Strong Roots: The History of Lundrigans Clothing

Printed in the Summer 2017 Issue of Lake Time Magazine. 

In the heart of downtown Walker, Minnesota, Lundrigans Clothing is celebrating its 80 th year of providing quality durable clothing brands we all love. Brands such as Pendleton and Woolrich, which are steeped in history, were the backbone of this little store that planted roots in northern Minnesota in 1937 and still stands strong.

Lundrigans provides a rich history of retail in Walker but the family and ownership behind that history is what makes their story so colorful.

We’re in the back corner of a local breakfast joint and I’m visiting with a couple of Walker’s most interesting ladies. The banter between them is much like Lucy and Ethel of I Love Lucy. Nancy Freeman, the owner of Lundrigans Clothing for the past 18 years is listening to a story Mary Lundrigan Amel, whose parents started Lundrigans Clothing, is telling about living above the store in the 60’s. “Dad worked downstairs all day,” Mary recalls, “and we all lived upstairs in the apartment. There was a heat register in the floor where we could see down into the store. When it was time for lunch, I’d take the grid off and poke my head down into the store to holler at Dad. Heads of customers snapped up to see what made the noise. Dad was frequently standing behind the counter wrapping up a purchase and talking about fishing or golfing. He stood in the same spot for so many years that he wore a spot in the floor.”

The spot where Ed stood behind the counter.

“That spot is still there”, says Nancy. “When we redid the floors a few years ago, we put glass over that spot and marked it.”

Mary continues, “Dad knew all the trouser sizes of most of the men in town. He did all his own alterations and wrote inseam measurements on the wall just under the beam downstairs.”

“Those are still there too!” exclaims Nancy.

It’s clear that history and tradition are gold standards for these ladies. It has been the cornerstone of the Lundrigans brand for 80 years. Located smack dab in the center of downtown Walker, the corner Lundrigans occupies has been a hardware store, a general store and lastly a men’s clothing store before it was purchased by Ed Lundrigan in the fall of 1937 and became Lundrigans Clothing.

Ed's trouser measurements still written on the wall.

Mary smirks and continues, “I started working in the store in 1959 when I was 12. I always got the ugly jobs,” she sighs, “like when the Pendleton shirts came in, they were always folded and pinned, that’s how they were displayed in the cases. There were no hangers for display blouses in those days. They were stacks in glass cases, waiting to fall over with any motion. If someone wanted to try something on, we would take the 3 or 4 chosen blouses and send them to the fitting room. I dreaded going in to find the remains once they were done. There were cardboard bones that held the blouse shape, crumpled pieces of tissue, and pins, pins, pins. My job was to return the blouse to pristine condition. There were 10 pins for the sleeveless blouses, 14 for short sleeves and 18 for long sleeves. To this day I still hate those damn pins!”

“I made 12 cents per hour. One cent per year of my age. One day I asked my mom why that was so. She snapped back, ‘You have food and a place to

live!’ I never understood the answer and never asked again.”

Within a couple years of opening Lundrigans, Ed met and married Mabel. He had expanded beyond the overalls and long johns for farmers and fast became the largest merchandiser of the Pendleton brand in the 5-state area. Most notable from the Pendleton Woolen Mills was the plaid shirt - made for the first time by Pendleton in 1924. In addition to Pendleton shirts, they also sold seersucker pajamas and men’s trousers. The trousers shipped unfinished so Ed taught himself how to tailor – and was setup in the basement of the store- where the inseams were written on the wall.

One day a regular local customer, and friend of Ed’s, walked in with a yellow plaid Pendleton Shirt rolled up in a grocery bag. “There’s a hole in the elbow of the left sleeve. Can’t wear it anymore”, he claimed. Without a blink Ed told him to pick a new Pendleton and wrapped it up for him. At Christmas, Ed surprised this friend with a gift. Wrapped up in Christmas paper was the yellow plaid shirt with the hole in it. That shirt was passed back and forth for Christmas, birthdays, St. Patrick’s days, you name it. That same customer also returned a blue seersucker pajama set that was on sale… two years after he bought it. He claimed he didn’t need them anymore, so Ed credited his account. The shirt and the seersucker pajamas showed up for years between the two old friends.

