MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- Not many businesses can connect themselves directly from Iowa’s earliest times to its most current.
Jonathan Hull is proud to say his can.
“This is where we would put all of our new fur coats that we were manufacturing,” he says, giving a tour of the huge walnut and glass showcases in the middle of the old building.
For as long as Marshalltown has had a Main Street, it’s had Willard’s. Since 1864, it’s been in the same spot, owned by the same family, dealing in fine furs.
“Sales were $300,000 to $500,000 back then,” Hull says.
Hull’s great-great grandfather, Hiram Willard was a furrier who’d been in business with Ulysses S. Grant in Galena, Illinois. Grant went to war and Willard went to Marshalltown.
“Pretty much a frontier, evolving town at that time,” says Hull.
Keeping warm was a constant struggle and furs were the only solution, so for decades business boomed.
“They were coming in in boxcar loads at that time.”
By the time Hiram’s son-in-law took over, Willard’s employed more than 50 people. On a hot day, Willard’s could be smelled for miles.
“Many of the citizens were complaining about that," Hull laughs, "but apparently my great-grandfather’s wit would carry him through until it got to November and the weather cooled down.”
Back then, luxury was only a small part of a furrier’s business. There was also the tannery.
“When people’s horses would die or their cows they would bring the hides in to make actually into men’s coats.”
But when things got exotic, Willard’s saw it all.
“Northern seal…ocelot, leopard…things that now are totally protected and you cannot use a lot of these animals anymore,” Hull says.
As attitudes about fur changed, most dealers went out of business. Today Willard’s is one of just three remaining in Iowa.
“We changed the merchandise and what we sold—you know the fur business was the biggest part of the business for years and years and now it’s probably the smallest.”
By expanding into less exotic fashions, Willard’s has kept its doors open long enough to ring the sesquicentennial bell.
“I'm very glad to have made it through 150 years," Hull says. "That kind of was my goal, so whatever happens from here happens.”