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A Brief History of the Hannah, Lay & Co. Mercantile Operation

For 75 years, the Hannah, Lay & Co. was the owner of what would become the first and largest ”big box” store in Northern

Michigan. In 1853, about two years after buying the Boardman lumber interests, the company built a boarding house and a 12x16 foot company store for its workers. Because of these conveniences, the wives of many of the workers were enticed to join their husbands in the little settlement. Over the next years, as the community grew, so did the general store. By 1856, a private banking service was offered. In 1861, the village included more than 300 residents and the company store had become a 30x90 foot structure. In each of the next three years, additions were made to the building. In 1864, the store included four separate departments, entitled Provisions, Groceries, Dry Goods and Hardware.

Merchandise for the company store was purchased at wholesale in Chicago, transported by boat to the village and placed on sale at Chicago retail prices. In the early 1860’s, Perry Hannah began to encourage some of the sales people in the company store to start their own businesses in competition with his own interests. As a result, small shops began to spring up along Front Street. At first, Hannah would sell merchandise to his competitors at the wholesale price he had paid. Eventually, the merchants began to make their own buying trips to Chicago, and villagers were offered more variety in their shopping. By 1880, Traverse City had a fairly well-developed downtown shopping district, stretching from Union Street to as far as Boardman Avenue.


Hannah Lay Mercantile Block, building remodel, 1909

By 1880, Traverse City’s population included nearly 2,700 people, and one year later, it became a chartered village with Perry Hannah as its president. The future looked bright and, in 1882, Hannah, Lay & Co decided it was time to build a larger building - a much larger building! Not only was it the largest general store north of Grand Rapids, but it was a brick building. Signs on top of the building proclaimed Hannah, Lay & Co. to be “Dealers in Everything” and “Universal Providers.” Advertisements claimed the building had five acres of floor space! After the logging operation was terminated, the company name became Hannah, Lay Mercantile Co. For the next 40 years, it continued as the largest retail store in Northern Michigan.

Perry Hannah took great pride in his former employees who left the firm and became successful in their own businesses. ].W. Milliken and Frank Hamilton formed their own business, ”aided by the good will and advice of Hannah.” Eventually, the partners amicably dissolved their partnership and each formed their own business. In 1902, Perry Hannah had a Thanksgiving dinner to honor his past and present employees, in which he paid tribute to each one in attendance. He referred to Bohemian merchant Prokop Kyselka as ”the smartest businessman I have ever known.”

Following the death of Perry Hannah on August 13, 1904, his son Julius took over management of the business. Just 14 months later, Julius Hannah died from a ruptured appendix, and R. Floyd Clinch, son-in- law of A. Tracy Lay, became manager of Hannah, Lay interests.

In 1928, the 107 employees of Hannah, Lay Mercantile Co. were shocked that the “Universal Provider” would be closing after 75 years of service to the Grand Traverse region. Generations of families had worked for the store. Emanuel P. Wilhelm had been employed since his boyhood and had risen in the firm to become manager of the clothing and dry goods departments. He, in turn, trained his son, Emanuel E., who took over his father’s position after he retired. He stayed with the firm as a manager and stockholder until the store closed.

When R. Floyd Clinch decided to close the merchandise business, he announced a deal with the Montgomery Ward Co., and had negotiated with them until he was assured that Traverse City would not be left without ample store facilities. Finally, late in 1928, an agreement was reached and an era ended. However, the Hannah, Lay name remained on Front Street until April of 1940. At that time the Hannah, Lay Hardware Co., owned by Gordon Pharo and located in the eastern one third of the building, was destroyed by fire. The insurance settlement for the building was $37,000.

- Bob Wilhelm and Bob Wilson

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