Lundrigans Clothing was open Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm. On Sunday afternoon, Ed would take the week’s earnings and drive to downtown Minneapolis to buy merchandise directly from the manufacturers. He would sleep in the parking lot overnight. Bright and early Monday morning, he’d purchase pants, overalls and jeans. If he was lucky he’d have 25 cents after getting gas and he’d go the Nankin restaurant to get one order of egg rolls and tea before heading home to finish his Monday workday at the store.

The window displays have always been a source of pride for Lundrigans. Mary recalls one of the women’s mannequins used strictly for ladies’ trousers; only the waist down with crossed legs. One of the legs could be removed but it was still very, very difficult to get the pants on. The men’s window had a half-male torso fondly named George. He was much easier to dress as he only wore shirts, sweaters, and jackets. Mary spent many hours trying to figure out how to exchange those two mannequins but George refused to surrender his broad arms and flat chest.

In 1949 Pendleton came out with their first collection of womenswear.

“What was that jacket with the plaid and iridescent buttons?” asks Mary.

“The 49er Jacket” - Nancy

“Nancy always remembers the names.” She says to me under her breath.

Pendleton couldn’t have predicted the popularity of this garment. It was post WWII and women were borrowing their husband’s Pendleton plaid shirts. Women just didn’t have work wear of their own. So, Pendleton took the opportunity and redesigned the men’s Pendleton shirt adding some tucks and black shell buttons. It was a massive success.

1960 brought the Pendleton Donut Skirt. It was a full circle of Pendleton fabric with a waist cut out in the middle of the fabric. Mary remembers the skirt well. “It was $11.95 in 1960. We got that in and we said, nobody can afford this, we are going to eat this!” But it lasted a few years and was followed up with the pleated reversible skirt which was even more popular.

It was Mabel that started Lundrigans on the path of women’s clothing. She was the first to notice at market that the women’s merchandise had a higher markup than the men’s. She talked with Ed and they decided it would be worth trying. They bought several blouses and pants for women. Mom cleared out an area in the store and started a small women’s corner. It was a hit and to this day Lundrigans is one of the leading women’s clothing retailers in the north woods

Mabel was also the first one in town to offer free wrapping to the customers, and not just at Christmas. Boxes were wrapped in black paper and said “from Lundrigans Clothing” on the box. This tradition continues today at all the Lundrigans stores, and at Christmas, the festive boxes are recognized under trees all over the area. “Oooh, looks like something from Lundrigans”, people say, when opening gifts on Christmas morning.

Around 1976, Ed had a stroke and the family knew it was time to sell. As it would happen, Ed’s son Hap, who lived in the Twin Cities mentioned this fact to his barber. The next day, the same barber had Tony Doughty in his chair. Tony had been involved with the retail business in Chicago and the Twin Cities for over a dozen years as a buyer, department store manager and general manager of a specialty store chain. Tony recalls, “In early 1977 I was getting my haircut at a barbershop in St. Louis Park and told the barber that I was looking for a business up north that would allow more time for family life and be somewhat removed from the retail rat race of the big cities.”

"You should call this guy, he was in yesterday and said his parents have a clothing store in Walker that they want to sell", the barber shared.

Two days later Tony and Hap framed out a deal on the back of a small napkin in a diner. They gave the napkin to the lawyers who turned it into 27 single-spaced pages without changing a dime.

“We probably could have all just signed the napkin and had things work out just as well.” jokes Tony

Three months later Tony, his wife Patti and their 3-year old son Charlie were up north and the second owners of Lundrigans Clothing in 40 years. They ran the store for 15 years, expanding to Nisswa and Bemidji locations. “In retail, resources are constantly changing. Old ones die out and hot new ones come on the market and take their places. Woolrich and Pendleton are likely the only two resources who were with us for the entire 22 years of our ownership. Some of the other lines we added that would still be around and well known today are Levis, Nike, Nautica, and some of the more popular priced divisions of Ralph Lauren's conglomerate. For a while we had some manufacturers who produced shirts and sportswear items for us under our own label as well.”

“During the 22 years we were privileged to own and operate Lundrigans, it grew from one to three stores and from three to thirty employees. Walker was a wonderful place to live and we consider our years there to have been a great gift and blessing.”

