farmer still couldn’t’ make everything themselves. They needed farm equipment, such as wagons and plows. They also needed various basic and specialized tools, rope, lumber, and sometimes seed. Sewing and cooking equipment, as well as cloth for making clothing, were also essential needs.
While these were all basic needs in many homes of the late 1800’s, this was especially true on a farm. A trip to town wasn’t a simple walk down the street, but rather a planned endeavor that could take hours in travel time. So, when the family would pack up the wagon and head into town, they would almost always pay a visit to the general store.
Country or general stores began showing up in the rural American landscape as soon as pioneers began to populate the frontier. They were far from civilization, and did not have access to thriving craftsman and marketplaces to buy goods from. So, some enterprising individuals would build a general store in centralized settlements within a given region and stock it with a variety of basic staples that families would need.
The need of the would-be pioneer or farmer had not changed by the time Z.T. Widener opened his dry goods store in Corning. Adams County was a very rural area, full of folk that needed those kinds of things on their farms. And so, when families needed something, they came to Widener’s dry goods store.
Widener was successful. He supplied what people needed, and they came to him to get it. Being in one of the largest towns in the county, Widener received many farm families to his store. But, he also did a lot of business with the in-town folks, as well. His business grew, and he continued to refine it.
Somewhere along the way, he decided to put more emphasis upon clothing and fabrics. He sold underwear for men and women, including corsets. Widener stocked his store with a good variety of shoes. He sold dresses for women and work clothes for men. To guard against the cold Iowa winters, a family could buy blankets, hats, and gloves at the store.
While all of this helped him to succeed, one of the most important things that Widener did was advertise.
Widener regularly ran ads in the Adams County Union, a newspaper that was circulated all around the county. People who read the paper could see his large, eye catching ads that spoke of the wonderful deals and goods that could be had at his store in Corning. The ads in the paper gave him a big voice, and he wasn’t afraid to proclaim to the world that his store was the best place to buy your clothes.
His strategy worked, and soon he was well on his way to greater heights of success.
In 1896, tragedy struck. Like many other businesses along the west side of Davis Avenue, Widener’s mercantile was severely damaged by the Great Corning Fire of 1896. All of his hard work and all the time he had spent building up his business had been delivered a knockout blow within the span of a few hours on a chill October morning.
But Widener was made of sterner stuff. He wasn’t about to quit.
A week after the fire, Widener ran what he advertised as a “Fire and Water” Sale. Many of the items that he carried had been scorched, soaked, or damaged in some other way. But, people still needed these items. And, like people in the modern world, there are individuals that are always on the lookout for a great deal.
He also ran an enormous ad for his normal stock on the front page of the Adams County Union. Taking up almost a full third of the page, his advertisement was almost like a call to the people of the county that he was still there – ready, willing, and able to take care of their needs and wants in spite of his losses.
By 1897, Widener had built a brand new brick building directly in the heart of Davis Avenue. It had large glass display windows on the ground floor, allowing those who passed by his store to see his great selection of goods.
The interior of the store was far from the stereotypical general store, with its dark interior and space crammed with merchandise. Widener’s main floor was spacious, and featured a wide variety of shoes, hats, and fabrics. Varieties of carpets and water-resistance oil cloths were on the second floor. The entire building was bright and well-lit, illuminated by electric lighting. Upwards of five clerks tended to customers during business hours.
W.T. Widener’s had been reborn, better than ever before.
In 1902, wanderlust was tugging at the merchant’s feet and heartstrings. He longed to be free once more, to turn his hand at something new, and see something different. Widener saw opportunity in the west, and longed to go there.
He sold his store to a man named T.N. Conner, a businessman from Keokuk, Iowa. Stock was taken, debts called in, and bags packed. After nearly two decades in southwest Iowa, Zachary Taylor Widener was moving west once again.
Widener and his family moved to Montana. He was successful there, as he had been in Corning. One of the most prominent businessmen in that part of Iowa was gone.
Although the business is gone now, the building remains. It’s still in the heart of Davis Avenue, bearing the name of the man who had it built. It stands in mute testament to one man’s entrepreneurial spirit, and his unwillingness to fold in the face of adversity.
Adams County Free Press, 10/22/1896
Adams County Free Press, 10/22/1896
Adams County Free Press, 3/11/1897
Adams County Free Press, 10/14/1897
Adams County Free Press, 12/30/1897
Adams County Free Press, 9/17/1902
Adams County Free Press, 10/22/1902
Adams County Free Press, 11/16/1904
Adams County Free Press, 12/22/1902
Biographical History of Montgomery and Adams County, Iowa. Chicago. The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892.