“Alphonse was the farmers’ friend when they really needed one,” S.T. Monroe said when he reflected on the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s. He was referring to Alphonse Meis, owner of Meis Brothers department store on East Main Street in Danville.
Meis came to Danville from France in May of 1892 when he was 19 years old. He began his retail career by delivering goods for the Golden Rule dry goods store with a horse and delivery wagon.
It wasn’t long until he and his brother, Joseph, had their own store. Joseph left in a few years and Alphonse became the sole owner.
Sybil Stern Mervis noted in her History of the Jewish Community of Danville, “For most of the 20th Century, the major department store in Danville was Meis Bros., founded by Alphonse Meis and his relatives.”
In the 1930s when the nation was in the throes of the greatest financial depression in the republic’s history, retailers were withdrawing credit. But not Alphonse Meis at his massive store that stood on East Main Street where Sav-A-Lot grocery now is located in Danville's Towne Centre. He not only continued to extend credit, but he encouraged people to take advantage of it.
Monroe noted nearly every farmer in his neighborhood had an account at Meis Bros. during the Depression, and the payments they made were negligible during those years.
But Alphonse continued to back them, his positive nature would not allow him to believe “hard times are here to stay.” Monroe recalled “there was no interest charged on my account when I paid it in full in the 1940s.”
Grain dealer and auctioneer Russell Rodgers was a friend of Meis and he recalled a bond drive auction held at the Fischer Theater during World War II. Hard to get items were being sold to raise money for war bonds.
Russell noted Meis was one of the bidders and he paid $10,000 for a pair of nylon hose. When the auction was over Meis did not take the bonds, and turned the entire donation over to the USO. Rodgers noted he was involved with a number of community projects through the years, and Alphonse never once turned him down when he asked him for a donation.
Robert Bobrosky was a talented employee of Meis Bros. for several years. He did artistic work for store ads and was in charge of creating the popular and intricate animated window displays at the store.
He recalled the displays were so popular when they opened they drew large crowds that sometimes spilled over into the street. He remembered Alphonse enjoyed the displays as much as the customers. He pointed out Alphonse was a “fine man” to work for.
When Meis Bros. celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1957, it was evident people who came to work there stayed. One hundred eighteen employees were honored for their 1,455 years of service. Bobrosky was among them and he recalled even though the store employed hundreds of people, it was like “one large family.”
When Joseph and Alphonse Meis entered the retail business they realized it was important to be “honest, economical, and diligent, the confidence and good will of the public must be our aim in order to succeed.” Succeed they did.
The great white store that was Meis Bros. is just a memory now, but for generations it was a special place to shop, owned and operated by a special person.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.