Nancy started working for Tony at Lundrigans in 1985. “The Levi Action Slacks were a hot item when I started working at Lundrigans.”

Not action pants. Action slacks. Pleat front or flat front.

It was clear early on that Nancy had the basic requirements for entrepreneurial success; a self-starter with a strong independent streak. She gave them a younger set of eyes to help shop, evaluate, and edit the constantly changing clothing markets. “She could spot trends that we never would have seen. She kept us current and up to speed.”

In 1995, Doughtys took Nancy on as a partner and within 4 years, they were ready for Nancy to take over. “I learned everything I know about retail from Tony.” Nancy says, beaming just a bit. “I lost my Dad when I was young, so Tony was a great mentor to me and I knew my Dad would have taught me the way that Tony taught me”. Lundrigans Clothing became hers in 1999, she was only in her twenties. The Bemidji location closed and Nancy expanded to Crosslake and a seasonal location in Dorset, in addition to Nisswa and Walker.

As is the case for many small town M­­idwestern businesses, ­it’s not just about the retail sale. For 80 years Lundrigans Clothing has contributed to the community in big and small ways.

Ed was involved in creating and promoting the Shingobee Recreation Area. Now owned and operated by the US Forest Service, the local area offers miles of trails for hiking, hunting, camping, and cross-country skiing. In the winter, it is a popular sledding hill with a small warming chalet open on the weekends.

But the quietest things he did were the best. He would let kids who made teams at school pay with whatever they had, for as long as needed to pay for their jackets. There were several local Native American artists who would come in the store in the fall and he would “sell” them beads and buckskin to create their products to sell the next summer. He gave several graduating students a suit and shoes for their move into the work world. He held the bills of folks who couldn’t pay.

Both Ed and Mabel were avid golfers - Ed was instrumental in getting the back 9 added to the Tianna 18-hole course. Mabel was a longtime member of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association as well as the American Legion Women's Auxiliary.

During their ownership, Doughtys were one of the first, perhaps the very first, small main street business to offer health insurance to their employees. Tony served on variety of community boards including nine years with St Joseph's Hospital in Park Rapids, six years with Northern Minnesota Public Television, and a stint as the Walker Chamber of Commerce President. Patti was very active with the Leech Lake Arts League.

Nancy knew this philanthropy was important to Ed and Mabel and has continued the tradition. Anytime a local family is found to be in need, you’ll see Nancy rallying a group to hold a benefit, and then be there selling the raffle tickets. The communities her stores are in depend on donations from businesses for various events and Nancy is always ready with a gift card or donation. She has a stretch of adopted highway, ads in all the sports programs, and every year she helps the school clubs get t-shirts made at her wholesale cost. When she’s gone through the last closeout pricing, she sends all her remaining inventory to the local goodwill store. Nancy’s in her 3 rd year on the WHA school board even though her sons are now old enough to have families of their own now.

In addition to her four Lundrigans Clothing locations, Nancy also owns three other stores. The Walker General Store is located kitty-corner from Lundrigans Clothing and was started because Nancy wanted a nice old fashioned store for families to go, where there was something for all ages. In Dorset she has the Trading Post with similar items as the General Store and also owns the Dorset Books & Candy Shack.

But her passion will always be Lundrigans Clothing. When asked what changes she sees in retail after almost 20 years in the business, she admits that the brick and mortar stores are struggling with the competition from online shopping. “I have to be creative on how to keep my customers coming back to me, but reach our new generation of shoppers. We’ll always have those guys who walk in twice a year and they know we already have something picked out for their wives. And we have the shoppers looking for someone to help them choose an outfit, and get that customer service that we are all missing. But we must think outside the box- reach new customers with social media, online shopping and sharing our story- the history and the message that we have for our customers. That our clothing is a lifestyle, that it’s something to feel good about when you shop here.”

Lundrigans Clothing’s tagline has always been Quality and Durability since 1937. “It’s our 80th year, we need to celebrate, but we also need to start a new chapter of ideas to keep our traditions going.” claims Nancy. “I need to stand behind what Ed and Mabel started. All my stores do great, but the Walker store is always the leader in sales, and that has a lot to do with our history and our great community.”

Nodding her head in agreement, Mary tips her head up to the ceiling and shouts, “Did you hear that Ed and Mabel? The mother ship is still in first!”