Happy Thanksgiving . . . and welcome to the traditional start of the big holiday shopping season. Of course, this year is anything but traditional, but it’s still worth making the effort to enjoy the holiday season. To help provide some inspiration, this week’s Throwback feature journeys back more than a century ago to revisit the retailers in downtown Sanford — both local and regional — who were spreading holiday cheer this time of year and were doing big business in the process. Younger residents and recent arrivals may not be aware, but through much of the first half of the 20th century, as many as 5 department stores were in operation in downtown Sanford. One of the earliest retailers was Stein Brothers. Based on Moore Street, this store showcased clothing and fashion wear, but also dabbled in other product lines. Stein Brothers was among Sanford’s commerce leaders a century ago.
For much of the 20th century, Williams-Belk was a downtown mainstay, first on Moore Street, and then later on Steele. As noted on the storefront in this early picture, Williams-Belk marketed itself as Sanford’s “Biggest And Best Store.” The store was founded in 1905 and managed by James C. Williams. Mr. Williams was an ambitious, aspiring merchant whose early success earned him a promotion to partner status at the store by Charlotte’s Belk Brothers.
The 1920s were a booming time in Sanford, “driven” in large part by the emergence of paved roads and the cars that traveled on them. By the mid-20s, Williams-Belk, Isaacsons and Efird’s were all based on Steele Street. In this picture, the former 2 are on the left side of the street and Efird’s is on the right.
Can you imagine the excitement holiday shoppers must have felt at this time of year … walking down the bustling streets of downtown Sanford, from one major department store to the next? Sanford’s presence as the largest population center in the region and the convenience of US 1 coming through the heart of downtown, combined to make the community a leading source of commerce. Isaacsons had a large and loyal following, from the 1920s onward. This picture of Steele Street around 1924 shows the entrance to the department store.
Efird’s is another legendary Sanford store with its origins in Charlotte and a dedicated customer base here from the 1930s into the 1950s. An innovative regional chain that eventually grew to 50 stores in the Carolinas, Efird’s was one of the first department stores that embraced centralized purchasing for all stores and standardized prices across the company. The chain was sold to Belk’s in mid-50s and the last Efird’s closed in Smithfield in 1979. A notable characteristic of our local store is that it’s only cashier was based on the ground floor. Any item purchased on the second floor was lowered to the first floor in a basket!
This view of Steele Street in the 1950s includes another of Sanford’s traditional department stores. JC Penney’s located on the right side of the street, down a half a block from Williams-Belk on the left. This era of downtown commerce faded considerably in the 1980s when Belk and Penney’s migrated to the Riverbirch shopping complex, west of the downtown area.
Editorial content, pictures and research background , compliments of Jimmy Haire and Images of America: Sanford and Lee County, by Jimmy Haire & W.W. Seymour, Jr, available here for purchase. All book proceeds go to Sanford’s Railroad House Historical Association, Inc.